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Superdistribution: Zune vs. eListeningPost

Sharing I'm  writing this from a jury assembly room in Los Angeles, listening to a Microsoft Zune - the only one in the room, I'm fairly sure. Why? Because Zunes are social creatures that look for each other automatically, and my Zune could not detect any other Zune turned on nearby. If you were in a jury assembly room with an MP3 player, believe me, you'd have it on.
Anyway, before coming to this hellhole do my civic duty, I went by my colleague Dawn Chmielewski's desk and did the Zune Wireless Sharing Thing. I zapped her two individual tracks and an entire playlist (16 songs) in the space of a couple of minutes; in exchange, she beamed me a copy of "Hot and Nasty" by Black Oak Arkansas. Schweeet! She does NOT know how to negotiate. Anyway, it was swift and brainlessly easy (which was key because neither of us read the owner's manual, as a matter of principle). But there are many other things that MSFT didn't get right with the Zune, from the loading process (it takes hours, and there's no obvious way to set priorities short of doing it all manually--an issue only if you have more than 30 GB worth of music, pictures and videos on your PC, but who doesn't?) to the Zune Marketplace (which neither of us could make work properly). So many shortcomings, in fact, that I was sorely disappointed in the thing.
Many of the foibles will certainly get fixed in version 2. A top priority for MSFT, though, should be fixing two mystifying things wrong with the sharing process, because that's the difference maker for this device in the near term. First, when someone beams you a song, you can't pass it on to anyone else unless you buy it. That means the viral distribution chain probably breaks after one pass. And second, every song that's beamed from one user to another gets locked down after three plays (in whole or in part) or three days. That's too draconian, and it should be eliminated altogether for anyone who subscribes to Zune's unlimited music service ($15 a month to load as many songs onto your PC and your Zune as you can stand). If a song is in the Zune catalog, subscribers should be able to play it as many times as they like, no matter how they receive it.
The folks at eListeningPost have a more interesting approach to sharing. Their Beta site launched today with more of a whimper than a bang, offering songs from only 20 (count 'em, twenty) unsigned artists. Still, that's enough to demonstrate the technology, which enables bands and labels to send full, temporary copies of songs to fans. After up to five plays, the recipient can either abandon the track or buy it directly from the label (or indie artist) -- no need to go to an online store and download it again. The user can also pass on copies of the song to their friends, who'll get the same deal: sharable tracks that can be played up to five times for free, then bought with a couple of clicks. And in a very nice touch, the friends don't have to register with anyone or download special software to play the tracks (assuming they have a PC with Windows Media Player or RealPlayer).
One of the possibilities touted by the company is letting consumers sign up for artist- or genre-based mailing lists, then sending samples to their In boxes every week. Fan clubs or labels could power a narrowly targeted service (pre-release tracks? rarities? music videos?), or aggregators could emerge to blast a full lineup of samples to people based on their tastes. The proceeds from the sales would go entirely to the label or artist, with eListeningPost making its money off of modest monthly fees that the act pays. Another possibility would be to ship ads with the songs and split the proceeds between the act and eListeningPost.
The company won't succeed without a lot more content, and so far the only major label on board is the smallest, EMI, which is still deciding which artists and tracks to make available. Still, the public's need to try before buying has been amply demonstrated, and the offer from eListeningPost (which was founded by a former general manager of Motown and a former RealNetworks executive) fits the bill pretty well. The main shortcoming is that the sample tracks can't move off of the computer that received them. No portability, in other words.
The folks at Techcrunch don't like the fact that eListeningPost's samples are wrapped in DRM. Personally, I think DRM is a fair trade-off for free music. One of its uses here, in fact, is kind of interesting: the DRM forces people to rate the tracks they receive after two listens in order to get three additional free plays. That feedback could be used to fine-tune the selection of songs that person receives.

The illustration is the cover art from Kristin Lems' book-and-tape combo "Sharing," courtesy of her website.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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