Two takes on Amazon’s digital music plans

Now that I’ve done a lengthy eMusic-related post I feel less guilty about doing yet another post on Amazon and its rumored plans to enter the digital music market; in particular I wanted to highlight two (relatively) recent articles on the topic.

From the pro side of the fence (i.e., someone paid to have opinions and publish them) comes an article Why Amazon is Important by Mark Mulligan of Jupiter Research. (Incidentally, Mulligan blogs a lot about digital music but has mentioned eMusic only a few times, mostly in passing.) Mulligan refers to Amazon as the sleeping giant of the digital music market and notes that

Digital music is still niche and waiting to break through to the mainstream online, let along more broadly. Amazon is perfectly placed to aid that transition. They have mainstream online reach and are a key destination for music for mainstream as well as aficionado music fans.

This is not a stunningly original insight but it is something that the mainstream media overlooks at times. Mulligan also notes that Amazon needs to sell digital music that’s playable on iPods, an obvious point, but ties this to the less obvious argument that Amazon’s best customers tend to be technologically sophisticated early adopters, and that therefore Amazon offering digital music would be a defensive move against the possibility of losing those customers to the iTunes Store as digital downloads replace CDs as the main distribution vehicle for music. Unfortunately Mulligan ends on an off note as he claims that Amazon really needs to either be DRM free or interoperable …, apparently buying into the myth that there could be such a thing as interoperable DRM. Remember, Mark, DRM is defective by design.

Now let’s turn to an intelligent amateur, Paul Lamere of Sun, who does research on improving music search and categorization and makes some Amazon predictions as part 5 of a series on the top 5 things in digital music that didn’t happen in 2006. (See also parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.) Lamere addresses some points that I and others have previously covered—the importance of using the MP3 format, Amazon’s strengths in music recommendations, the possibility of variable pricing, and so on—but also has some valuable insights I’ve not seen elsewhere, at least discussed in such detail. In particular, Lamere makes some key points about Amazon’s strengths in the area of web services and metadata that remind me of Tim O’Reilly’s argument that data is the next Intel Inside:

Amazon has a great set of web services built around their data. … Exposing their data in this fashion places Amazon at the center of the online literary ecosystem. Any startup company that wants to be in a business related to books will use Amazon’s API because it is easy, the data is of high quality and it is free. This is good for the startup, and even better for Amazon since all of those startups end up sending their customers to Amazon. Amazon is already a big part of the music ecosystem. They already have lots of data for music CDs that is available via their web APIs. They are probably the largest supplier of album art on the web. The Amazon part number—the ASIN—is used throughout the web as an unambiguous identifier for an album. Once Amazon starts to sell individual tracks, I would expect that Amazon will create an ASIN or an equivalent for each track in their database. This track-level identifier may become the primary way of identifying tracks in the music world since Amazon makes it so easy to get all of the information about an item once you have the ASIN. This could be a key enabler in the next generation of music—a ubiquitous song ID tied to deep metadata.

Lamere also has some interesting recommendations for Amazon: that it connect its own music IDs to existing MusicBrainz IDs in order to leverage community-generated metadata, that it support an open vendor-neutral standard playlist format, and that it make its 30-second clips available DRM-free to use as input to next-generation music discovery tools.

I didn’t intend to frame it this way, but in the end reading Mulligan vs. Lamere is a good contrast: competent but somewhat generic commentary vs. an interesting and (to a large degree) unique perspective. I doubt I’ll seek out Mulligan’s writings specifically, but I’ve added Lamere’s music-related posts to my NetNewsWire subscriptions.