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11.26.2006 

Why Squirting Sucks for Songwriters

On Friday, I bought seven tracks off of Final Fantasy's 2006 album He Poos Clouds, and in doing so exposed the fatal flaw with squirting songs: three is just enough to make me hate it.

Let me back up. You've probably heard about squirting by now. If not, it's what Microsoft calls the Zune's WiFi filesharing process. I have a song on my Zune, and I connect to yours via WiFi and "squirt" you a song. You then have three days or three plays--whichever comes first--before it goes away. There's been a lot of carping about how neither of those is enough, and I agree. But nothing works quite like a concrete example, so lets' stop squirting for a moment and pick Poo up again.

On October 16 (thanks iTunes meta-data!), I bought three tracks off of He Poos Clouds. This was largely a blind purchase. I had read a lot of critical wankery about the album, and decided to give it a shot. I previewed a few tracks, and picked the three I liked best based on those thirty second snapshots. And in they went, into my 50GB iTunes library.

Remember the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark? When the Ark of the Covenant is being packed away in a massive government warehouse, presumably never to be seen again? Singles, especially ones I'm not familiar with ahead of time, often meet a similar fate when they go into my music library. There is a reasonable chance that I might never listen to them. At the very least, I might not hear them more than once in a timely fashion. I assume this is probably true of most people with libraries that exceed 10GB (and all of our libraries are only getting bigger).

In this case, however, I did listen to all three of the songs I bought. They were "This Lamb Sells Condos," "I'm Afraid of Japan," and "The Pooka Sings." I listened to all of them on October 16, the day I bought them. I even rated "The Pooka Sings" with four stars, in an attempt to make sure it would hit some of my auto-generated playlists and I'd hear it again.

But I never did.

What I did listen to again (and again, and again) was "This Lamb Sells Condos." It wasn't my favorite on first listen, but it popped up a few more times and I liked it and subsequently added it to a few custom playlists and my iPods. I proceeded to fall in love with it. I listened to it repeatedly until (by the time it came up on my iPod as I was waiting at baggage claim at SFO on Friday night) I was on my 34th listen. It owns me. When the song hits its denouement it was all I could do not to lie down upon the baggage carousel, and ride it around in circles with my arms outstretched in a sympathetic expression of, um, whatever it is that music does. When I arrived home, I bought all the rest of the songs on the album.

Meanwhile, I'd heard "I'm Afraid of Japan" four times, and "The Pooka Sings" just once, that first time. While these songs would (nearly) fall into Zune's acceptable use limitations, they did nothing to make me buy the other seven on the album.

So let's say someone squirts me a song, and it's the best song ever written. It will break my heart into a million pieces, and destroy my will to exist unless that simple melody is drifting from my headphones into my ears. Even so, if there's a three day limit on it, I'm not going to have enough time to grow attached to it. Now, I may not require 34 listens, but only the most purile pop pablum is that instantly accessible. Had I only had three listens to preview a song before purchasing it, Mr. Owen Pallett, despite being an excellent songwriter, would not have seen one dime of my money. Much less ninety-nine cents times ten.

So, ultimately, it is not the consumer getting screwed by Zune. There is plenty of great music out there. Without "This Lamb Sells Condos," I would still have the new Yo La Tengo to keep me company as I fly high above the country in a fancy airplane with my iPod and in-seat satellite radio. There would still be new Joanna Newsom tracks and Calexico and M. Ward and The Harpeth Trace. I would be fine without it. My life, in no way diminished. No, the consumer has enough to listen to today already. Our plates are full. It is the songwriter--who already must fight his or her way to the top of the 50 GB library to be heard--that gets fucked by the three squirt stop sign.

You're making the wrong comparison here, though. You're comparing a DRMed (i.e. hands-tied-by-the-labels) system to an ideal. The only fair comparison is Zune vs. everything else today. And on an iPod, you're asking someone to write down the song name for you? Email it to you? At least on the Zune, there's the possible threat you might have the song title on your player, where you'd be able to look up the track and buy it. On the iPod, you're basically forced to, what, stick a post-it on your MP3 player?

Yeah, the compromise sucks, but this is more proof that *major record labels* are bad for artists, not Microsoft.


I'm not arguing in favor of the iPod here (and fwiw I have other players: iRivers and a Creative, and er, Oakley Thumps. I have also owned a few Rios and tested too many other types to recall) or for an ideal system, but rather against the Zune's existing DRM tranfer scheme which doesn't give songs the opportunity to rise above the din before they go away.

However, there is such a way to permanently, wirelessly transfer a track from one player to another.

The Final Fantasy tracks that I specifically mention above were purchased from eMusic. All ten are DRM-free MP3 files. But, just for the Hell of it, let's say we're talking about an album of Prince rarities that you bought on a CD, and ripped to MP3. My phone plays MP3s, presumably yours does too.

Say I want to send one of them to you from my phone to your phone via Bluetooth. Bang. You have it. You can then transfer it to your music library, and listen to it as many times as you want. Move it to your iPod. Move it to your Zune. Wherever you want it to go until, perhaps, it grows on you, and you go out and buy the other songs from the album.

But forget the existing system. My point is that it probably will do nothing to help artists sell songs. It might even hurt--especially if they're experimental--because it will cause people to form opinions before giving something much of a chance.

I agree with you, this is probably the labels' idea (and they probably are acting against the best interests of their own artists) but it's Microsoft's implementation. Ultimately MSFT bears responsibilty for it.


Oh -- And I also fully expect MSFT to come up with all sorts of other cool ways to exploit the wireless, and users to come up with even more.

And while I don't buy Ihnatko's argument:
Throw in the Zune's tail-wagging relationship with music publishers, and it almost becomes important that you encourage people not to buy one.

or

The Zune will be dead and gone within six months.


I do think that, given how much power MSFT has to influence what becomes a standard, when it is establishing a new method of doing something that we all eventually are going to want to do (wirelessly transfer songs), we should encourage the company to do it right.


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