How I Spent the Week with Sony’s “Music Unlimited”

Music-Unlimited

Sony’s music streaming service, Music Unlimited, launched in Japan last July. Since then, it’s gathered 1 million users internationally and boasts a back catalog of 18 million songs, easily making it the largest music streaming service available in Japan right now. Whether Sony will stay at the top of the music streaming game will depend on how things turn out as the year progresses: 2013 seems like it will be the year of music streaming for Japan, as a plethora of new services will begin.

There are already a number of great articles on this topic, notably this one from the Japan Times, which ran this week. I’ll just talk about this in terms of its relation to myself. I’ve been looking into so-called music streaming services for a good while now. Unfortunately, most of the well-known services – Spotify, Pandora, Rdio – aren’t available in Japan yet. The gist of what these services provide is pretty much any music lover’s wet dream: all music, from forever, on all your devices, for about $10 a month. As someone who spends way too much money on CDs and records, this is great, since I can now listen to stuff that I have a passing interesting in, without having to buy the actual record or waste time looking for it on the more dodgy parts of the Internet (and not feel dirty about it either).

Poor Internet connections, fidelity concerns, indie ethic (“gotta support them artists!”), and good ol’ morals (for the record: I think musicians should be paid for their work, just like you would pay a cook for making you a good meal) have turned me away from illegal downloading a long time ago. iTunes is not an option – the idea of paying for something when you know you can get a superior version of it for basically the same price (not to mention will probably become outdated and maybe even unplayable in the next 5 to 10 years) is ridiculous. The “one song for 99 cents model” may have worked in the days of 56k and Napster, but now with high-speed connections like LTE, people can listen to a bulk of music easily whenever they want. And with something like the Internet, why can’t all music ever be in one big pot for everyone to enjoy freely?

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I feel ya Schroeder…

One reason why I hadn’t quickly jumped on the Music Unlimited bandwagon way back in July is the fact that, well, it’s by Sony. While Sony bashing has seemingly become fashionable lately, it’s hard to be in their defense considering the bad track record they’ve had when it comes to these things, from the limited ATRAC3 compression format, Copy Control CDs, SonicStage, the quickly forgotten about service Connect, the list goes on and on. It’s as if Sony hasn’t “gotten” music or music distribution in a long, long time.

The fact that Sony Music, their sister record label, hasn’t really been giving them a helping hand isn’t making things any better. Did you know that iTunes didn’t have songs by Sony Music artists until as late as last November? And a quick glance through Music Unlimited will find that a bunch of major Sony artists are missing, which is surely not helping in terms of promotion. These weird, incomprehensible decisions have left the service in the dark for the most part, and is probably why it has failed to garner any traction or acknowledgement from the mainstream. It’s why none of these music streaming services have made it here yet, and it’s one of the more frustrating aspects of the Japanese music industry. Desperate attempts to cling on to and tightly control the system has put the Japanese music industry far behind, and it will take some radical reforms for it to catch up with the rest of the world (which will probably not be happening any time soon).

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Nishino Kana: one of the “weird, incomprehensible decisions”

All that aside; I’ve been spending the past few days using Music Unlimited, and you know what? I like it. Obviously there are problems with it, like a clunky (very Japanese) user interface, qualities of the streams (HE-AAC files at 48kbps. Spotify streams mp3s at 320 kbps. And while Sony claims that the codec they use offers higher quality at lower bitrates, a low bitrate is still a low bitrate. Fortunately, they’ve recently announced that they will start offering high quality streams). The app they have for the iPhone is very barebones and crashes often, and features like offline cache and high quality streaming aren’t available on the iPhone version yet. They’re going to have to put out a fully integrated iPhone app out soon (and before Spotify comes out) in order to get on the edge in the music streaming market.

But these are all petty concerns. The entire business model of music streaming is still clearly in the embryonic stages, especially when it comes to royalties and how the whole money part of it works. At this point though, I think it’s more important to show the people in charge of these services (and the music business) that this is what we want. The lack of awareness for Music Unlimited is baffling, and at this rate the service will probably close down before we can even get a better interface for it.

Music Unlimited won’t be the only service in Japan soon though: Recochoku is about to start it’s own streaming service, while Softbank and Avex have teamed up for a service called Uula. And of course, Spotify will be coming to Japanese shores some time this summer. Personally, I think apart from Spotify all of these other services will probably be shit, but the Japanese music market and listeners never ceases to amaze me regarding the stupid choices they make.

I think services like Music Unlimited are very exciting, and could potentially change the way we consume and interact with music/musicians. All music from forever, right there in your pocket, whenever you want it? Really think about that for a second. Some people I’ve talked to have complained that 1480 yen (soon to be 980 yen) a month is expensive. I say to these people: seriously? It’s way cheaper than buying a CD or a few songs on iTunes, and you can listen to the songs anywhere with a connection. We need to get out of this mentality that music or media is totally free and start giving the people creating it a way to gather the revenue they need to continue. Or else, sooner or later, all we’ll be able to listen to will be Mr. Children, AKB48, Arashi, and Michael Jackson reissues for all eternity.

The song starts to take on a new, horrifying meaning doesn’t it?

I was talking to a friend last night about how the only thing limiting about Music Unlimited is yourself: the choices you make on these services are only limited by what you know, and how deep you’re willing to dig through. I like that, since a part of the joy of listening to music is discovering new things and ideas and finding out about yourself. But people are idiots, and those who listen to the same old shit will listen to the same old shit, no matter what medium they’re listening through.

Only this time, they won’t have an excuse.

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