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Magnatune an Open Choice, iTunes an Expensive Choice

James Lees

Issue #160, August 2007

Finally, a company that understands Internet media distribution.

On April 2, 2007, Apple CEO Steve Jobs along with EMI CEO Eric Nicoli announced DRM-free downloads at a new cost of $1.29 US—a fee that's $.30 more than the current DRM-formatted music. Shouldn't music be DRM-free anyway and not come at an extra cost? That's not what iTunes is saying or showing, as it still is going to sell DRM music for $.99 and DRM-free music for even more. Why put up with these over-priced songs, not only from iTunes but also from other on-line stores, such as Microsoft's MSN Music that sells over-priced music, and like iTunes, the music comes with DRM.

The new DRM-free songs on iTunes will be in MP3 and WMA formats and supposedly will be of “superior quality”. That mention of superior quality, however, is merely to cover up the extra price and save iTunes from the UK's fair trading pressure of infringement on European trading regulations. Why should you have to deal with a company that makes you pay more for freedom? Freedom is not something you should have to pay for. Why pay for freedom when you can choose an on-line site that gives you options the other record-label companies don't offer?

Such a site exists, and it gives you many choices, including how you want to receive an album, such as a downloaded DRM-free format (MP3, WAV, OGG, FLAC or AAC) or a purchased CD that will be mailed to you, all without the extra “freedom fee”. This site also lets you choose to pay what you think a particular album is worth, and it gives you the option of re-downloading a purchased song if you lose it due to a faulty hard drive or misplaced file. This site also gives you the option to back up music on another device, without restrictions on the number of devices on which you can store your music—something iTunes does not allow, and it's something I know I want to be able to do with music I purchase. And, the best thing of all, this site allows you the freedom to share an album and give the gift of music to your friends. If you buy an album, you can share it with up to three friends (based on the honor system).

What if I tell you it's all possible with Magnatune—the company that says “We Are Not Evil”, and it's just that, not evil. Magnatune allows customers to do everything mentioned above—plus more. It's not only an independent, on-line record label, but also a company that wants to change how music is distributed and open up possibilities for less-known bands and artists. The artists and bands on Magnatune are not highly rated with albums or songs in the Top 100, but they still are great to listen to and download. All Magnatune needs is only one top artist to switch over to put it on the map as a mainstream label company. Magnatune takes big strides to label great-sounding artists, and one out of 300 artists gets signed.

What Magnatune Believes

This is straight from Magnatune's site:

  • All music should be shareware. Just as with software, you want to preview, evaluate and pass along good music to others—in the process of buying it.

  • Find a way of getting music from musicians to audiences that's inexpensive and supports musicians. Otherwise, musical diversity will continue to suffer greatly under the current system where only mega-hits make money.

  • Musicians need to be in control and enjoy the process of having their music released. The systematic destruction of musicians' lives is unacceptable: musicians are very close to staging a revolution (and some already have).

  • Creativity needs to be encouraged; today's copyright system of “all rights reserved” is too strict. We support the Creative Commons “some rights reserved” system, which allows derivative works, sampling and no-cost noncommercial use.

Magnatune in the Open Source Community and Becoming a Freedom Fighter for Music and Media

Magnatune recently has taken part in the Linux community, allowing you to search and listen to its podcast and music directories without purchase from the KDE Amarok 1.4.4 player. This try-before-you-buy philosophy gives you the opportunity to listen to not just one song from an album, but the full album, before deciding how much you are willing to pay for it—if you choose to purchase it at all. The great thing with Magnatune's search-and-buy feature being put into the Amarok player is that it allows you to purchase an album from the player instead of going to the site, making it easy to search Magnatune's massive album collection for specific genres, such as Classical, Electronica, Jazz and Blues, Metal and Punk, New Age and Rock. Once your purchase is complete, the song or album can be put into any type of music player, such as an iPod or any other MP3 player. As I said before, Magnatune lets you pay what you think the album is worth. It does have a starting price of $5, with a maximum of $18 (the typical purchasing price for an album is $8). Each song is DRM-Free (at the price of about $.50 a song) and can be downloaded in many formats to work on just about any music player and device. The best part is that 50% of the sale price of each album goes directly to the artist.

Figure 1. The Amarok Media Player Playing a Magnatune-Provided Preview

Another great thing about Magnatune that blows iTunes out of the water is its daily free song give-away, compared to iTunes weekly song give-away. Some people hear the word free and think something must be wrong or of poor quality, but people who use or develop open-source and free software know that's not the case. What makes Magnatune's daily DRM-free music give-away special is not only freedom, but also that the songs are great to listen to and have amazing sound quality. But, that's not all, Magnatune changes genres every day for the give-away. I plan to visit the site on a daily basis to download the free song and browse for other songs.

Figure 2. “We are not evil.”

Magnatune also has joined and supports the partly open-source Second Life, which has become an on-line phenomenon that allows you to live a second on-line virtual life, while making money on-line and joining groups and meeting new people. If you're a member of the Second Life world, Magnatune allows you to choose a genre to listen to while you're in the game or in Magnatune's furnished tents, giving you a relaxing area to hang out with other Magnatune users, making it a better community yet again. When you teleport to Magnatune's hang-out location, don't forget to get a free Magnatune T-shirt for your avatar. Best of all, Magnatune considers Second Life's playing of its streams to be promotional use of its music and grants you a license to use that music for free. Magnatune also says it will grant you a collecting society waiver, so that if ASCAP or BMI ever asks you to pay for the music you're using on Second Life, you can point them to magnatune.com/info/second_life.

Open Music has become one of the largest projects that's made Magnatune so well known in the music industry and Open Source community. Open Music is music that is shareable, available in “source code” form, allows derivative works and is free of cost for noncommercial use. It is the concept of open-source computer software applied to music. Think of Open Music as open-source software, allowing you not only to edit and sell it, but also to share the wealth with the artist and Magnatune, or just give it back to the community so others can then edit what you edited to make it even better. And, it's all under the Creative Commons, including Magnatune's main site. One example of this Open Music Project is the new Amarok Live CD Project. Magnatune allowed the Amarok Project members and community to bundle tracks from the Magnatune store that were licensed under the attribution/noncommercial/share-alike version of the well-known Creative Commons license.

The Business Model behind Magnatune

Besides joining the Second Life community and starting the Open Music Project, Magnatune now has a MySpace site with more than 1,300 friends. Another on-line community site Magnatune uses for advertising and marketing is YouTube. Yes, Magnatune has a YouTube page that has, at the time of this writing, 17 videos that include information on Magnatune. And, you can watch and listen to artists from Magnatune on YouTube, over and over again, without having to purchase or pay a royalty to watch the video. Because those free services are used for marketing, the company and artists save money that they would normally need for getting their names and labels out to the public. You also can be a part of the Magnatune's marketing team by requesting free recruiting cards or printing Magnatune mini-posters and handing them out.

Magnatune's founder John Buckman's idea was to target people who listen to music in the background while they do other work (while writing this article, I'm listening to Rocket City Riot, Last Of The Pleasure Seekers from Magnatune) or music that gets little radio airplay or major record distribution, but that has a fairly large audience. Targeting those audiences is what keeps Magnatune's business going in the long run.

One of the biggest ways Magnatune stays in business is the commercial licensing it offers for the music it sells. It allows the music to be used in films and television, on the Internet and for presentations. And, the license contracts are royalty-free, meaning you don't have to pay more if a project is successful. The license and the cost to use the music depend on the project. Magnatune gives you a price quote in a matter of seconds from the site, and the prices are a lot better than other commercial licensing fees and are 30% lower than industry standard.

Music is not the only way Magnatune makes money. It sells other merchandise, such as posters, clothing and mugs. As with the albums, 50% of those sales go to the artist.

Running on Open Source

Magnatune does not just support open source, it also runs on it. Its servers run Linux with the most widely available HTTP server on the Internet—Apache 2 supporting and using PHP and OpenSSL. Magnatune uses a MySQL database to store and log purchase information, and it's also used for searches on the main site, such as for an artist or track. When the search is done, a Perl script creates the track listings and playlists so transactions can be made.

Figure 3. Magnatune's Web Site


So, if you're an open-source advocate and like to listen to music that's not mainstream while supporting artists instead of putting money in the label companies' pockets, visit Magnatune's Web site and sign up for the free song of the day and maybe buy some albums while you're there. And, if you're an artist, Magnatune is just the place to check out, especially if want to get your feet wet in the music industry. Magnatune is there to help artists reach audiences and receive a profit (note that albums must have at least 40 minutes of music). Then, you can listen to your album on Amarok's open-source media player while making an average of $1,500 US (according to Magnatune) if your album is accepted. So let's forget about iTunes and make the migration to a community-based project with a great business model.

James Lees currently is a Web site developer, and he's about to go to college in Network Engineering. He's also a computer hobbyist and die-hard Linux user who wants to help promote freeware and open-source software. And, let's not forget, he's also a longtime Linux Journal reader.

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