In the beginning, there were music downloads. Online music retailers got the rights to offer them by licensing them from record companies, which treated them much like physical music products such as CDs. Then there was web radio, which included online simulcasts of terrestrial broadcast signals. Web radio sites (at least those in the United States) got licenses to music according to rules set up decades ago by the government, which require all music to be licensed for radio play.
Then came music streaming services that looked and felt like web radio but which users could customize to their tastes. To keep them in the radio licensing realm, the music industry imposed constraints such as prohibiting “lookahead” (displaying the titles of tracks to be played in the future) and limiting the number of songs by a given artist that could be played in a row.
Oh, and there was also on-demand streaming, where service providers had to get licenses from record companies, but the licenses were simpler than those required for downloads.
Now there’s MOG All Access, a new music service that launched last week. MOG’s chief innovation is that it intermingles — or, to use the in-vogue term, mashes up — on-demand streaming (a la Rhapsody, Napster, and Spotify) with customized web ratio (a la Pandora, Slacker, and Last.fm). MOG’s ideas for new flexibility in online music are clever and innovative; unfortunately, because of the music industry’s legacy licensing regimes, they end up coming across as a confusing mess.
With MOG All Access, US and Canadian users can pay $5 per month to get on-demand streaming that’s similar to Spotify Premium, or to Rhapsody without the portable device transfer capabilities. When you select an album to play, MOG will play the songs on the album and follow them with a “custom radio station” based on the album or artist just played — thus extending your music experience in a natural way.
You see the “custom radio” songs added to your MOG playlist. Your natural inclination is to skip ahead to a song you particularly want to hear. But unless that song happens to be licensed for on-demand streaming, surprise! You can’t play it. Similarly, if you call up an artist page on MOG and click on “albums,” you get a list of albums by that artist — some of which will be grayed out because they aren’t available for on-demand listening.
Kudos to MOG for trying something interesting and new (and MOG has plenty of other noteworthy and unrelated features), but all this does is point out the increasing obsolescence of music licensing regimes used in the United States and many other geographies. Criticism has been levied at subscription on-demand streaming sites for being too hard for consumers to comprehend, because they are neither fish (record stores) nor fowl (radio). If that’s really the case, then MOG’s mashups become biological impossibilities from alien planets.
Every time I try to explain to lay people the nuances among mechanical and performance rights, publishing and recording, statutory and compulsory licenses, and so on, their eyes glaze over and they either fall into a trance or try desperately to change the subject. Is it just me?