After partnering with Sky last month to create a music download service, Universal’s Rob Wells predicted that “bundling it in with their broadband or set-top box subscription will be an inevitability.” But what of Playlouder MSP, the independent that for five years has been pioneering the notion of licensed filesharing bundled with ISP subscriptions? Since Universal’s deal with Sky was announced, news sources have speculated that Sky’s most significant rival – Virgin Media – is keen to up the ante. Well placed industry sources confirm that Virgin has been doing the rounds of the major labels lately with some kind of digital music offering. But whether this will be a licensed file sharing service a la Playlouder remains unclear. Virgin themselves have merely said they are looking at various ways of integrating digital music into their offering.As Virgin Media’s current music download offering is limited to a rather dated 79p download store powered by Nokia/Loudeye/OD2, there’s certainly a great deal of room for innovation. But which model and which provider could give Virgin the kick it needs? Blogs and industry insiders alike have ventured forth to identify Playlouder MSP, the London-based “media service provider” that aims to integrate peer-to peer sharing within a licensed framework that can then be sold as a white label service to multiple even implied that Playlouder might “sell its technology platform” outright to Virgin Media alone, a claim that Playlouder co-founder Paul Sanders denies. “I was told that some people were suggesting it was already a done deal. Our model is as a wholesale platform, so if one ISP bought us we would be less well-positioned to sell managed music services to other ISPs,” Sanders retorts.In the same interview Sanders hinted that there would be “something quite good to announce in the next couple of months”. But when talking to Music Ally Sanders would not be drawn on whether this might involve a deal with an ISP, or another label deal, or something else altogether. One thing’s for sure though, according to Sanders, the Playlouder model remains that originally espoused by the company – ie a fully licensed service which allows users to carry on using file sharing services.Thus far Playlouder has picked up catalogues from the Association of Independent Music, Sony BMG and EMI, as well as mechanical and performing rights via collecting society MCPS-PRS. “We expect our extremely friendly and constructive relationship with the Alliance to continue”, comments Sanders, “as we work with ISPs to deliver music services to their subscribers. We couldn’t have asked for a more supportive partner, and of course we share their objectives in maximising the value of the music they represent.” But since its inception Playlouder has continued to seem somewhat ahead of its time. Even three years ago when Playlouder gained some coverage around a limited beta trial of its ISP, the music industry was not yet ready to accept either bundled services or legalised filesharing. Meanwhile the beta trial continues.Now, however, there is Denmark’s TDC, an ISP with unlimited music access that has earned millions for the local music market; Omnifone, a music offering bundled free with high-end Vodafone mobile subscriptions; and rumours abounding over Nokia Comes With Music and Apple iTunes Unlimited, both of which might bundle unlimited downloads with an annual fee tied to a portable device. On top of that a few legalised sharing models exist, notably iMesh and QTrax.Meanwhile, a fresh ingredient contributing to the renewed attention upon Playlouder is the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between record industry body the BPI, the UK government and six of Britain’s biggest internet service providers: BT, Carphone Warehouse, Orange, Sky, Tiscali and Virgin Media. The bulk of the consumer press coverage around the MoU has focused upon a three-month trial under which 1,000 warning letters are to be sent by ISPs to the most egregious filesharers identified by the BPI each week. Yet there are two aspects of the memorandum – and the government consultation document from which the MoU has emerged – that could spell very good news for Playlouder and its unique model.One is that labels and ISPs have agreed to collaborate in making available attractively-packaged commercial music in the formats that customers demand; the other is that a working group has been set up with Ofcom to explore options including the use of technical measures, such as copyright filtering on a network level, that could ultimately even be mandated by government regulation. That group met for the first time earlier this week. “It’s a closing window”, says an optimistic Playlouder’s Paul Sanders. “There’s quite a lot of development work going on in ISP networks at the moment, meaning there is an opportunity to put equipment in to help manage music services. After that there won’t be another major upgrade cycle for three to four years.”But what about the technical developments that have taken place within filesharing since Playlouder was originally dreamed up? As ever technology moves on apace and file sharing is not what it was. Once it was enough to use audio fingerprinting measures such as Audible Magic, the tool that has already proven successful in identifying individual music files from various filesharing networks. But nowadays filesharers can download entire discographies collected into a single .zip file thanks to services like BitTorrent. Further along the horizon is greater potential for encryption and other methods for filesharers to cover their tracks. How well equipped is Playlouder to keep up and account back to rightsowners for what’s being shared? ““The technology for finding what’s in those traffic flows is in place to some degree”, says Sanders. “I would say we can see the end of that road. The zip can be reconstructed and the files contained in the zip can be discovered – it’s more expensive to do that kind of thing, but it is possible.”Playlouder, however, is not alone in seeking a b2b solution for internet service providers as 7Digital has also unveiled new offerings specifically designed for ISPs. “The music world knows our services but we wanted to focus on the ISPs because we understand they’re under a lot of pressure from the BPI to bring in music revenues”, says 7Digital marketing manager Peter Davias. “We can offer a completely white-label service that can be bespoke and within the ISP network including subscriptions, bundles and streaming tracks; or we can offer a partnership deal where ISPs point customers in the direction of our store.”Davias emphasises the importance of the major labels’ new-found enthusiasm for unprotected music, saying “the catalogue is increasing and the key factor is the disappearance of DRM…with the emergence of MP3 as the standard, it works for the ISPs.” 7Digital gets permission from partner labels before entering into new deals such as those with ISPs, but Davias states that “99% of the time they approve because it’s a new distribution method and a new sale they would not get otherwise.”THE BOTOM LINE: Making music “feel free” to customers by bundling it in with high-value products such as mobile phones, or ongoing roadband subscriptions, could be the route to earning the music business per-user revenues rather than the paltry per-track fees it is currently enduring. The unanswered question is whether licensed filesharing a la Playlouder, or more conventional download stores such as those provided by Sky and 7Digital, is likely to prove most appealing to music fans.This article was published in Music Ally

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