TCS Daily

Podcasting and the New Media

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 17, 2005 12:00 AM

In the past, I've written here about, and its sort-of successor,, in terms of their influence on the future of music. But, increasingly, we're seeing that there's more than music to the equation.

I talked recently with GarageBand's CEO, Ali Partovi, about where all this is going. Partovi is an open-faced entrepreneur whose previous venture, LinkExchange, Inc., wound up being bought by Microsoft for $265 million. (It's still around as bCentral). Partovi spoke rapidly enough that I had to ask him to slow down, but it seemed like the excitement of an enthusiast, not the fast talk of a salesman. And there's a lot to be excited about.


Partovi is very enthusiastic about podcasting, which lets pretty much anyone get into the Internet "radio" business by recording broadcasts that are automatically downloaded and copied onto people's iPods and other portable music players. Podcasters, he says, are becoming a new route for people to discover music that they like. "It's the cultural trend of amateur DJs discovering new music -- performing the role that radio DJs should have performed for the last 20 years but haven't. A regular FM DJ could get fired for playing a song by a new artist. Podcasting unlocks that."


Interestingly, he thinks that DJs will be harder to bypass than radio stations: "DJs play an important role. Consumers want new music, but most don't want to take the trouble to listen to it on their own. They want someone else to do the filtering, and the human touch is key." What's more, it's a better promotional tool than radio in some ways. If you hear a song you like on the radio, you have to figure out what the song is and who does it, then go find out about the artist. With podcasting it's different: "Once you discover an artist you like via a podcast, the technology makes it easy to find out more about the artist. You can find a band via a DJ's podcast, follow a link to subscribe to the band's podcast, and then the band doesn't need a middleman to get in touch with you. You'll know when they have something new."


That's not only important for the little guy, but for established artists like Paul McCartney who are no longer darlings of the radio, he notes. They need a way to reach their fans that doesn't depend on the radio business, and the Internet provides one. (Partovi didn't mention it, but I wonder if this isn't an answer to the unfolding payola scandals involving commercial radio, too.)


GarageBand offers a lot of podcasting tools on its website, making it easy for bands to communicate with their fans -- and in the process allowing anyone else who wants to setup a podcast, musical or otherwise, to do so. The Wall Street Journal's technology columnist, Walt Mossberg, tried it out and found it easier than most other systems for creating podcasts; there's even a feature that lets you create a podcast by telephone. (His article, alas, is subscription-only, but here's a link to the podcast). Still, he concluded (and I agree) that creating podcasts remains a lot harder than creating text-based blog entries. That's likely to change soon, though.


On the receiving side, podcasts have gotten a lot more user-friendly. Apple has upgraded its iTunes to let users subscribe to podcasts via a point-and-click interface, so that anyone who owns an iPod will find it easy to subscribe. Once that's done, iTunes will check for new podcasts from that source and then download them every time a user plugs in the iPod. And GarageBand is thinking of creating a podcasting site that specializes in non-musical subjects, like interviews and news reporting. So the technological barriers are crumbling. Unfortunately, other kinds of barriers remain.


One of the biggest things holding podcasting back -- and protecting commercial radio -- is the copyright barrier. Radio stations operate under so-called "blanket licenses." By paying an annual fee to clearinghouse organizations like ASCAP or BMI, they can play songs without having to get permission for each songs. The clearinghouses then divide the money according to a formula and forward payments to artists. (Nothing wrong with that; I'm an ASCAP member myself -- and so is my brother, whose band, unlike mine, actually makes him a living).


On the Internet, however, things are much harder. In a recent column in Wired magazine, Larry Lessig reports on how copyright concerns made it effectively impossible for a nonprofit he works with to put a recording of "Happy Birthday" (yes, it's still under copyright and will be until 2030) on the Web. At first, they thought they could purchase a "mechanical license" (which operates under a sort of clearinghouse arrangement that's similar to the blanket licensing used by radio). But then the lawyers decided that they needed a separate permission from Warner/Chappell Music, which manages the rights to "Happy Birthday." Warner first agreed to grant them a license for $800, but then changed its mind. By that time, the lawyers were worried that people would take Lessig's performance and remix it, making him an accessory to copyright infringement. Lessig concludes: "The existing system is just workfare for lawyers."


Yes, it is. And it's likely that commercial broadcasters -- who are seeing their audiences shrink because, not to put too fine a point on it, their programming stinks -- will oppose any legal changes that might eliminate this sort of barrier, because anything that makes life easier for podcasters, and Web music generally, is likely to make things worse for them. At this point, their comparative advantage isn't so much technological, or creative, as it is the advantage conferred by a friendlier legal environment.


As someone who's in the business of selling law degrees, I suppose I should be in favor of "workfare for lawyers." But I don't think that the existing system is really very good for anyone. Our best hope is that the number of podcasters, and podcast listeners, will become large enough that Congress will pay attention and -- as it did in the early days of radio -- pass sensible legislation that will make podcasting as user-friendly from a legal standpoint as it is from a technical standpoint. That'll happen, if people organize to make it happen.


Will they? That's a question that can't be answered by looking at technology.


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