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The new face of music retail (Hint: It's not Jack Black)

May 9, 2012 |  8:00 am

The Future.fm
Say hello to the new face of music retail. It’s not a rack at Best Buy or Barry, the high-strung record store clerk in the movie "High Fidelity" portrayed by actor Jack Black.

Instead, it’s a small screen that people like to sleep next to -- the smartphone. It’s also the giant television screen in the living room. And it’s the ubiquitous Web browser on laptops and desktops.

As an indication of the shift in how people are buying music (and other band-related merchandise), the National Assn. of Recording Merchandisers, the 54-year-old group representing music retailers, is featuring a smorgasbord of apps and other technologies all day Wednesday at its conference in Los Angeles.

“How do you quantify the business?” association President Jim Donio asked rhetorically. “Today, you’re looking at a pretty wide spectrum of options. We wanted to address that and look at the full picture, which includes these and other technologies where music and commerce meet.”

It’s the first time app developers are being treated with the same deference as buyers from Amoeba Records at the National Assn. of Recording Merchandisers’ annual shindig, which once was dominated by “brick-and-mortar” retailers.

For those who can’t make it to the group’s “App Alley," here’s a sampling of the technology companies exhibiting there.


What: Streaming radio, like Pandora, but with music by DJ artists and producers. 

Why: DJ music, while an extremely lucrative live performance business for celebrity spinmeisters like Deadmau5 and Tiesto, is a head-scratcher for everyone else. The root of the problem, as with so many things in digital music, is copyrights. When artists like Girl Talk sample a dozen or more songs from other bands into a single track, figuring out the digital royalties can get messy.

Thefuture.fm has built a program that can identify snippets of songs, even when they’re modified, and automatically calculate royalties. The company built this capability in order to launch a legit streaming music service dedicated to mixtapes, house and DJ music. Theoretically, that means each time a song is streamed, everyone gets paid. For now, the service is free and supported by ads, but a premium pay version with more bells and whistles is on the way.

Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox Live

What: An online marketplace for the Xbox 360 video game console. 

Why: It’s not just for Halo anymore. The Xbox Live nerds at Microsoft are doubling down on music (as well as movies and television shows) in the race to become the all-in-one digital entertainment hub in the living room. Aside from selling music downloads, Microsoft also offers Zune Pass, its subscription service akin to Spotify, as well as Last.fm and iHeartRadio on Xbox Live, which boasts 40 million users. Epitaph Records recently used Xbox Live to stream a new release from Pennywise. Word is that the technology giant wants to do more deals like that in order to beef up its entertainment lineup.


What: An application for Facebook and iPhones that tells users when their favorite bands will be in town on tour.

Why: In surveys by ticketing companies, the No. 1 reason people cite for not attending concerts of bands they like is that they didn’t know the band was in town. Enter BandsInTown, which connects its 3 million users with local concerts by more than 50,000 bands. Boosting ticket sales is just one way artists can benefit. Since its merger in September with Cellfish Media, a mobile e-commerce company, BandsInTown has plans to let bands sell ticket "upgrades" at check-out to help boost their total take. That could mean a meal voucher, backstage access or the ability to cut to the front of the line.


What: An on-demand streaming music service.

Why: Not everything is free on Spotify. Outside of the U.S., the Swedish digital music company also sells downloads for individual tracks and albums. While Spotify hasn’t flipped the switch for this feature in the U.S., it’s widely expected to do so at some point. In the meantime, Spotify has launched a platform that lets other developers build applications on its service. That means companies like Songkick can let Spotify users know about upcoming concerts and help artists sell more tickets. That's something even Sonic Death Monkey could get behind.


Daniel Ek and the music "dinosaurs"

Robb McDaniels dishes on the state of digital music

Is Spotify the new music platform? Songkick thinks so

- Alex Pham

Photo: Logo for Thefuture.fm.