The Celestial Jukebox

There is a far off dream where listeners have online access to stream an entire library of all music ever created, through an easy-to-use interface, with the only catch being that the listener must pay a reasonable monthly fee.  This dream is what some call the “celestial jukebox”.  The celestial jukebox is a somewhat abstract theory that has been bouncing around the minds of music industry personnel for the past decade or so, and it is possibly the silver lining that digital media gurus are striving towards reaching.

Although I usually think of this concept almost cynically, slyly thinking, “Yeah, that will happen just as soon as record labels pay artists what they deserve,” I feel the need to dive into this possibility.  Here are just a few concepts that are currently in use and striving towards the celestial jukebox, and that I find quite interesting.

The Rhapsody Approach: Rhapsody allows users to access its music library at a monthly fee.  Listeners can stream as much music as they like for a month, and can download songs for an additional price.

Trouble Areas:

  • Rhapsody is only available in the US and some its territories.
  • The service can only be used via designated software.
  • The licensing agreements with content owners allows for the owners to make certain tracks unavailable without notice to the listener, and certain tracks are available for download only.

The Pandora Approach: Pandora allows users to stream free music online, playing music that is similar to the song or artist that the user requested. This ad-supported service allows users to purchase the songs or albums that they are listening to.

Trouble Areas:

  • Like Rhapsody, Pandora is only available in the US.
  • Pandora also has a 40 hour per month free music limitation, charging users for listening in access to that amount.
  • Users can only skip a certain amount of songs per month, and there is no “repeat” option.
  • Pandora lacks the ability for users to choose specific songs to listen to, and lacks the ability to limit a station only to one or a few artists.

The Communist License Approach*:  This approach is a based on a proposal to create a national compulsory license of digital streaming.  Under this approach, all content owners must make every track available (licensed) for online streaming at a predetermined royalty rate.

Trouble Areas:

  • This approach takes away a content holder’s right to control which online music sources stream their music.
  • Content holders cannot negotiate different prices for different songs.  This is best described by a gumball machine example.  A gum-ball machine dispenses one gum-ball for every quarter you put in.  The delicious green gum-balls are worth at least a good $0.50, and the disgusting white gum-balls are worth a mere nickel.  All the other gum-balls, however, are rightfully valued at $0.25.  Under the Communist License Approach, there is no room for charging different prices, making all gum-balls (green, white and all the rest) purchasable for $0.25.
  • This approach requires governmental action, which does not happen often enough in the Copyright realm.

It’s only a matter of time until someone figures out the best method of reaching the celestial jukebox.  This will not only benefit listeners, but it will also benefit artists and businesses.  Fans will be more connected with artists, artists will be more enthused to create music, and businesses will reap greater profits.  The fan-artist relationship that will result will allow businesses to profit from not only the compulsory license royalty rate, but also from merchandise, advertisement and other other sources of revenue.

The celestial jukebox will likely be reached once the Rhapsody, Pandora and Communist License Approaches fuse together.  There will still be a problem with people who want to access the celestial jukebox outside the US, but that problem will not resolve itself nicely unless the Communist Licensing Approach is adopted on an international level (but don’t hold your breath on that happening).  Until then, we can only dream.

*By using the title “Communist License,” I, in no way, intend to assign a negative connotation to this approach.  I merely use the term to reference the communal distribution of licenses.



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