A press release came to my inbox today from InComm, which bills itself as "the nation's largest marketing and technology provider for gift and music cards and other prepaid products."
Speaking of SonyBMG, the label is set to launch a program next Tuesday (January 15) called Platinum MusicPass, which enables you to buy digital albums in the form of gift cards. Priced at $12.99, the cards will contain full-length releases and bonus material. To access the music, customers must scratch off a PIN number on the card and then surf over to MusicPass.com to download the release. Customers can buy these cards at Best Buy and Target starting next Tuesday; stores owned by Trans World stores (that's Coconuts, FYE and Wherehouse) and the grocer Winn-Dixie will have the MusicPass cards by the end of January.
In the email press release, Thomas Hesse, President, Global Digital Business & U.S. Sales of Sony BMG Music Entertainment, says: "The MP3 files delivered through MusicPass play on computers, as well as on all MP3 players, including iPods. This makes them a simple, easy to use solution that will appeal to fans who already access their music on the Internet, as well as to consumers who are just getting into the digital realm. The cards themselves are high-quality collectibles featuring artist images and album information. They're a great choice whether you're buying for yourself, or as a gift for occasions ranging from a birthday to Valentine's Day."
So consider these gift cards like band trading cards, eh? (Or a 2008 version of Super Stars MusiCards.)
Now, the press release doesn't specify what bonus material these albums include -- although $19.99 versions of albums by Celine Dion and Kenny Chesney entitle listeners to choose "one additional album from that same artist's rich catalog of recordings," which is pretty cool. The press release also doesn't state directly if these MP3s are DRM-free, which Sony said they would start selling online in the coming months. (I have an email in to someone at InComm about both of these questions, and will update this post with an update when I receive word.)
The skeptic in me has a few questions. For starters, will these MP3s have the PIN number encoded within its data, thus making them traceable -- especially if they happened to be shared online on file-sharing services? If true, what are the repercussions of that? (In light of Sony's past problem with selling copy-protected CDs on the sneak, one hopes not.)
More important: Why go through all the trouble of buying an album in the form of a gift card, when you can buy the physical CD and then rip it to MP3s of your bitrate-choice for the same (or even cheaper) price? (And yes, of course there's the obvious statement: Why bother spending money at all on something you can pirate for free?)
Moreover, going to buy the card and then going to another Web site to download adds an extra step that's not there with the iTunes store -- which also sells DRM-free music, at the same price from some labels (although not currently SonyBMG) -- or the already-DRM-free Amazon.com download store (which recently paired with Warner Brothers to offer DRM-free music from that label). It's a little less convenient and immediate, especially since one can likely pick up the CD at the Best Buy/Target anyway.
Even though that BusinessWeek article linked above mentions an upcoming promotion involving Pepsi, Justin Timberlake and DRM-free (and free in general) downloads from major labels (including SonyBMG) -- and again, it's not confirmed if these MusicPass MP3s are DRM-free -- one has to wonder: Are these cards SonyBMG's way of avoiding being forced to sell DRM-free music through all of the digital-download services? By creating its own way to sell digital downloads to consumers -- in the form of gift cards, already an established and popular medium -- SonyBMG takes away the middle man, and has formed its own digital-download store. It doesn't need iTunes or Amazon.com to facilitate distributing its potentially DRM-free music; the label is in effect doing that itself.
While it's not practical anymore for SonyBMG to refuse to sell DRM-free downloads at these stores -- people will just go elsewhere for the music -- the label has in effect taken back control of how its music is downloaded -- and by whom. Time will tell if this strategy works, or has an effect on downloads.
Check back next week, when I'll be testing out the MusicPass system and comparing it with the Amazon.com and iTunes DRM-free stores. Click after the jump for the albums available through MusicPass:
Alejandro Fernandez, Viento A Favor Alicia Keys, As I Am Avril Lavigne, The Best Damn Thing Backstreet Boys, UnBreakable Barry Manilow, The Greatest Songs of the Seventies Bob Dylan, Dylan Boys Like Girls, Boys Like Girls Brad Paisley, 5th Gear Britney Spears, Blackout Brooks & Dunn, Cowboy Town Bruce Springsteen, Magic Calle 13, Residente o Visitante Camila, Todo Cambio Carrie Underwood, Carnival Ride Casting Crowns, The Altar and The Door Celine Dion, Taking Chances Chris Brown, Exclusive Daughtry, Daughtry Elvis Presley, Elvis 30 #1 Hits Jennifer Lopez, Brave John Mayer, Continuum Kenny Chesney, Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates Martina McBride, Waking Up Laughing P!nk, I'm Not Dead Santana, Ultimate Santana Sara Bareilles, Little Voice Sean Kingston, Sean Kingston The Fray, How To Save A Life Three Days Grace, One-X Tony Bennett, Duets
Platinum MusicPass Compilations (slrp $12.99)
Various, 70's POP HITS Various, ROCK OF THE 70's Various, SENSATIONAL 60's Various, COUNTRY GOLD: THE 90's Various, 80's POP HITS Various, CLASSIC ROCK Various, Everlasting Love
Expanded MusicPass Titles (slrp $19.99 versions which include the complete album, bonus material, plus choice of one additional album from that same artist's rich catalog of recordings.)
Kenny Chesney, Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates Celine Dion, Taking Chances