NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Music Industry’s Latest Brainstorm: Goofy or Brilliant?

Would You Pay $55 a Month for Some -- but Not All -- Music?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

This has got to be the goofiest or the most brilliant idea I have yet heard from the major record labels — and I’ve heard many goofy ideas during these many years that the labels have been in denial about their ongoing downloading crisis. This actually could turn out to be the music industry’s salvation. But I have grave doubts. As you will recall, Steve Jobs fixed the music industry’s problem for them with Apple’s iTunes, but that relationship has become quarrelsome.

And there remains still goofy fallout from that. I’m sure you saw on the Net this week that Jon Bon Jovi made confused remarks blaming Jobs for killing the music industry. Poor JBJ never realized that Jobs didn’t invent downloads and that he (Jobs) actually made it possible — with iTunes — for music rights holders to get paid for downloads. That’s something the major record labels somehow could not conjure up. But, to get back to a point, of sorts …

Now, nose-diving digital sales have not proven to be the magic bullet that was expected to make up for the ongoing slump in physical CD sales. So the major labels (Sony Music Group, Warner Music Group, EMI Music and Universal Music Group) have devised a way to make more money. Here’s what it amounts to: They will take a piece of your monthly cell phone payment. That amount of money has not been spelled out.

Here is roughly how it would work. You would buy a Cricket-serviced Samsung Suede cell phone. The major labels would let you download their songs and ringtones to Cricket’s Muve Music service — for which you would pay $55 a month. Then the labels get a piece of your $55. That is a whole damn lot of music — but largely of the Top 40 variety — to choose from, admittedly, along with unlimited phone and web and text service. And no phone contract. But what if you’re an Apple addict or a Blackberry lover? You’re out of luck. Although no Apple-lover would go near Muve.

The Samsung Suede, by the way, can hold up to 3,000 songs. You can order the phone online for $199.99, plus the first $55 monthly fee — minus an online discount of $70. The company claims the phone’s battery life is around five hours for all service and nine hours for music only listening.

But there’s a catch or two to this lovely plan. This would include only the major labels, so you get no Taylor Swift and no Mumford & Sons and many others. And here’s the real kicker. You can listen to the music only on your cell phone (although you can route your phone through your home stereo or your car system). You can’t shift songs to, say, your laptop or your MP3 player. Or send them to your friends. You also can’t sideload any music from other sources onto the Suede, so no CDs or downloads from your computer. You’re limited to the Muve catalog offerings.

I don’t know about you, but I listen to a lot of music that doesn’t come from the four major labels. If I had to choose between the indies and the Big 4, that would be easy. Indie labels, all the way. And I don’t like listening to music on my cell phone. And I especially would not enjoy paying $55 a month for that dubious privilege. But if the four major labels’ music is all you seek, $55 a month is a bargain for all that music and a functioning — but not top of the line — cell phone.

So, good luck, major labels, in your ongoing, misguided search to find even more ways to part music listeners from their cash. If this works, more power to you.

The entire landscape will change drastically, I suspect, once Spotify makes its way to the U.S. Spotify is the Swedish music streaming service that has spread throughout Europe. Simply speaking, Spotify allows you to choose almost any piece of music or album throughout the major and indie music world and stream it with few restrictions. Service is free — with ads — or by paid, advertiser-free subscription fees.

Meanwhile, here’s the best recent idea I’ve heard about that can introduce young music listeners to music that they didn’t know existed. Which is a huge problem the major record labels have not addressed.

I have seen surveys that claim a majority of young music fans have never set foot in a record store. And those of us who have loved record shops for years know with certainty that record stores, staffed with musically-knowledgeable workers, are perhaps the best place to be exposed to new or unfamiliar music.

It’s obvious the artist Jack White has read those surveys, too. He cites one on his web site claiming that 97 percent of all high school-aged kids have never been in a stand-alone record store. Now he has come up with a brilliant idea: a record shop on wheels. It’s a truck that can wheel up to events and open its doors. It also can allow artists or bands to plug into the truck’s audio systems and perform music on the spot. Remember when bookmobiles took books to kids who otherwise had no access to new or unfamiliar books? Or to books at all, for that matter? This is the same concept.

White is demonstrating the Third Man Rolling Record Store at SXSW this week in Austin, Texas. Sometimes the simplest ideas turn out to be the best.