Following my posting about self-archiving of academic papers via iTunes, my interest has been piqued by a new development in the world of music licensing (which I spotted first in UK newspaper the Guardian, and later over on Stephen Abram's excellent Lighthouse blog).
SpiralFrog will see record labels licensing the site to *give away* music tracks. Revenues will come from advertising, which users will have to agree to sit through before they are able to download each file.
SpiralFrog's sexy-looking website seems to have adopted every "common feature" from Ben Hunt's analysis of current web style, and whilst there's not much functionality to judge it by yet, they do get points for their RSS feed (although I'm sensing bandwagon-overkill in the social media version of their press releases). But don't be fooled into thinking this is just another flash-in-the-pan Web-2.0-toting bedroom start up -- it will have taken considerable skills and clout to get their first record label partner on board (Universal Music Group, which encompasses major labels such as Decca, Verve and Polydor). Check out the Management Team for evidence that this is tight corporate enterprise -- an (old) media man1 at the helm and a CTO straight out of Microsoft (admittedly not as kudos-tic these days as coming from Apple or Google but hey, still a tech background not to be sniffed at). Their Chief Strategy Officer supports them with some good form in the music world.
I initially mused on the sense of déjà vu introduced by "no-cost web-based service[s]". OK, the advertiser-pays model hasn't yet been tried out as an alternative to user pay-per-track, but (to me) it smacked of (whisper it) dotcom strategy. But of course, the dotcoms that survived were those that had a solid commodity underneath the web wizardry. And music tracks probably come into just that category.
As, of course, do academic papers, so here's where I finally get to my point. I wasn't convinced about translating the iTunes model (miniscule per-track cost paid by the user) to academic papers (which *surely* have more value than any iTune track one could name -- yes, even Bridge Over Troubled Water). But an advertising-supported model seems to have a bit more mileage, as is evidenced by those prestigious publishers already offering free online access to premium content in return for a bit of ad clutter (think BMJ or NEJM).
Of course, no advertiser is going to buy the space at a rate which will fully replace other revenues -- no matter how prestigious the content -- particularly if all scholarly journals were suddenly to put their web inventory up for sale. But since it's clear that the end-user market will bear some advertising around research, and we know that library funding is going down while publishing costs are going up, SpiralFrog represents some food for thought -- worth keeping an eye out to see how it fares when it launches later this year.
1By which I mean "old media", not "old man"