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The day the music arrived

A decade after iTunes demolished the traditional music industry, the arrival of Simfy Africa finally gives South Africans a legal equivalent, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

The music industry, for all its culture of revolution, has always resisted change, and almost always to its enormous cost. When a program called Napster arrived at the end of the 1990s to allow online sharing of digital music files between individuals, the industry took to the courts to shut it down.

The music industry succeeded, giving it the confidence to resist any attempt to embrace the concept of digital, or to find new ways to add value to a disenchanted public. It insisted on sticking to a business model that was decades old: selling an album of about 10 songs to give fans access to the one song they wanted to hear.

Then came iTunes, an online music service integrated with Apple’s iPod, a digital alternative to the Sony Walkman. Apple’s charismatic CEO Steve Jobs was able to convince most major American music labels to allow digital tracks to be sold on iTunes, and also played on computers.

Overnight, the album died.

Individual tracks at a dollar a time made so much more sense to consumers. But it also meant that the music industry imploded from a $33-billion business in the 1990s to $16.2bn in 2011. In the USA in 2011, digital sales overtook physical for the first time, taking 50,3% of the market. Ironically, along with that landmark, album sales grew for the first time since 2004, as new artists like Adele gave the mass market a more compelling reason to buy a full set of songs.

In all this time, the South African music industry tried to fend off the digital revolution, or at least hide from it. They were helped along by iTunes, which paid little attention to this market. As part of its deal with the music industry devil, Apple still maintained the entertainment industry’s fiction of geographically-defined rights to music. So, despite how illogical it is in the boundary-free era of the Internet, a South African may not officially buy music from an American or European online store.

But on 27 August South Africa’s digital isolation ended. A German alternative to iTunes called Simfy struck a deal with eXactmobile in South Africa to bring its service to this country. It is branded Simfy Africa, underlining the intention of expanding northward.

Simfy was originally modeled on the online radio station Spotify, which offers unlimited access to a vast catalogue of songs at no cost. It’s all paid for by advertising, which may work in markets with deep Internet penetration, but is a non-starter in South Africa.

The South African adaptation is an all-you-can-eat model, for R60 a month. That, coincidentally, comes in at the same level as the BlackBerry Internet Service’s unlimited access option (excluding streaming media like video and music. It is also, according to eXactmobile founder and Simfy Africa CEO Davin Mole, a price point that gave the major music labels in South Africa a sense of comfort.

It’s not the first unlimited music offering on South Africa. Nokia pioneered the concept, but only for purchasers of specific phone models bundled with Nokia Music Unlimited, like the hugely popular Nokia 5310 XpressMusic. That service turned the Nokia Music Store into the biggest digital music outlet in South Africa, but made little dent in the overall music industry.

Both services offer millions of songs, but Simfy Africa takes the concept a few steps further, opening it to all computer and most smartphone users. Indeed, as Mole puts it, ‚”This is a smartphone play‚”. Through an app on BlackBerry, iPhone and Android phones, the music can be downloaded or played directly off the data stream. Ironically, Nokia is not part of this mix, as its Symbian operating system is not supported by Simfy.

For the rest, as long as the monthly subscription is active, customers can build up unlimited music libraries on their own phones or computers, within the Simfy app. The music can’t be played on other devices without using the app another element that persuaded major labels to tolerate the service.

The four major music labels represented in South Africa, EMI, Sony, Universal and Warner Music, are all represented. The independent music aggregator The Orchard, which was started 15 years ago to give independent music producers access to mainstream outlets and pioneered legal digital downloads, is part of the line-up. Two other aggregators, finetunes and Merlin, are also in there, and more are expected to join, giving unsigned artists a variety of options to access Simfy Africa customers.

Users can build playlists, make them public, and share their music tastes with other users.

The beauty of the unlimited option is that it opens music fans to the concept of discovering new music. When you don’t have to pay $1 or R10 a time just to find out if you like a track, music truly arrives in your life.

* Arthur Goldstuck is MD of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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