Peter Gabriel's Rent-a-Song Strategy for the Net

The former Genesis frontman's new company will sell subscriptions to an online service that lets fans try tunes, with an option to buy

Optimists look at the explosion of digital music on the Internet and see a brave new venue for musicians to break out, maybe even get a recording contract. Then there's musician Peter Gabriel, who's actually trying to do something about it.

The Internet provides "a much more democratic musical process," says Gabriel, who has recorded 10 solo albums since leaving the band Genesis in 1975. He's worried about the alternative: That the Net could be a vehicle for big music labels to expand their dominance. "There's also a great opportunity to get screwed," he frets.

Gabriel has never limited his interests to the recording studio. He runs his own music label, Real World Records, and helped found the Russian chapter of Greenpeace. He also created a multimedia show that's the central attraction of the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, England. So it's not surprising that he has also gotten involved in trying to push digital music in a direction that helps artists.


  That's one reason why the English rocker was in Barcelona recently mingling with a crowd of computer geeks and music-industry execs. The occasion: a conference on digital music sponsored by Internet market research firm Jupiter MMXI. Gabriel delivered an address and unveiled new technology developed by On Demand Distribution, also known as OD2, a company he co-founded to provide services to e-tailers selling music online.

The technology allows online customers to "rent" music, rather than buy it. It may sound like a wacky concept. But the idea is to lower the cost of online music and encourage listeners to browse and discover new acts.

The way Gabriel and OD2 co-founder Charles Grimsdale picture it, rent-a-track will work like this: Listeners will subscribe to a music service built around their taste, be it jazz, rock, Wagner's operas, or bagpipe ensembles. For a monthly fee, probably a few dollars, customers will be entitled to listen to as much music as they like and download tracks to play later. However, each track will contain a digital license that expires after, say, a month and renders the song unplayable. Customers will have to pay more for a permanent copy. "It gives people a chance to check out things they would not otherwise get access to," explains Gabriel, whose reserved and polite demeanor contrasts with his hard-driving hits like Sledgehammer.

Will such a service sell? It could take years to find out. OD2, which is based in Bristol, England, releases the technology in June. The music industry is groping to find a way to profitably market music online. Yet no one has yet found a formula that's anywhere near as popular as Napster, the file-sharing site with more than 70 million registered users at last count, none of whom are paying for the music they trade between each other's hard drives (See BW Online, 4/5/01, "How to Keep the Digital Music Playing").


  Among industry types, a consensus is developing that subscriber-based services may be the best antidote to illegal song swapping. It's a lot easier to charge someone $5 a month for a fixed number of downloads than to ask customers to pay individually for each song or album. "There are tremendous benefits to the subscription model. They're much easier to manage," says Jean Pierre Bommel, vice-president for digital music at Madge.web, a British provider of network services for companies that want to deliver media electronically.

If so, Gabriel's music-rental idea could play a role. Certainly, the musician is deeply apprehensive about the direction of digital music, including Napster. Quips Gabriel: "Artists aren't anti-Napster. They're anti not getting paid."

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By Jack Ewing in Barcelona

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht