What Happens When Four Giant Record Labels Get Into Bed With Each Other?

All right, so the original metaphor references giant apes instead of record labels, and therefore may not be entirely accurate, but what is going on here is a case of the 4 biggest record labels getting together in an attempt to take down a likely competitor.

Universal Music Group, one quarter of the "big four" music companies (along with Sony BMG, Warner, and EMI), has proposed to its fellow competitors a new way of delivering music to consumers. Of course, a venture such as this raises a few eyebrows.

This time, it is the eyebrows of the Department of Justice, as they have begun take interest in this initiative. Both Universal and Sony BMG have received these so-called letters of inquiry from the Justice Department, but unfortunately, that's about as deep as the knowledge goes in terms of what that inquiry really means.

So far, it seems that Sony BMG has expressed the most interest in the project, known only as "Total Music". Total Music would be a service that costs a flat fee and comes on a music-playing device. It would allow the user to essentially browse, and listen to, the entire catalog of music from Universal, and whichever other record companies signed on. In one example, a cell phone company might just build the cost of this service into its plans, so it would appear "free" to the consumer.

It would be interesting to see which record labels do what, and which artists would be available with this service. Each of the four record labels have a big presence in Nashville with their country music divisions - can't you just see a "Total Music" booth now at the CMA Music Fest? Sony BMG alone represents artists like the Dixie Chicks and Carrie Underwood, while Universal carries the likes of Taylor Swift and George Strait. Big names like these could help make or break the service, as signing on would be a show of good faith in the future of digital music, while not doing so might cause some other artists to follow suit.

The conclusion to draw here is that this would potentially be a way for the record companies to compete against Apple's behemoth iTunes. It's no secret that most of the labels have been less than fond of Apple's one-price-for-every-song model, but there's no denying that it appears to work well. And what's more, subscription based services like Rhapsody or Napster haven't done very well either, so it stands to reason that what Universal and Sony are trying to do is come up with something that can stand alongside, and compete with, iTunes.

I think on paper, Total Music sounds promising, but it's always sketchy any time you have competing suppliers attempting to set prices and have complete control over the consumer product they supply.

Moreover, I think the idea of having a device that gives you access to a wide array of anything, not just music, is great. Look at what Amazon has done with their Kindle reading device: the ability to easily browse, preview, purchase, and read a large number of books, blogs, and periodicals seems awesome to me. To have the ability to do so with music is incredibly intriguing. I know that I've found myself suddenly being in the mood for a particular artist, but I usually just don't have them accessible. A service like Total Music seems like it could solve this dilemma, but it also seems like it is still a ways, and several investigations, and maybe even several lawsuits, away.

The whole idea of having a different pricing model in relation to iTunes is also certainly refreshing, but there is most definitely a fine line between reasonable and just downright ridiculous. However, that can be a story saved for another time...