Posted Tuesday, May 06, 2003

iTunes 4 and the Democratization of Internet Radio

iTunes 4 is best known for its music store, but the new version also promises to have a profound effect on Internet radio.

I'm referring to the music sharing feature, which enables you to share part or all of your music library so that other iTunes users around the world can tune in and listen.

I've written about iTunes music sharing in previous posts. But there's a new trend to report: the birth of Web sites that act as iTunes listening portals -- jumping-off points for exploring other users' shared music.

One such site is ShareiTunes. This site goes beyond the ServerStore program I mentioned a few days ago by adding intelligence: before listing a shared music library, the site checks to verify that the library is still out there and available for listening. That way, you don't get a lot of "not responding" error messages because someone turned off music sharing or simply shut down at the end of the day.

When I look at a site like ShareiTunes, I see a new kind of Internet radio: a peer-to-peer Internet radio where ordinary music lovers make their music available simply because they want others to enjoy it. No profit motive, no (probably unrealistic) business model. Just someone saying, "I love this music -- maybe you will, too."

Personal Internet radio has already been available for some time. The geek-inclined can set up Shoutcast servers on their systems or Apple's own QuickTime Streaming Server. And if you're willing to pay $10US or more per month, you can have your own Internet radio station on Live365. But, speaking of unrealistic business models, Live365 inserts commercials into your stream every now and then.

iTunes music sharing eliminates these technical and financial hurdles. Want a radio station? Click a check box.

This instant broadcasting capability has some fascinating ramifications. Currently, Internet radio is struggling to survive in the face of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) legislation and the greed of the recording industry, which wants to extract blood from the Internet broadcasting stone by charging exorbitant royalties on every song that's streamed. (See Save Internet Radio for details.)

How does the record industry plan to extract royalty payments from us iTunes users? It can't. Just like that, iTunes 4 has changed the rules of the game.

Of course, iTunes 4 is minor-league streaming. You can't have more than five simultaneous listeners, for example. But what iTunes lacks in punch, it makes up for in numbers. Thousands -- soon, millions -- of people now have the ability to run their own personal Internet radio stations.

Imagine that: millions of people sharing tens of millions of songs. Not because they need something to play in between commercials. Not because they're trying to sell you CDs. Not because they want to steal from their favorite artists. But simply because they love their music, and they're thinking maybe you will, too.