Ubuntu One Music Store: Tops or Flop?


Music seems to be a viable income stream also under Linux. After Amarok and Rhythmbox have earned at least a few hundred bucks with Magnatune, Ubuntu is now breaking into the market as well.

The next LTS version of Ubuntu10.04, alias Lucid Lynx, will include a commercial music shop named Ubuntu One Music Store that will initially be integrated in GNOME's Rhythmbox, but later possibly also in other music players. The Ubuntu One Music Store is currently in a closed test phase, although daily Lucid builds seem to indicate that the store might be viable soon.

In the beginning there was Magnatune

Commercial music providers are nothing new in the context of free software. The Amarok KDE player has been connected for many years with the Magnatune music service, with separate titles and whole albums purchasable directly in Amarok. Rhythmbox has also recently embedded Magnatune, with ensuing sales prompting Magnatune to send the GNOME Foundation a check for $614, according to a blog from Magnatune founder John Buckman the beginning of March.

One delicate matter: because Ubuntu modified the generic Rythmbox referrer string to an Ubuntu string, Canonical is owed just over $100 from Rhythmbox sales. Buckman wants to wait for Ubuntu's response whether they want to keep the money for themselves or pass it on to GNOME. Figures for Amarok are available for 2008 only. During that year, Buckman had sent the Amarok project a check for $1,156, which is 10% of the Magnatune sales.

Magnatune revenue has since fallen off somewhat, because they no longer want to be burdened with credit card costs and are requiring buyers to purchase coupon codes in the Magnatune store to redeem at the Amarok frontend. (Rhythmbox sales are currently not available under this arrangement.)

Ubuntu One Music Store: U1MS

Canonical is now stepping into the business with its own music shop. Because Canonical doesn't offer any music itself, it had to find an external provider. The choice went to 7digital, because it had the best offerings among providers without DRM. Among those who benefit in the near term are users in the U.S., Britain and Germany, who can select from the four major labels 7digital provides.

The rest of Europe has to be satisfied with the two major labels, while Ubuntu users outside the EU and U.S. can only grab subsets of the independent labels -- an offering comparable to that of Magnatune. Canonical wants to evaluate the offerings after launch of the shop in April for possible further expansion.

Up in the clouds

Note that the new shop is not called "7digital Music Store" or just Ubuntu Music Store, but Ubuntu One Music Store. Thus Canonical is implementing the cloud in its context. The DRM-free songs in MP3 format with a bitrate of at least 256 kbits/second are not loaded on the local machine, but in the Ubuntu One cloud. From there the Ubuntu One service copies it to .local/share/ubuntuone.

Music thus appears on all computers that have Ubuntu One accounts, but it does exclude users who don't want Ubuntu One cloud access, either because they're skeptical of online storage or don't have access because they're not Ubuntu users.

Not being Ubuntu users is after all not such a trivial problem, since Canonical is promising embedded service to follow for "Banshee, Amarok, and a few other applications" beyond Rythmbox. That leaves browser access over the Canonical cloud the only way for users, so long as no applicable clients are available for other distros.

How much?

Here things circle back to the Magnatune shop again. According to the Magnatune sales figures from Buckman, only about one in six Rythmbox sales go to Ubuntu users. The $614 paid to the GNOME Foundation is thus spread out over almost four year (since the inception of the Magnatune plugin). Not really a very large number.

While Magnatune is paying Amarok and Rythmbox 10% of its revenue, the margins at 7digital are more in the single figures. 7digital offers albums only in MP3 format (partly even as WMA), while Magnatune also provides FLAC and OGG Vorbis format options.

If Canonical truly wants to earn money from its Ubuntu One Music Store, it needs to have a broad user base and a very popular set of offerings. Curious to see when the GNOME project will get the next check from John Buckman.

( Marcel Hilzinger)

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