iTunes to finally get some competition... but is it too little too late?

Let's face it, when it came to the real ramifications of digital music, Apple was about ten years ahead of everybody else, writes Dominic Dawes. Now it looks like the record companies have woken up to the possibility of making at least some money from digital downloads. But is it too little, too late for the music industry?

For months, there have been rumours of the major labels converting to a subscription model of music sales: by this method, the consumer would pay a set monthly fee in return for unlimited use of the company's music.

The flaw in this plan is obvious: nobody's music taste is confined to the output from just one major label. So how do we get access to all the music we want, without paying upwards of three separate monthly subscriptions?

Of course, the answer would be for the various companies – Universal, Sony BMG and Warners specifically – to cooperate. Unfortunately, the music business is subject to the same short-sighted tomfooleries as the consumer electronics industry (high definition format war, anyone?). Or to put it another way, say 'cooperate' to these guys and they'll look at you as if you've just handed them a stoat.

Perhaps it was always going to take some other big player to bang their little heads together, and it looks like social networking site MySpace is about to do just that. Rumours are rife that there'll be an announcement in the next week, launching the 'MySpace music store', where people will be able to legitimately access music from the complete range of big music companies.

None of the main players are talking publicly about this right now, but it seems the prospect of the 15 million unique visitors to the MySpace Music sub-site alone might be enough to get the majors singing from the same beer-stained lyric sheet. An insider says, 'Everybody's operating with a sense of urgency to try to close it out'.

It seems the new service will include a number of ways of accessing music, including pay-per-download song sales, ad-sponsored video streaming and more.

One thing is clear: the music companies are desperate to compete with iTunes. As things stand, Apple is the second-largest music retailer in the US, with 4 billion songs sold since its launch five years ago. The question is, why have the record companies been on the back foot for so long? And did it really need MySpace to come along and tell them to play nicely or they'll all be going to bed without any dinner?

It seems to me that if the music industry had accepted digital music as a fact and worked hard on innovating and developing new approaches to doing business, they wouldn't be in the rather sorry state they now are. Even now, the music biz – other than a few artists like Radiohead, etc – seems almost devoid of original and imaginative thinking.

Maybe the MySpace plan is one answer. But maybe, just maybe, the music industry still needs to pull its finger out and start embracing the digital age – and creatively finding ways to make money from it.

If they can't do that, what will happen? In the end they'll simply be replaced by people who can.

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