Absolution for Pirates

Unless they were especially attentive, surfers who visited Israel's first legal Web site for music downloading, where they could pay for Israeli songs and albums downloaded to pcs, were not necessarily aware that they were on NMC Music's Web site.

Unless they were especially attentive, surfers who visited Israel's first legal Web site for music downloading, where they could pay for Israeli songs and albums downloaded to pcs, were not necessarily aware that they were on NMC Music's Web site.

The homepage of the site, launched yesterday under the generic-sounding name songs.co.il, offers dozens of singers and bands, and browsers can click their way to the artist's "personal page," where they can buy songs (at NIS 4 each) or entire albums (NIS 35 per album, more for double albums).

"The address is ostensibly the artist himself - not the record company," says a smiling Ze'ev Schlick, general manager of NMC Music. The past few years, during which the term "record company" has become a practical synonym for both anachronism and avarice, have evidently taught NMC a lesson or two in public relations.

"The mistake of the record companies in the past few years was that they were too busy trying to protect themselves, instead of steering the correct course, talking to their audience to see how to create the conditions that would make it want to download music legally," says Schlick.

One thing Web surfers will most certainly notice, which may seem trivial once you know it is a single company's Web site and not an initiative patched together by several record companies, is that only a small portion of Israeli musical artists appear on the site. Currently, the site features several hundred songs, by dozens of artists - a very small percentage of the overall Israeli musical output. In contrast to iTunes - Apple Computer's music-download service - from which you can download for a dollar any song from an immense selection of artists who have contracts with the five largest record companies in America songs.co.il is the enterprise of a single record company.

Schlick explains that while the local branches of some of the large record companies that dominate local markets around the world are forced to compete in the local arena in accordance with a global strategy, in Israel the local content is owned by a few private record companies. This situation gives them much broader maneuverability, and the ability to devise original management strategies. According to Schlick, no contacts have yet been made between the largest record companies in Israel (NMC, Helikon and Hed Arzi) over the establishment of a collective legal music download service.

The upshot is that, on the one hand, NMC is privileged to be the Israeli pioneer in retail music sales via Internet, but on the other hand, was compelled to invest alone in setting up the service instead of sharing the expense among the other companies. Schlick refuses to disclose the amount invested by NMC in the enterprise, or the number of employees that will operate the site once it is up and running, but is willing to say that the enterprise "was difficult to build but will be easy to operate."

"We hope and expect," he says, "that commercial bodies that come into contact with the Internet audience, like MSN or other multinational companies, will enter the sector, and will push it. These are organizations that can provide the audience with solutions at the level of a store that stocks every possible product. Our relationship with the other record companies is restricted, due to the antitrust commissioner."

Surfing the site and buying songs or albums - as far as could be ascertained the day before its official inauguration - seemed quite user-friendly. Clicking on the name of an artist is supposed to lead the site visitor to a page with a brief bio of the artist and small photos of his or her album covers.

Clicking on an album cover generates a list of the songs on the album, and clicking on a small icon alongside each song title plays its first 30 seconds, enabling the would-be buyer to get an impression of the merchandise prior to purchase.

If the visitor decides that he (or she) wants to buy one or more songs, he adds them to his virtual shopping basket, and then, at the end of the shopping trip, is required to enter the particulars of his credit card. As of now, the consumer needs a credit card to buy music from the site. Schlick realizes that this presents a problem of sorts, but is trying to view the limitation as an advantage: "We are aware of the fact that our requirement to pay with a credit card may be problematic for young people, who will need their parents' help, but for us, it gives parents an opportunity to explain to young people the significance of legally downloading music, because the war on illegal downloads of music will continue, at the same time as we continue to develop this service."

Somewhat surprising is the fact that the file the buyer eventually downloads to his computer is an unprotected MP3 file - the same type of file that led to the record industry's sharp decline in revenue, and its current need to reinvent itself in order to battle the phenomenon. Schlick says that since "our product is music," the idea is to enable as many people as possible to consume it. "MP3 is the best format now available."

In the future, Schlick promises, the site will have added features, options and new methods of payment. Through its platform, NMC also intends to sell musical content that has not necessarily come out on discs.

Songs.co.il will also enable surfers who have purchased an entire album to download its jacket cover, so they can burn their own personal discs. It will also offer "new media content" such as icons and musical jingles for cell phones.

Schlick says it was decided not to wait for all of the desired content to be ready and only then launch the site, because "the audience and the music are already there." It may be assumed, however, that the news of MSN Israel's imminent plans to launch its own site for legally downloading music was a factor in the NMC decision-making process.

NMC refuses to provide quantitative data about the losses it suffered in recent years as a result of the sharing of files and pirate downloads, and also declines to say what volume of downloads from its new site would constitute success.

"We expect that there will be a gradual increase in the purchase of music on the site, and are hoping in the first year to reach downloads of hundreds of thousands of albums, and to generate a frenzy of legal downloads," says a hopeful Schlick. "It is our ambition to transform the experience of legal downloading into a fun and rewarding experience."

In a country in which, according to data of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), about 60 percent of the music in people's possession has been pirated, it is still too early to guess if Israeli Internet users will agree to pull out their wallets and start paying for a product that over the past few years they have grown accustomed to receiving for free. Real success of the legal music download services would apparently occur if in addition to the new availability of legal downloads, there would be simultaneous aggressive enforcement efforts, which, as of now, are nowhere to be found on the horizon.