I was quite an enthusiastic user of the now-defunct music streaming and download site mFlow. I’ve been beta-testing it’s successor, bloom.fm which is looking as though it’s going to be a very different beast.
I’d previously described mFlow as a cross between iTunes, Spotify and Twitter; it had something of a community aspect in the way you could “flow” tracks which other members could listen to, with a short but sweet Twitter-style commentary against each track.
Unfortunately the Achilles Heel of the site was that paid downloads were the only revenue stream, and too many downloads were seriously overpriced. While I was prepared, for example, to download a Dimmu Borgir album for £4.99 which cost three times that much in HMV, I can’t imagine anyone being willing to pay £19.99 for something like Mostly Autumn’s “Still Beautiful“. No matter how excellent the music is, it’s a fiver more than the band charged for the CD! The streaming and social side was great fun, but that side of things wasn’t earning money, it was just a loss-leader for download sales. And it does appear that they weren’t selling enough downloads for the site to be viable.
The successor seems to be designed as more a competitor for Spotify and Last.fm, with various subscription levels, although they’ve yet to reveal the pricing structure. It’s currently in Beta as iOS and Android apps, although a web-based version is coming. It will be interesting to see how it develops. At the moment the focus is on genre-specific radio stations (I’ve had the Prog channel running on my phone all day while I’ve been working), but playlists and some community features are coming. Follow BloomFM on Twitter to keep up with them.
Music streaming and downloading site mFlow has been having a January sale. For a few days, they reduced the price of all downloads to 20p a song, or 20p x the number of songs for the whole album. It’s resulted in something of a feeding frenzy; I think I bought ten albums altogether; and judging by the steady stream of credit notification emails I’ve been getting, many others have been doing the same thing. 20p for a song or two or three quid for an album is well within impulse-buying territory in a way a £7.99 album is not.
My purchases included a couple of lesser back-catalogue albums I’ve only got on vinyl from Rainbow and Blue Öyster Cult, a few albums I’d passed on when they came out, such as a couple of recent Marillion live albums, and “After” by Scandinavian metal artist Ihsahn, which I decided to check out since it had appeared in several people’s end-of-year lists. I flowed on track from that with the words “This album is so awesome I feel guilty for paying only £1.60 for it”, and promptly got three 20% commissions for further sales!
Since I’ve seen both The Reasoning and Mostly Autumn coming up in my credit notification emails, I do wonder how artists feel about their work being sold for such low prices – I do remember one RPG writer I won’t name being not at all impressed to find one of his works in the remaindered bin at Stabcon a few years back. But surely any revenue is better than none, and gets there music heard by people who might not otherwise have listened. From such beginnings, fandom can start, if the music is awesome enough.
It does make we wonder what the rational price for MP3 downloads ought to be nowadays. This year I’ve paid everything from that £1.60 for the download of the Ihsahn album, to well over double the price of a regular CD for the pre-order special edition of “Go Well Diamond Heart” by Mostly Autumn, and I really can’t say that either was not a “fair” price. In one case I was taking a gamble on a completely unheard-of band, with only Dom Lawson’s word for whether it was any good, and the other was a fan pre-order for an album which would not have been possible to record otherwise.
Time will tell what sort of pricing strategy labels and artists will take in the future. It may well be that with universal “always on” internet connections we’ll all move towards streaming anyway. But I think the days of pricing album downloads so as not to undermine CD sales are almost certainly numbered.
What does anyone else think?
I’ve been using mFlow for several months now (you can see my profile here). I’ve described it as “the bastard offspring of Spotify, iTunes and Twitter. It combines Twitter-style social networking, online music streaming and mp3 sales. It’s actually great fun, and has exposed me to a number of artists whose music I’d never have heard otherwise.
The way it works is people “flow” tunes to their followers, who can then listen to the complete song. Following works like it does on Twitter – it’s completely asymmetric, in that there’s no obligation to follow someone back if they choose to follow you. Follow friends, or follow random people who have great taste in music, it’s up to you. If you really like a song, you can reflow it to your own followers, or purchase it as a DRM-free mp3 download, And when someone buys a track, whoever flowed it gets a 20% commission on the sale.
It has two big drawbacks at the moment. Firstly, their catalogue is nothing like as comprehensive as I’d like it to be – while they have three of the four majors and many of the larger indies on board, it gets very spotty once you get down to smaller labels and independent artists. There is practically nothing from female-fronted prog scene I follow; currently there’s a single song by The Reasoning taken from a compilation, and one cover by Magenta, and that’s it. Not even Fish’s post-EMI releases are there. These are precisely the sort of artists I’d love to be able to use mFlow to spread the word about.
Secondly, it’s currently UK only, and my online friends network isn’t constrained by geographical boundaries; I’ve got online friends in America and continental Europe who share my tastes in music, and can’t use mFlow yet.
Now iTunes have introduced something called “Ping” which seems to do much of the same thing, there are fears that it could damage mFlow. iTunes is the 800lb gorilla in the downloading market, keen to lock everyone in their closed proprietary ecosystem, and are quite likely to stomp on a startup who’s established a niche that they want for themselves. Let’s hope mFlow survives.