The continued deterioration of the CD as the music industry’s primary product means an ever increasing need to create new revenue streams. The digital world is not growing fast enough with paid downloads to make up for the slide in physical sales and other revenue streams have yet to prove they can maintain over any period of time beyond the initial excitement over them.
Recently, there was talk of utilizing the MicroSD card as a music distribution device. One of the thoughts behind that being it would help bridge music onto mobile devices easier, since OTA has yet to impact those devices and due to capacity issues side-loading direct to the device is still under-utilized. It is an interesting prospect, but the primary question remains, if the physical product of the CD is diminishing, will another physical product really going to replace it?
In order to answer that question with authority, it first means defining what exactly the product itself is, which means exploring several other potential questions that are yet to be answered:
What is the packaging for it? It needs to be anti-theft enough to discourage shoplifting. For such a potentially small product it is even more important than what retailers required for cassettes and CDs before MicroSD or what they have required for years in stocking video games. It needs to be merchandisable enough to attract consumer attention in the retail space. The tiny actual product will get lost in the plethora of other offerings already vying for retail space in the electronics sections. Finally, it needs to be big enough to not get lost once the user has it, but not so big that it feels cumbersome. There’s a fine line for a product like this to be serviceable for a consumer.
What is the audio format? Presumably, MP3, but with the diversity in the marketplace ranging from WAV, AIFF, AAC, MP4, FLAC, etc. it could follow any of the formats, some of which are not universally compatible. Speaking of compatibility, likewise is it DRM-free? Presumably, yes, but there are any number of digital rights packages that could be overlaid that might not be as inhibiting as current DRM restrictions on some downloads while still limiting copying and usage.
What is the sonic quality of the tracks themselves? The modern standard is 128kpbs for digital audio, a highly compressed format that was more designed for early space restrictions than true fidelity. Ideally 96/24 HD quality with multichannel capability (like what SACD and DVD-A offer) or at least 44/16 CD quality… but more likely than not it’ll come in at a high lossy 196, 256, or possibly 320kbps, at most in stereo only.
What else do you get? The product features should go beyond what digital downloads include (which, is nothing) because it is a physical product and should probably be a quantifiable step up from the current physical product features. Liner notes, and hi-res artwork at a minimum but ideally full lyric sheets, photographs, videos, ring tones, wall papers, social networking badges, games, widgets (a get tourdates desktop program would be nice for example), easter eggs to unlock additional content and perhaps even ideally links to purchase t-shirts, concert tickets, etc.
What is the distribution channel? Obvious choices are old favorites in the few remaining music retailers like Transworld Stores, but those are few and far between these days and the mom and pop indies are all but gone, mostly specializing in CD resale and limited edition product like vinyl. Big box retailers dominate the marketplace in the likes of Best Buy/Circuit City, Wallmart/Target, or even BarnesNoble/Boarders, but many of them are cutting down on the CDs footprint because of slowing consumer interest, and partner stores like Starbucks have all but eliminated that space. However, that’s the tip of the iceberg depending on the merchandise displays as places like drug stores, liquor stores, supermarkets could become part of the distro? How about in vending machines set up at bars, in the subway or in other places consumers might make impulse buys? Always a possibility, but one of the questions is will traditional retail outlets “allow” the industry these new channels or will Best Buy and Walmart flex their muscle to leverage the industry the way the music industry was strong armed by Apple in the digital model or by indie retailers in the transition from vinyl to CD?
What about playback? This is actually one of the things that hindered the USB Thumbdrive adoption previously and hurt offerings like DAT and the MiniDisc. Without an effective playback solution, widespread adoption will be difficult to achieve. Currently most of the cards are only useful for a handful of mobile devices and there hasn’t been a universal standard with them. To get the penetration of CDs or other physical formats before it, it needs to be integrated into far more devices from in-dash for automobiles to sideloading for computers to integrated into home stereo pieces and the playback application needs to exist with the device port so sticking it in launches immediate playback (rather than having to fumble through too many steps to start listening). A dedicated playback device isn’t necessary per se, but there need to be enough places to stick the card to make the idea of the card useful. If it only works in a handful of phones and a couple of other mobile products it won’t be worth the investment by a consumer. If the playback options become ubiquitous (like CD play back coming just about everywhere possible) than the cards take on life.
What is the cost? The pricetag has to come in lower than the CD. Consumers already see the physical product as being over-priced and with single tracks downloadable for 99c as an accepted standard, the pricing model will be important. If the industry goes with the traditional new technology pricing the format will not take off no matter what the offering includes. It needs to come in on a discount model to both encourage adoption and compete against both downloads of the paid and pirated variety and undercut the perception of CD.
So where does this leave the MiniSD card recording? More likely than not in a limbo waiting for a desperate electronics company to try and force the issue not as a way to save the music industry but as a way for the champion company to raise some incremental revenues for its technology.