It’s no secret that, on the scale of deserving its continued existence, I rank Sony BMG somewhere between mosquitoes and Crystal Pepsi. But as the record labels are only slowly getting the message that in the world of internet-enabled, producer-to-consumer direct relations they are no longer strictly necessarily, we are going to have to put up with their death throes for a while longer.

This week Sony’s increasingly random flailings in the digital music realm have snagged it a partnership with Nokia, wherein users of Nokia phones will receive free music for a whole year on, presumably, someone’s dime other than their own. (Though I’d be not at all shocked to see Nokia up its prices to cover the cost — a Sony BMG tax, if you will.)

If I were feeling particularly mean, I’d suggest that this is actually an attempt by Sony to offload some “excess inventory” — really, is anyone still buying Britney Spears at this point? The Dixie Chicks? Ricky Martin? But as fate would have it, I’m only feeling slightly mean — mean enough to revisit Sony’s storied history of failure in the realm of digital music.

Sony was once the king of personal music devices. Its Walkman cassette players dominated the industry for roughly twenty years — an unthinkable run for a consumer electronics product these days. And the Discman CD players that followed did just fine too. But Sony was utterly unprepared for the digital music revolution. Sony took two years after the iPod’s debut to intro its Network Walkman digital music player — and then made the fatal decision of ditching MP3 support in order to emphasize its own ATRAC music format.

Today, the iPod defines portable digital music. Sony’s efforts barely constitute a footnote.

Of course, the devices are just one part of the equation. You also need a music distribution mechanism, and Apple’s is iTunes. Sony tried to fill this gap for its own players with the Sony Connect music store — an endeavor so successful that in five days from this posting Sony is shuttering it completely.

Sony seems to have finally decided that the best it can do is to give its music away. But don’t think for a second that the Masters of Rootkit have seen the light about giving consumers control over their music. (If you were thinking that, allow me a chortle at your expense.) This “free” music being provided to Nokia’s customers will be DRMed out the wazoo: “The ‘Comes with music’ library will be transferable to PCs and to a new Nokia handheld; however, users won’t be able to transfer it to certain non-compatible devices, such as iPods.” There’s one way to enforce those kinds of limitations, and it’s not through the honor system.

What’s really insidiously ingenious about this plan is that casual use of the singular: “a new Nokia handheld.” Not, notably, new Nokia handhelds you might purchase in the future. So what happens after you’ve spent a year downloading your “free” Sony BMG songs and decide you’d like a spiffy new Nokia device? Does the “Comes with music” library come with you? Nobody’s saying… and silence in the realm of DRM restrictions is almost never a good thing.

On the surface, Sony BMG and Nokia are promising a lot of free music — and who can say no to that? But “never a free lunch” is a cliché for good reason. Sony intends to get its payday here somehow, and they’ve already proven they really don’t care what they have to do to get it.

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April 25, 2008