Space aliens vs. music industry in an insider's comic novel
Rob Reid started Listen.com at the dawn of the digital-music era. His Rhapsody streaming service is still around, and so are his sense humor and geeky love of elaborate playlists.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Rob Reid insists his new book isn't payback for the years he spent navigating the absurd world of music copyright law.
You've got to wonder, though.
Reid's zany new novel, "Year Zero," follows a lawyer representing aliens who fall in love with Earth's pop music and try to license it, but they end up in an intergalactic royalty fiasco.
Reid is also gaga for music, but he has had slightly better luck.
After attending Stanford and Harvard Business School, he worked as a Bain consultant — meeting Mitt Romney once — and then became a venture capitalist.
In 1998 he started Listen.com, a pioneering San Francisco digital-music company that launched the Rhapsody streaming music service in 2001.
That was the dawn of the digital-music era, the year the iPod appeared, and eons before Netflix popularized the concept of paying monthly fees to access a huge, online media library.
Rhapsody was a hit among music enthusiasts, and Reid sold the company to Seattle-based RealNetworks for about $36 million in 2003. He stayed a few years at Real, which spun out Rhapsody into a separate company in 2010.
Rhapsody still has more than 1 million subscribers and 200 employees. But lately it's been eclipsed by newer services Spotify and Pandora.
Reid's stint in the music-industry circus provided plenty of fodder for a comic novel.
Yet during a recent visit to Seattle he said "Year Zero" began as a lark. He and his wife, Morgan Webb, host of a cable TV show on video games, ran out of books on a vacation, so he began writing a story to entertain her.
Reid, 46, also talked about the fate of Rhapsody, his listening habits and emerging from the music wars with his sense of humor intact. Here are edited excerpts of our chat:
Q: Did you consider self-publishing on a new digital platform?
A: I thought very seriously about it. In fact, I was convinced that I would probably have to self-publish because the topic of the book was so patently bizarre — you know, aliens who fall afoul of American copyright law.
Q: How do you feel about the way Rhapsody's gone since the sale? Lately it's been overshadowed by Spotify.
A: Rhapsody would not be what it is — as a force in online music, the force that it has been over the last several years — without Real. We were teeny, and they made us pretty damn big. ...
The downside is that I feel that the product has moved forward very slowly, and as a result Spotify was in fact, from a user-experience standpoint, able to leapfrog the product.
Q: Rhapsody was far ahead on this, maybe too far. After Netflix popularized the model, Spotify pounced.
A: Full credit to them. I look back and say VisiCalc was an incredibly important company; they invented the spreadsheet. Then Lotus profited from it and Excel ended up dominating it. I think all three of those products are incredibly important to the history of computing.
I believe vehemently that Rhapsody pioneered this model of all-you-can-eat streaming — earlier than the market was ready for it. And if it ends up being Spotify, that is the Lotus and somebody else is the Excel, I'll still be a proud daddy for the rest of my life.
Q: Do you keep up with Rhapsody and its president, Jon Irwin?
A: Yes, I think he's terrific. I think Spotify has engineered fabulous access to capital for themselves. If Jon had access to that kind of capital, he'd be able to do great things with it.
Q: One of your big advances was finding creative ways to work with digital-rights management and getting music labels on board with the new model.
A: And also creating an experience that piracy can't match; that's the challenge that all media-rights holders face in film and music and publishing: So long as we can create [superior] media/access/consumption pricing models ... we're going to win against piracy. Piracy does not, cannot, will not provide a Rhapsody-, Spotify-like experience. It's always going to be this download, a la carte, pain-in-the-butt mode.
Q: So your work with copyrights and music labels informed what you wrote?
A: It did. What really came in was just the crazy relationship between the media interests, the technology industry and Washington (D.C.). That to me was a huge education.
In some ways it was very depressing, in other ways it was kind of exhilarating, but it was always very funny. That was something I had great delight bringing into the book and lampooning to some extent.
Q: Are you getting things off your chest with the book?
A: There's one extremely long-winded footnote in there that was just very cathartic for me. It was more, "I've got all kinds of fun stuff that I can bring here. I know how important the Judiciary Committee is, I know how this sort of lobbying operates, I know how senators can be manipulated if they happen to think they're rock stars."
All of that is almost as amusing and silly and hard to believe as my music-addled aliens.
Q: Are you a Spotify and Pandora user?
A: I use Spotify and Rhapsody. I never have used Pandora very much because I like to choose what I'm going to listen to. I always have 20 albums I want to listen to this month and get acquainted with. I'm very methodical about that.
Q: Do you listen on the phone or your iPad?
A: When I'm mobile, I'm more inclined toward spoken word. I listen to music when I'm in a fixed environment, generally my desk.
I identify 15 or 20 albums I'm interested in. I read a lot of music blogs and so forth. I make a master playlist on both Rhapsody and Spotify. They have their various advantages.
I like the metadata better on Rhapsody, I like the fact I can give it five stars, I like the fact that it's Rhapsody, damn it! Spotify has a broader catalog.
I listen to my master playlists ravenously. At some point I've distilled it down to four albums I really connect with and 30 or 40 tracks from the other albums.
Then I end up buying those through Amazon or a CD or iTunes to support the art and because I can create playlists with completely insane metadata.
Q: Were you a music geek before starting Listen.com?
A: Oh yeah, all the way through. I wasn't a college DJ — that's kind of a certain high attainment of music geekery — but I was one level below it.
Q: Would the book be useful as a business guide? Is there enough legitimate stuff about copyright in there?
A: Yeah, it's kind of like sneaking the spinach into the brownies. My depiction of the copyright regime and how that public policy is made and the interests of the players that are at the table and how that public policy can be manipulated is very consistent with my own view of reality.
Q: But entertainment was a higher priority?
A: I certainly did my best to not make this a sermonizing screed. One thing that helps is, at this moment, the music industry is at an unbelievably exciting inflection point. Perhaps my optimism about where music is going — or online music is going, despite the fact the rights situation is completely screwed up — gives me some optimism and buoyancy I was able to bring into the book.
Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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