Last week, Google.cn launched its online music downloading service in partnership with some of the world’s major record labels. The reasons for doing so were twofold. For Google, it was an attempt to take users from competitor Baidu, which has a similar service in partnership with EMI (and also a large catalog of pirated music). For the record companies, it was an attempt to stop piracy in a country where 99% of the music downloaded online is pirated.
I tried Google.cn’s service out last night and I can say this: The music is CD-quality, there’s a good selection of mainstream and independent artists, and the downloading is quick. There’s also no chance of malware or viruses from bad files. The downside is some full albums are not available, particularly of newer artists – you can only download portions of them. The most I got was 10 tracks off a 12-track album.
Maybe some record labels were thinking, “Hey, let’s give them a taste and they’ll buy the CD.” But chances are that if a user can’t find the full album through Google.cn, he or she is going to head to Baidu, a BitTorrent search or down to the local pirated CD shop. People are not going to go out and spend RMB30 to RMB50 on a new CD when there are cheaper options around.
The main benefit I see is for independent record labels, such as Beijing indie rock labels Modern Sky and Maybe Mars. Their market shares in China are small enough that they have yet to face pirating on a large scale. Getting a taste of their music might drive people to go see their artists’ shows (tickets are usually around RMB30). For major labels, however, I don’t think they’ll find the revenue generator – beyond Google.cn’s advertising model – they’ve been looking for.