Hands-on SlotMusic: How not to introduce a new music format

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Review – Sandisk has been capturing headlines with a new music format called SlotMusic, pitched as a microSD card-based replacement for audio CDs. I have been patiently waiting for the first SlotMusic and today found it at a local BestBuy. I had no reason to believe that it would not work just like any other digital music, but I was wondering how far the “No DRM” promise goes. Read my first impressions here.



I don’t think that many music executives are sleeping well these days. CD sales are declining, iTunes has taken over the lead in U.S. music sales and threatens to make music publishers irrelevant as soon as Steve Jobs & Co. decide to begin publishing music in an effort to improve profit margins. We are seeing the music industry battling this trend with support for its own and other music distribution sites to create more balance in the download market and we are seeing a potential replacement for the CD. For those who just don’t like iTunes and rather stick with physical media, there is now SlotMusic – music that comes pre-loaded on a 1 GB microSD flash card.

It is not the most convenient way to transition to a new format, if you consider the fact that you will accumulate lots of flash cards that are only 10% filled with content. But, if you, like me, just don’t feel a 99-cent single-song or $9.99 album MP3 download is overpriced and does not make whole lot of sense when compared to a physical CD (which may not cost much more and come with the CD, a booklet and allows you to rip songs for playback on any MP3 player), SlotMusic is certainly an interesting proposition. Let’s look.

Buying (finding) SlotMusic    

Over the past few days I have been visiting by at my local Best Buy and Wal-Mart to get my hands on the first SlotMusic. There was no information in MP3 player, flash card and CD music sections of those stores. Sales people were not a lot of help since they were generally unaware of this new format and tried selling me a Sansa MP3 player with preloaded music.

However, I finally came across a Best Buy employee who actually had heard about SlotMusic - “Is this that strange flash music? – and told me that there were a few flash cards available. Surprisingly, there is no advertising or promotion for the format, not even a special section in the music department. SlotMusic cards are simply placed in the CD slots in regular CD shelves. The packaging has the exact same footprint as a CD, it weighs about as much as a CD jewel case and it looks like a CD case at first sight.

If you do not know that SlotMusic is hiding in those aisles and if you are not specifically looking for that white border on the left side and the bottom of the packaging, I am sure you won’t even notice it. On the other side, if you are looking for a regular CD, you might pick up SlotMusic by accident. The Best Buy cashier as well as three people I asked about the packaging were absolutely convinced - at first sight - that this was a CD and not something else.

Best Buy currently carries three different SlotMusic titles. Each sells for $14.99, which is $1 more than the respective CD.

Playback

Each SlotMusic package comes with a microSD card and a USB adapter, which enables users to play the music in cellphones and on PCs – and other devices that have a USB port. The package also includes a booklet taken from the CD version as well as a small cover art plastic case for the microSD card. There is no magic when playing the music – the USB adapter was instantly recognized and the music was instantly available on my PC and my Blackberry Pearl phone. Depending on the music player you use, you can attach the USB device for instant recognition and playback in that software as well.

Using these cards, potentially more than one, with a cellphone could be rather inconvenient. At least in my case, switching the microSD card means removing the back cover and the battery to insert the card. The Blackberry Pearl is not especially known for its fast boot times: If you switch your music card, you will have to simply deal with rebooting the phone.    

The good news is that the Leona Lewis MP3 alsbum (256 Kb/s) took up only 96.2 MB and the booklet just 1.1 MB. 870 MB of the 1 GB raw capacity were still available, which you could use for other data – such as about 120 more songs in 256 kb/s quality. That would give you more than 500 minutes or more than six hours of playback time, which should be enough for most national travel occasions.

So, what about DRM?

I have to say that I was a bit skeptic when I heard that there was no DRM included in SlotMusic media. And as far as usage restrictions are concerned, I can now confirm that there is zero, nada, zilch DRM. You can copy the music to any PC, as often as you want, you can burn it to a CD or move it to your MP3 player. This is exactly how it should be.

At least in the case of Leona Lewis’ Spirit album I was even surprised that the ID3 information contained in the MP3 files was not complete. The publisher and copyright fields are empty. However, there is a tiny readme file containing the copyright information for the entire album.    

Conclusion

There is really only one common sense way to sell music on flash cards and SlotMusic is it. The format itself looks like a serious effort to counter declining CD sales with a more modern format. If you value physical media over pure downloads, if you value the included booklet and if you have use for the microSD memory cards, SlotMusic is an interesting alternative. If you think about it, the combined value of physical products and content you purchase for $14.99 is actually impressive.

There are some handling issues. I would suspect most buyers to just keep the flash card and its plastic case, but throw the other packaging away. Which leaves the question where you should store the regular booklet. Keeping the entire package and dealing with the cardboard top and the plastic inside is a bit inconvenient for my taste. Sandisk should reconsider the whole packaging.  

That leads over to my biggest complaint: The packaging is virtually invisible when placed between regular CDs. You can’t just expect people to start buying a format that may or may not be in the spot where you normally would be looking for a CD. What exactly is the problem with creating dedicated space for this format? It almost seems as if Best Buy has no interest in selling SlotMusic.

The way how SlotMusic is launched into retail is a clear example how to set up a product for failure. Sandisk, music publishers and retail stores have to figure out a way how to distinguish this format from a traditional CD. Otherwise, SlotMusic will disappear as quickly as it came.