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Music tech predictions for 2009

Yes, Virginia, there will be a Zune phone. Sort of. As well as a $99 iPhone. And a touch-screen Walkman MP3 player from Sony.

As I said in my 2008 sum-up, people tend to overestimate the amount of change that will happen in one year--which means my best bet for 2009 would be to simply reiterate my almost-there predictions from 2008, like the death of DRM and the decline of the concert industry.

What does my 2009 crystal ball predict? Wikimedia Commons

But that would be boring. Thus, behold my all-new-and-improved predictions for music and technology in 2009:

Zune phone--sort of. 2009 will finally be the year that Microsoft takes the wraps off its mobile-entertainment strategy, and the Zune brand will be prominently featured. Perhaps as early as next week at CES, Microsoft will announce a version of the Zune Marketplace and accompanying client software for mobile phones--perhaps only Windows Mobile, but perhaps some other platforms as well. There's an outside chance that the company will also announce plans to build its own music phone, but not at CES, and only if the third-party approach fails to gain traction against the iPhone and RIM. I don't think the Zune-phone strategy will be tied to Windows Mobile 7, though, as I don't think that platform will come out until 2010.

$99 iPhone. Apple will introduce a 4GB iPhone that will sell for $99 with a two-year AT&T data contract. (Or, less likely, lower the 8GB price to $99 by mid-year.) With this new lower price, the iPhone will continue to gain market share at the expense of Symbian and Windows Mobile. Apple will also lower the price on the iPod Touch at the same time.

RIM will get music right. Research in Motion continues to do well against the iPhone juggernaut, although the Storm was widely considered a stumble. But so far, RIM has focused on its core strength--communications--and left music as something of an afterthought. This will change in 2009, as RIM upgrades its phones with more memory and a better media interface and signs deals with Rhapsody or other online music services. Or maybe RIM will just up and buy Rhapsody owner RealNetworks: according to Yahoo Finance, RIM's cash on hand ($1.68 billion) is greater than Real's market cap ($479 million) .

Sony will surprise. Not by lowering the price of the PS3 enough to start taking market share from Xbox 360--sorry, but that horse has left the barn--but by releasing a touch-screen Walkman-branded audio/video player at a competitive price point in the U.S. (Read: $1 less than the equivalent iPod Touch). Wi-Fi will be included, as will a link to a new online music and video store that's owned by Sony, but features songs and videos from other companies. (I agree with Donald Bell that a partnership with Amazon seems unlikely.) Reviewers will gush over it, and it'll help Sony recapture some of the old magic that's eluded the company. Music gadget of the year.

A big online music store will fail. It's never fun to predict failure, but the recession will claim at least one of today's major online music sellers--Napster, eMusic, or perhaps Rhapsody.

The Big Four will become the Big Three. Hard economic times lead to consolidation, and the music business was having trouble even before the latest downturn. Look for Guy Hands to unload EMI to Universal or Warner before the end of the year.

Ticket competition won't lower prices. Ticketmaster's contract with Live Nation ends on Jan. 1, meaning that there will be two national ticketing agencies handling sales for big arenas. But this competition won't lower prices--both agencies will still tack on service charges worth up to 20% of the list price. Why? Because big concerts still operate like a monopoly--your favorite stadium band is probably only coming to one place in your city this year, and whoever sells those tickets will have an exclusive.

Online-first releases will become the norm. Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, David Byrne and Brian Eno, Girl Talk, and a handful of other acts released albums in 2008 in online form well before they came out as a CD. By the end of 2009, at least one of the major labels will make it standard release practice, and dozens of releases from big-name artists will come out online first, perhaps even with a couple of free MP3 samples.

One major act will (temporarily) abandon albums. At least one major artist--maybe an aging legend with a strong touring base, less likely a hot pop or hip-hop act--will announce that they're no longer going to release full-length CDs. They'll go on to release at least a dozen singles--some exclusively online--with no intervening album. Their grosses will suck, though, and eventually they'll compile the singles into a good old-fashioned greatest-hits CD, sold for $20 at HMV and

The next hip music town will be in an unexpected country. It's been a few years since we've had a ton of hype about a local music scene--I'm thinking about the kind of mainstream media fascination that found San Francisco in the late '60s, New York and London in the early punk days, or Seattle in the grunge era of the early '90s, complete with chart-topping innovators, flash-in-the-pan imitators, and movies featuring beautiful but tragically addicted twenty-somethings in period settings. We're due for another, only this time it won't be in North America or Western Europe. Brazil, India, or Eastern Europe could all fit the bill--are you ready for the St. Petersburg version of Singles?