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The five biggest digital audio duds of 2009

From the questionably useful to the questionably legal to the just plain dumb.

Yesterday, I compiled my list of the five most welcome products for digital audio that came out in 2009. Today, I'm following it up with my list of the year's five biggest digital audio duds.

An image from the infamous online commercial for Songsmith, Microsoft's reverse-karaoke software. Microsoft

Zookz. The breathless pitch got me interested: a mysterious online service was getting ready to compete against subscription-based download service eMusic. But where eMusic limits users to a set number of downloads, this mystery service would offer unlimited music and movie downloads. How could this be? Wouldn't users just download all the material they wanted then cancel their subscriptions? How could content owners let this happen?

The trick: Zookz was based in Antigua, and according to the company, this meant it wasn't subject to those silly little things known as U.S. copyright laws and royalty rates. Unfortunately, the country of Antigua didn't agree, and days after the public beta launched, Zookz disappeared into the digital ether with a promise to refund subscribers' money.

Jango Artist Airplay. I liked Jango's online radio service back when it launched in 2007. This year, in what looked like a desperate bid for new revenue, the company launched a service called Artist Airplay, in which bands could pay for placement on appropriate Jango stations. While Jango's CEO tried to tell me this was a reasonable new marketing opportunity, I saw it as a new form of the old pay-for-play deal that beginning bands often fall for.

With regular marketing, everybody pays more or less the same amount for the same class of services and the music sinks or swims on its own merits. With pay-for-play, artists buy exposure. There's only one problem: the resulting conflict of interest drives discerning listeners--including people who might actually pay you for your music--away. Jango Artist Direct may not be as stark as those pay-to-play "showcases" and "band battles" where all the audience members are other bands and their friends, but I believe it's better for beginning artists never to start down this slippery slope. Then again, I thought users would never be ignorant enough to click on search advertisements in massive numbers, which is one reason why Sergey Brin and Larry Page are multibillionaires and I'm not.

Vevo. As long as we're talking about Google, let's talk about YouTube, which the search company owns. It's a great source for music videos, and its APIs have formed the basis for music-finding apps like Muziic and TubeRadio. Users love it. Unfortunately, the companies and artists who own the copyrights to many of those music videos don't love it--the videos are expensive to produce, and the ad revenues from YouTube and other online video sites are scanty to nonexistent. Google is also lukewarm about music videos on YouTube, finding that the cost of policing copyright and complying with take-down notices is more than the money they can earn from selling ads.

In December, two record companies--Sony and Universal--joined together with Google in a new joint venture, Vevo, to address the problem. This was supposed to be a back-end business-to-business kind of deal, where YouTube users wouldn't know (or care) that certain videos were actually being provided exclusively by Vevo, which would sell short video advertisements to run before them. Unfortunately, the glittery launch party drew undue attention to Vevo's own site, causing its servers to buckle under the load. The entire episode left music fans scratching their heads.

Songsmith. The idea wasn't all that bad. Karaoke is fun. Making music on computers is fun. So why not, reasoned some Microsoft researchers, create a program that fills in audio accompaniment as users sing. Unfortunately, the $29.95 price and unbelievably mockable promotional video turned Songsmith into an Internet laughingstock. Later videos featuring Songsmith's accompaniment to the vocal tracks of songs like Queen's "We Will Rock You" and Van Halen's "Running With the Devil" highlighted the silliness.

CMX. In August, reports broke that the four major record labels were considering a new type of "digital album" format that would include album art, lyrics, and extra content. There was just one problem: Apple was already building its own competing format, code-named Cocktail and eventually released as iTunes LP. I think the entire concept of a digital album is weird anyway: I'm not convinced that lack of album art is a big reason why users are buying singles instead of albums. (The real reason is the Chumbawamba factor, or the fact that a lot of albums contain only one or two good songs.) And iTunes LP doesn't exactly seem to be taking off, although some of the extras--outtakes and videos--are actually quite valuable. But creating a competing format that wouldn't be supported by Apple? That's just plain dumb. To be fair, we haven't heard anything about CMX since iTunes LP launched. Here's hoping this product is killed before it's ever born.