Higher Education and Online Music Post-Ruckus

On Friday, Feburary 6 – just over a week ago – Ruckus shut down its online music service. Napster got out of the college campus business last summer and Cdigix threw in the towel about two years ago. Unless I mistaken, this means that there are no major online entertainment services that specifically cater to colleges and universities. Let’s think about what this means for American higher education.

First, let’s examine exactly what happened with Ruckus. The service was ostensibly shut down without warning but those who were observant saw some signs of potential trouble many months ago. When I briefly posted about Napster’s decision to shelve their “Napster on Campus” program last year, I also wrote:

In mid July, one of my colleagues at another institution posted to a public listserv that Ruckus has new sponsors and is changing direction.  In particular, they no longer have a sales or marketing department which means no more posters or advertising materials sent to participating institutions.

So the claims that this happened completely unexpectedly aren’t quite accurate.  However, participating institutions and students were not given any warning (unlike when Cdigix ceased operations) that the service was going belly up last Friday so the claim isn’t completely off-base.  And the ominous warning signs of last year are certainly cold comfort to students whose music service has suddenly ceased to be and the administrators dealing with this unexpected loss of a service.

It may be of some comfort, however, to know that music with an unexpired licenses (it’s all DRM-protected) should work until the license expires. Ruckus pulled the plug on the authentication servers, similar to what Microsoft and Yahoo! were planning to do last year when they decided to shut down their music stores. Microsoft and Yahoo!, however, relented in the face of intense public pressure and didn’t follow through with their plans to cut off their customers.  I would be very surprised if there were a similar outcry about Ruckus given that Ruckus did not “sell” the music to students and no money actually changed hands.  But this is another example of why some people strongly oppose DRM and its complications. (If you can’t tell, I am very sympathetic to their arguments; I’ve spent a lot of money on mp3s from Amazon and CDs from CDBaby because I value the transportability and compatibility of those formats.)

Second, let’s examine why this happened. According to interviews with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ruckus shut down simply because it wasn’t making enough money. Fair enough.  That’s why Cdigix and Napster both pulled out of this market. It’s not just services in this particular market that are finding it difficult to compete: TotalMusic, a service created by two of the major music publishers, appears to be having trouble just getting out of the gates. Even satellite radio service Sirius is struggling as they totter on the edge of bankruptcy.

Competing with other services in this crowded market is tough, even if one ignores the unlawful services and means for obtaining music. As mentioned above, I’m a big fan of Amazon’s mp3 service and I’m sure that I’m not alone. Pandora is amazing, legal, and free (and quite popular among my friends and coworkers). MySpace is downright venerable and still a great way to discover and listen to music. There are thousands of other services.

The presence of these alternative services raises the question: Exactly how much impact does the closure of these college-specific services have on students?  I would guess that it has little direct impact as many students are likely using these other services. (Yes, I know that I shouldn’t guess as folks like Illinois State have data on students’ music listening habits and practices but I am skeptical of most data in this area as the scene changes so quickly and dramatically).

But this may have a significant impact on higher education institutions and administrators. The legislation passed last year reauthorizing the Higher Education Act included provisions that require institutions to “‘effectively combat’ copyright violations with ‘a variety of technology-based deterrents’ and offer alternatives to illegal downloading.” What does it mean for us when the “alternatives” are themselves drying up and disappearing even as we’re being pushed to adopt them? What does it say about the effectiveness and viability of these services that they can’t seem to survive even when congress pushes us to adopt and support them?

Finally, let’s step away from Ruckus for a moment to take in another fact of the changing landscape. The RIAA announced in December that it would not be filing new lawsuits against students. Instead, they are shifting their focus to working with Internet Service Providers to identify and warn those infringing music copyrights. So far, it appears that the RIAA is keeping its word; no new suits have been filed although ones already in process are still being litigated.

These two shifts – political pressure to adopt services that are disappearing and the cessation of RIAA lawsuits – are dramatic. One of my colleagues at an institution in the Midwest told me that these shifts have completely derailed their extensive and well-known educational campaign. It reminds me of a well-known curse: “May you live in interesting times.”