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PureTracks: Has Canada’s answer to iTunes gone silent?

PureTracks: Has Canada’s answer to iTunes gone silent?

In this case, it’s hard to pinpoint the day the music died. Or maybe it didn’t die, but is merely in some kind of coma. Either way, fans of Canadian digital music service PureTracks want answers.

As of this writing the site’s URL no longer functions, and its Facebook page (with less than 300 followers, has been as dormant as its Twitter account for months, but remaining customers have been posting more and more angry questions and comments over the last two weeks.

“It would be helpful and perhaps, even responsible, to inform your customers about your current status,” reads one of them. “I read many posts about the inability to log into your website. I, for one, am not happy with the relatively recent changes to your website design. Are you redesigning it or are you out of business?”

It’s not looking good. Already someone has changed PureTracks’ Wikipedia entry to describe it in the past tense, and at least one music blogger reported that there was a problem using a PureTracks-powered site to redeem Pizza Pizza coupons. Although a new version of the original PureTracks site supposedly launched in June, there’s no sign of life. Spokespeople for BCE, which acquired a majority interest in PureTracks back in 2006, did not respond to requests for comment.

If this is indeed the end for PureTracks, it marks a sad swan song to what was really a pioneering effort to create a homegrown competitor to iTunes 10 years ago. This was just as MP3 downloads of songs were beginning to displace CDs. It was a startup before we really called them startups.

PureTracks was also the company that ran counter to the prevailing interests of the music industry in abandoning digital rights management (DRM) software, appealing to the early adopters of music downloads who still hadn’t quite gotten over the loss of Napster.

As University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist commented to me via e-mail last night, “I suppose it has become a very competitive market and the company had trouble competing with the likes of Apple. It is somewhat ironic that the flagship Canadian online music store shut down a year after the government passed copyright reform, which the industry insisted was the key missing ingredient to commercial success. Apparently, legal reforms don't guarantee success in the market.”

DRM-free music may not always have been the most profitable. I remember in PureTracks’ early days hearing CEO Alistair Mitchell comment wryly in a keynote speech that consumers are willing to pay $3.99 for a 10-second ring tone but balked at 99 cents for an entire song. Little has changed in that regard over the last 10 years, except that what began as a niche opportunity for Apple has become something of a music industry hegemony.

As much as Canada worries over the fate of BlackBerry, it’s worth feeling at least a twinge of sadness over the possibility that PureTracks is no more. Like the smartphone maker, it boldly took on a major sector of the technology industry as it emerged and blazed a trail. Hopefully the company’s management will clarify things soon. It would be awful to end on a note like this.

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