6 Questions: One-on-One with Puretracks president and CEO Alistair Mitchell

The head of this homegrown music download service has a bold new idea and an eclectic taste in music. We asked him six questions.

A veteran of the media and marketing sectors, including senior level stints at the CBC and BMO, Alistair Mitchell has now turned his sights to the Internet, launching music download service Puretracks in 2003. In March 2006 Bell Canada acquired a majority interest in the privately-held company. And in February 2007 Puretracks shook up the industry by removing digital rights management (DRM) protection from parts of its catalogue.

• What is the greatest challenge currently facing Puretracks and what are you doing about it?
Our biggest challenge is our biggest opportunity, which is making [media] play on devices everywhere. Just like CDs can play on any CD player, we want to make sure that digital music can be played on any device in the household. And one step better is making sure that you can always access it both online and through wireless delivery. So, what are we doing there? It’s a number of things. … Just last week we launched a DRM-free MP3 offline, which means basically music files that can be played—rather, downloaded from our site—and played on any device that supports MP3, which is, largely, every single device out there.

• Who else—person or company—do you feel is doing innovative work and in what way?
The company that comes to mind maybe wouldn’t be the first one you think of, but it’s the Canadian Opera Company. Here’s a company which had a dream to build an opera house, suffered a number of different defeats along the way, but ultimately won the battle. And won that battle against considerable odds. And gave our society something great.

• How would you describe your leadership approach/style (and give an example of what you do)?
I’d say one-tenth strategy and nine-tenths execution. I’d say hiring the right people. Go getters. Smart problem solvers. Making sure you listen to them carefully. You hired them for a reason. Ask a lot of questions. Collaborate. Roll up your sleeves. And be prepared to say no, but if you say yes back up the team 100%. Reward success … and acknowledge mistakes and convert them into learnings. And, at the end of the day, hold yourself accountable to the same standards you hold your fellow colleagues.

• Puretracks has recently come out with a controversial plan to forego DRM on many of its offerings, albeit with the indies. Is this nevertheless the beginning of the end for widespread DRM use in music copyright?
By opening up a portion of our catalogue for DRM-free content, we’re basically making it possible for our customers to get that content onto more and more devices. So I see it more as an incremental step toward developing a better service for our customers out there. How other content owners respond to that is really for them to decide. Content owners will, like in any other industry, create their product and they’ll price their product and characterize their product as they choose. Some content owners will choose to have DRM on it and others won’t. The bottom line is I think it’s dangerous to have any religion in this space.

• Is worry over the issue of patent and IP protection in emerging markets like China warranted?
I don’t really have a very deep understanding of that marketplace, though I do know as a citizen of the world that there are issues around piracy everywhere. And where there are issues around piracy, obviously, we as a company are concerned because at the root of that are content owners that are losing their livelihood.

• What songs are currently in heavy rotation on your MP3 player right now?
High School Musical. My kids are listening to that soundtrack in the car on my MP3 player. Melissa McClelland is a Canadian indie artist. She’s a great songwriter. [I’m also] listening to a lot of Amos Lee. And I listen to a lot of classical. Mahler has been on high rotation on my MP3 player.