Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Year in Digital Music is a Long Time

When iTunes started to dominate the music download market it looked a forgone conclusion that their position would be sustainable and that combined with the iPod the market was sorted. A year is a long time in this digital age and now many are starting to question iTunes position with some very interesting new services which do not replicate but shift the business model in different directions. What was its strengths – the combined channel and player, plus defined price point, may yet prove its weakness.

First we had the pretenders to the iTunes crown- Sony’s Connect, MTV's Rhapsody America and Microsoft’s ‘me too’ Zune service. Interestingly these are all suffering and irrespective of their high profile backers are not matching their expectation. Perhaps merely copying a good idea is not the key?

One of the biggest shifts came from the artists who started to take control and redefine their own value chain. Prince exploded into the Mail on Sunday with Planet Earth and introduced both a new channel and new model ‘free with paper’. Radiohead told the record companies where to go, released themselves and started with an honesty box price approach. McCartney and Mitchell went to Starbucks and sold well through a new label plus retail format. Madonna bought herself out of her record company for £50 million and aligned herself with her merchandising and tour values and is now rumoured to be soon followed by Robbie Williams leaving EMI. Who would be a record company today?

Then came the rights management-free MP3s from EMI Music, Universal Music Group and a handful of independent labels. After years of fighting Napster, Kazza, and even the public, the music industry finally realised that perhaps restrictive DRM was not the answer. Something many consumers could have told them years ago and the record companies then lurched from DRM to non DRM in a heartbeat. Amazon stepped up offering DRM free, Jobs claimed it was his idea all along and the likes of Amazon jumped from nowhere to the third largest download retailer behind iTunes and emusic. It interesting to note that Amazon’s entry and achievement is without Sony BMG and Warner Music Group catalogues -who still weirdly, think that they control the music business.

Then there was the ad supported business model and the service we have written much of and admired from its concept – Spiralfrog. After much delay it finally launched in the US with all major labels and many independents onboard. The question is whether it took too long and in fact lost its own momentum? Others have now jumped on the same bandwagon and its questionable whether that delayed launch is going to be a wait too long? Slacker has jumped in and stolen much ground not only moving fast but starting its free, ad-supported customizable online radio service and following this with a portable device that uses Wi-Fi to update channels, and a subscription service tier that offers users more functionality for a monthly fee.
Now we have the likes of Nokia launching a free download model based on restricted models and service subscriptions. They certainly have the market clout and pressence and will give the iPhone and interesting race. The question in this area is where the mobile carriers or the mobile makers will prevail?

The latest service to turn our heads is IMEEM. They started effectively on one side of the fence by letting users stream free music, then when the record labels initiated legal action against the service, Imeem implemented filtering technology and an advertising system from Snocap to reward the companies every time a user played one of its songs. Interestingly it is a music centric experience and offers a different social interaction that others don’t. Will it succeed? We think so but there again the New Year beckons and 2008 is likely to see as much change as did 2007.