Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Will the music industry ever extract real value from digital?

When Steve Jobs announced the launch of iTunes back in 2004 and queued up the slide for the song price – 79 pence – there were audible gasps among the audience. People were that little bit amazed. They were impressed that Jobs had pulled off the deal to sell individual songs - at a reasonable price. It worked too, with iTunes notching up over a billion songs for each year of operation since.

But the six billion songs sold on iTunes are part of a slowing curve – the overall digital business growing by just 25% in 2008 – to $3.8 billion, 20% of the global music business. With the business generating nearly $5 billion less in 2008 than five years before in 2004, before iTunes launched and digital kicked in, the ‘holy grail’ whereby new digital revenues more than made up for lost revenues from CD sales, never arrived. If digital sales grow by more than one fifth in 2009 we’ll be lucky and it still won’t be enough.

Nearly six years on from Apple’s genuinely sensational announcement, that same service dominates the digital space, to the satisfaction of no one, much. Earlier this month Apple’s iTunes related announcement – the iTunes LP, in contrast to six years ago, distinctly underwhelmed. Just a few titles in stock, and looking distinctively expensive.

There’s nothing wrong with the attempt to add value to digital albums by adding extra content – iTunes LP, CMX etc. Other than it’s too little too late. I was all for it back in the day, but the world has since moved on. The market is polarising with high-end CD box sets still in healthy demand but digital pretty much becoming established as the way to get your music for cheap.

The digital market hasn’t developed in a logical order – and has therefore struggled to add value year-on-year – like pushing a boulder up an increasingly steep hill. Had digital albums been launched with extra content originally, or quickly after the iTunes launch, it might have worked. It might have convinced consumers that they are losing packaging, but gaining content.

But while iTunes had DRM strangling its value and held its prices at a constant, CD prices fell by one third over five years. CDs albums are now routinely cheaper than digital – that’s counterintuitive to every music fan interested in ownership.
Meanwhile, digital song value has headed south, first with subscription packages, then with free to stream ad funded services. It’s a journey that has led at least, to a challenge to iTunes’ unhealthy market dominance, but at a potentially heavy price to the industry as a whole.

I love Spotify as much as the next music fan, but its struggle to extract value is in danger of becoming a spectacle. To consumers it’s a miracle, to the industry it’s a problem to be solved. The strategy looks right – drive a developing ad-products business as much as possible, while trying to upscale users to a pay model for a better experience. It has to be the test case and I would strongly argue, deserves all the help it can get from its music partners.

We need to begin to realise though, Spotify’s potential. It has the potential to generate revenues equivalent to a large niche, while at the same time eating further into CD revenues. This is the future music market – fragmentation into a number of niches.

iTunes (i.e. the a-la-carte song market) carved a niche, delivering 10-15% of revenues to the business. Subscription services carved another, smaller nice at under 5% revenues. E-music’s hybrid model carved another niche –delivering 10-15% of revenues for its indie label partners. Ad-funded streaming will be similar. All-you-can-eat services through ISP providers similar again. With each niche there is some natural cannibalisation – gradually creating another niche – the CD market.

This is not an unhealthy long-term picture – provided each of these niches can be sustained – serviced through good partnership and the positioning of the right content and payment models. Forrester’s latest angle in content windowing provides one example of how to do this. It’s something all smart labels know is a good way forward – account managing these relationships and managing the channel conflict that is bound to arise on an almost constant basis, using shared insights and data.

What’s more – this multi-channel, multi-audience niche scenario obliterates the random thoughts of the ‘free economists’ – increasingly supercilious, unconstructive and pretty dumb. There’s value in these niches – little patches of gold in them there hills.

There is value here provided each new wave of services is not met with the expectation that it will be the next big thing – making redundant what’s gone before. Instead it’s a landscape that needs to be cultivated, managed, serviced, through shared vision, insight and data. The answer is yes, but it’s more a ‘yes we can and we will’.


Anonymous said...

In my opinion, Itunes has been a disaster for the labels and musicians.
a) Album unbundling without variable pricing is stupid. Just cannabilising album sales.
This is the reason AC/DC and Radiohead avoided this channel and suffered no financial harm in doing so.
I'm not sure the music industry has really made any money from Itunes.
b) No advertising (cf Amazon) . Itunes cut is too large any way, but could be further reduced if it took some advertising on the site. It does not because the whole site promotes Apple products.
c) No use of purchasing data to help marketing of artist merchandise and concert tickets.

Tom Broughton said...

It will be interesting to see what happens with the Spotify mobile service. If that does take off, I can really see it cannibalising value from iTunes. When you've got 3,000 locally stored (albeit DRMed) songs Spotify suddenly looks like a very different product. Justifying a tenner a month is much easier when it's not just about getting rid of ads, too.