We’re seeing the future— all over again. Just when the music industry had finally started to almost get the hang of selling mp3s on iTunes (even if we still haven’t figured out how to sell music from around the world, which blows my mind) the weather shifts and suddenly our new technology is dead.
“Gone is the MP3!” all the headlines are reading, and indeed, for the first time, the sales growth of digital track downloads dropped drastically this year, from a growth rate of 26 percent in 2008 to only 8 percent in 2009. Apparently all of us who were waiting for legal downloading to make up the revenue lost to the death of the CD had better find a new dream to embrace, because this once-new technology appears to be over before it began. What once was the future now appears to be officially “past”.
What makes it official of course is Apple– as we all know, it’s Steve Jobs’ world and we’re just living in it. When the big Mac shells out money to purchase the start-up venture Lala, with its whopping 100,000 person customer list, something must be bubbling. As we enter a new decade, it now appears that bubbling sound is the music stream, which is bringing you the next big thing:
Uh… wait. Don’t we already have cheap music? NO! This will be cheaper still!!! While iTunes, that old-school relic of yesteryear, still wants to sell you a download for a dollar, services like Lala will allow you to stream the same song once for free and then give you unlimited access for 10 cents a track. The hitch of course is that the music doesn’t really “belong” to you. It’s more like a library book that you never have to return– which is close enough to ownership for me. Rather than shelves of CDs (like your grandparents have) or iTunes folders full of MP3s, the listener can access a full collection of music from the Web-based “cloud”, for either a per-song fee, or perhaps a monthly subscription (as in the Spotify model).
In a perfect illustration of the new technology approach to finance, Lala, a company started with $35 million of venture capital (provided in part by Warner Music) generates revenues under $10 million dollars, but is purchased by Apple for somewhere between $17 million (not too great a deal for Warner) and $85 million (which seems completely inexplicable). The general consensus is that Apple did not buy the company with the intention of replicating Lala’s current business model, but rather using the start-up’s technology and executive talent to launch their own Apple streaming service, which if they do it really well, could render iTunes obsolete.
Interestingly, the one hitch in Apple’s plan, and the one silver lining for the music industry, is that the current music licenses allowing Lala to offer legal music streams are not transferable as part of the sale. This means that Apple will have to re-negotiate the licenses with the major labels and publishers before they can launch their new service– a prospect that has label executives digging in for their last real chance to save their industry (and their jobs). While it would appear that the general licensing framework on the publishing side has already been laid by the recent agreement with the DMA (see the blog “Triumph or Turkey”), both the labels and publishers are determined to protect their interests within whatever business model Apple eventually constructs. If songs downloaded from iTunes will now be kept in a permanent online “locker” from which they can be streamed at any time on any device, labels will want a higher price per download, a fee for each stream, and a cut of any fees that Apple gets to increase the size of the locker. Publishers will expect a “mechanical” royalty for the stream, as provided in the new DMA agreeement, and ASCAP and BMI will certainly consider the “stream” a performance.
That’s all good– provided the model catches on. Not too surprisingly, the jury is still out on that one. So far most streaming models have proven very popular when the music is free, but far less so once that whopping 10 cents per track price tag is attached. Subscription models have not caught on either. Spotify offers a premium subscription at 10 GBP per month. So far, only about 10 percent of their customers buy in.
The inescapable fact is that until these services become profitable, the money for music-makers and music licensors will be pretty paltry. On the positive side, Apple has proven quite adept at figuring out how to make money off of music. The danger is that the new streaming service kills off iTunes, which is just starting to make some real money for the music business, and replaces it with something that earns ten percent of what iTunes did.
In general, it’s hard for me to be overly optimistic about the technological trend. First, we replaced the CD, which sold for as much as $15-20, with a product that sold for a dollar. Now we’re poised to replace the service that sells music for a dollar with a service that sells it for 10 cents. That’s not a great direction for music publishers, music labels, artists and songwriters to be headed. Given the precarious position of major labels like EMI, collection organizations around the world, and the thousands of small and large music publishers who saw as much as a 30 percent drop in income last year, we MUST collectively drive a hard bargain with Apple. That won’t be easy. Then, once an agreement is in place, we must continue to take legal action against unlicensed services that undercut Apple and other legitimate business partners.
If streaming is the future, and it likely is, then we need companies like Apple to make that business profitable. We also need to see a fair share of those profits. Otherwise, our vision of the future will indeed look a lot like a cloud– gray, ominous and full of hot air.