Missing The Point In Online Music Sales

There’s a fact-heavy article in today’s NY Times about the increasingly crowded field in online music. In a nutshell, the article sees the forest, but misses the trees, wondering why businesses would get into online music at all. Not only are the costs of starting up a online music storefront steep fixed costs of technology + marginal costs of selling & marketing the service), competition that threatens to further erode everyone’s margins (Wal-Mart has priced tracks on its music store at $0.88 a track). The article cites Real Networks CEO Rob Glaser, and Steve Jobs’ opinions about the difficulties of making a buck in the online music business to underscore this point:

"The fixed costs of building this stuff out from scratch are high," Mr. Glaser said.
"It's not easy to do this well," Mr. Jobs said. "How," he asked, will other companies "justify investing R.& D. into something where there is no money to be made?"

Well, duh. However, where the article really gets the whole online music store model legitimately wrong is in its belief that without selling hardware to accompany it, selling music online is a foolish enterprise. Check this other comment:

Hardware manufacturers are trying to apply the lessons of Apple by combining the low-profit-margin business of selling songs with the higher profit margin business of selling the music players to go with them. That kind of thinking favors companies like Dell, which is selling its Digital Jukebox, and Sony, which once owned the portable music business with the Walkman, but stumbled as companies like Apple jumped into digital music. The company has said that it will create an online service this spring that will work seamlessly with its players. The new service, called Connect, will allow customers to pay for songs with frequent-flier miles from United Airlines.

While hardware sales might be able to cover for the economic losses of running an online music store in the short-term, they can’t do so for the long-run. (Note: I’m guessing that since the market leader—Apple—has already admitted on several occasions that it just breaks even on online music sales, it’s probably losing money on its investment from an NPV perspective. I’d also wager that if Apple is just breaking even, everyone else—with the possible exception of Real Networks, which operates a subscription model—is losing money.) The prices of all MP3 players—including iPod—will fall (as has already begun), or companies will start adding more features into their MP3 players (thereby raising costs, and diminishing margins) in an effort to compete. A far better model is to control the standards for digital music—DRM— and then hopefully parlay that standard into other media businesses, and create an annuity for yourself. (The Wall Street Journal grasped the essence of this logic in some ways on Monday, but didn’t get grasp all of the possibilities of DRM.)

So here’s the model as we see it: Apple sells as many tracks as possible on iTunes which enourages people to buy iPods, and subsequently more tracks on iTunes, while iTunes and iPod still have the cachet or higher perceived benefit to draw people away from lower-priced music services or competing products. If you’re investing in Apple, you want Apple to hit a scale where they control most of the market for online music, at which point the music companies and artists (content creators and copywrite owners) cease offering tracks to their competitors, and offer them solely to Apple, since Apple offers them access to the largest market possible, at the lowest cost possible. This is what’s called a virtuous circle, and is the essence of the network effect Apple’s trying to pull off.

One other random note to consider in light of network effects: Apple’s coming partnership with Pepsi (giving away 100m tracks on iTunes to Pepsi buyers, via codes distributed via bottle caps) is kind of a stroke of genius. Ideally, it gets more AAC formatted tracks on the market, and gets iTunes in the hands of people who have yet to use it, thereby increasing the potential market for AAC. Pretty slick stuff for Apple, and we’d also say that the partnership looks pretty good if you’re Pepsi, since you get to attach yourself to the ridiculous amount of cachet and credibility that Apple’s managed to create in the all important youth market.

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Apple & HP's iPod Partnership: A Pivotal Moment in the DRM Race?

Yesterday, at this year’s CES--that’s Consumer Electronics Trade Show, for those of you not in the know—Hewlett-Packard announced that it would re-sell a variation of Apple’s iPod player, in addition to supporting Apple’s popular iTunes online music store. This partnership highlights a massive strategic shift for Apple, and is one that could potentially reap Apple huge dividends down the road.

In the past, Apple has tended to adopt a “go it alone” strategy, and has assiduously avoided making its software available for Windows machines, or manufactured devices that were compatible with Windows-based machines. Apple’s strategy for much of its 20+ year history has been to try and generate profits by releasing superior products or software than those based on the Microsoft/Intel standard, in an attempt to recapture the dominant position that it once held in the highly lucrative OS market in the early 1980s. The Windows-version of iPod, coupled with Windows iTunes store, marked the beginning of a shift, insofar as it was the first time that Apple had begun aggressively courting Windows-based users.

Apple ostensibly claimed that it was pursuing Windows-based users as a means to sell more of its highly profitable iPod. However, as readers of the BuzzSponge blog will note, it’s highly unlikely that the iPod will continue to be as profitable for Apple in the long run, especially now that much more cost-efficient manufacturers like Dell & Samsung have gotten in the game. These players will likely drive down Apple’s pricing ability over the long run, thereby cutting into profits.

Apple had a much better reason to pursue Windows-users than simply to sell more iPods, however. The war of digital music players is rapidly becoming a battle over who will control the software that will control media content—in short, it’s a battle for owning a digital rights management standard. In this match-up, Apple is pitting its proprietary AAC format for playing music against Microsoft’s WMA format, and Real Network’s RAM format. The rewards are large—theoretically, licensing fees from all content played over a particular software standard. Hence, the competition has been fierce—the last few months have seen a variety of MP3 players either being released or announced that will play an exclusive standard.

The phenomenal popularity of the iPod, the only player capable of playing iTunes, has enabled Apple to pull far ahead of Microsoft and Real Networks in the DRM race with its AAC format. HP joining forces with Apple marks a significant gain for Apple—and a potentially large loss for Microsoft—since it means that an additional number of Windows users will be pushed towards the AAC format. The importance of this cannot be understated, since it looks like the DRM race will be settled via “network effects”—e.g. the first player whose format reaches scale the fastest will likely be support by the majority of copywrite holders and intellectual property manufacturers. Once this happens, the DRM race will be over, and only one standard will prevail. By attaching itself to HP’s PCs and marketing clout, Apple has greatly increased the odds of its AAC format winning the battle.

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Marketing Via Rumor And Innuendo: A Thought Experiment

A few weeks ago, rumors started popping up on the Internet that Microsoft—a small company in Redmond, Washington—was poised to make “a significant announcement” regarding its video game console, the XBox, on Nov. 15, which just happens to be the two year two-year anniversary of the XBox’s launch, and the one-year anniversary of XBox Live, the online gaming service that complements the XBox. (We realize that some of our less savvy readers might have a hard time accepting that the Internet can play a significant role in fostering rumors, but a quick search reveals that this isn’t the first time that urban legends, rumor and innuendo have flown ‘round the Internet.)

A few days ago, rumors as to the precise nature of the content of this announcement began to circulate amongst several videogame-related websites. Specifically, it was claimed that Microsoft would be releasing Halo 2—the much anticipated sequel to its bestselling science-fiction military combat simulation, Halo, which has grossed upwards of $250m worldwide, and sold countless XBox consoles—roughly 8 months earlier than anticipated. Almost immediately, discussion boards, chat rooms and video-game related websites and blogs spun into overdrive, as XBox owners salivated at the prospect of playing what will arguably be the biggest console game of 2004 this year. However, as quickly as the rumor materialized, a member of Bungie—the Microsoft-owned software company that’s developing Halo—stepped up and quashed the rumor altogether:

Despite all the juicy rumors floating around the net lately, I can confirm with absolute certainty that Halo 2 is NOT coming out in 2003. As we have said for quite some time now, the game will be released when it is done and that will be in 2004. It is not coming out next week. It will not be on store shelves this holiday. Why would anyone want to do a "secret release" with a property as big as Halo 2 anyways? What possible benefit is there in sneaking it onto shelves without making the consumer aware? Please remember that unless you hear it direct from Bungie, you shouldn't pay attention to any release dates or speculation you see or hear. I'm sorry to crush hopes of playing the game early but it's better than getting your hopes up prematurely. I'm as eager as you are to get my hands on the finished game but we're not there yet. When the time is right, I imagine we will have more to say about a firm release date. For now, we stand by what we've always said - Halo 2 will be released when it's finished.

Rather than stopping the spread of November 15 rumor-mongering, though, Bungie’s announcement merely encouraged XBox owners and video game fanatics to revise the rumor, and argue that while Halo 2 wasn’t coming up, an “upgraded” version of the first Halo was. This re-release of Halo—called Halo Deluxe, or Halo 1.5—would be something like a director’s cut, featuring slightly upgraded graphics, possibly new levels, and online play over XBox Live, something that Halo fans have clamored for since the game’s release. This revision of the rumor made slightly more sense. As was noted on several video game sites and some respected industry publications, Microsoft could use this announcement to drive subscriptions to XBox Live, since many subscriptions would be up for renewal on Nov 15 (the one-year anniversary of the service), and moreover, the cost and technical complexity of re-releasing a slightly improved Halo would be SIGNIFICANTLY lower than rushing Halo 2 to market. Alas, for eager Halo geeks, this rumor was subsequently debunked by another Bungie employee this morning, in a slightly more terse fashion than the previous day’s statement.

So anyways, this whole videogame rumor-mongering thing got the marketing parts of our brains racing. (Cue image of hamsters running frantically on a wheel, lightbulbs turning on, smoke coming out of ears, etc.) Specifically, we began to think of the possibilities of utilizing the natural tendency of consumers—particularly hardcore, fanatical consumers of a certain product—to speculate and fantasize about the products they are most enthusiastic about. For example, let’s hypothetically speculate that Microsoft will indeed make a “major announcement” on November 15, the likes of which will send XBox owners and video game fanatics into paroxysms of delight. Let’s say, too, that Microsoft announces that it will make this statement to a few well-connected industry journalists, key influencers, and video game fanatics a few weeks prior to November 15, so as to seed anticipation. Furthermore, let’s also pretend that Microsoft makes a few cryptic references to “November 15” in its advertising copy (something which has supposedly already happened—Microsoft’s new ad campaign, featuring P. Diddy, supposedly features one ad where P. Diddy says “On November 15, you will believe.”—we haven’t found any hard evidence that this ad actually exists, but if anybody has actually seen it—and can verify it—let us know, and we’ll post a link) so as to encourage and foster speculation and rumor-mongering.

At this point of our hypothetical rumor-based buzz campaign, there would likely be plenty of user-driven gossip and excitement. In short, lots of great, free word-of-mouth. If Microsoft did follow through, and deliver a truly amazing product or service on Nov 15, the amount of customer gratitude, loyalty and support they’d have amongst their most die-hard customers would probably be phenomenal. Not only would they Microsoft have managed to market a product in a way that would truly differentiate it from the marketing clutter, sales of the product would probably be pretty phenomenal, too.

We’re speculating that the above scenario working well for media or entertainment products that have a strong legion of hardcore, devoted fans: Star Wars, the Matrix: Reloaded, Quentin Tarantino, books by Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger, albums from certain bands, to name a few. Let’s go back in time to May of this year, and imagine that the Wachowski brothers announced at the beginning of a few weeks prior to the actual release of the Matrix that they were going to release their latest movie in a few weeks. Let’s also say that they’d also been able to keep the entire filming process of the Matrix 2: Electric Boogaloo totally and utterly secret. (This would have been harder to accomplish, but not necessarily impossible.) We’re confident that at this point, the hype machine would go into overdrive, and when the movie was released—assuming that it met the expectations of fans, which the Matrix movie didn’t—it would have had a pretty tremendous opening, one that would have been comparable to the numbers that it achieved with an expensive marketing campaign that was used to launch the movie.

We won’t beat the issue for much longer, but it is fun to conduct this thought experiment, and we’d love to see somebody actually attempt it in the real world, if only to see what happens. While we’re aware that this strategy sort of flies in the face of the traditional attitude that marketers should seed the market for an entertainment product with buzz or advertising months well in advance of a product launch—to get people salivating, and spreading the word!—it would be great to see marketers actually attempt to use the natural tendency of human beings to gossip and speculate in an interesting and entirely non-traditional fashion. So, uh, if there are any marketers of media or entertainment products with passionate and loyal fanbases (e.g. an army of geeks eager to do your bidding), we dare you to give this strategy a shot.

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