Wednesday, June 23, 2004

How to sell music online

As I mentioned in my first post, Apple recently launched the iTunes Music Store in Europe, an addition to iTunes that I have been awaiting impatiently ever since I got my iPod last year. Apple have just announced that they sold over 800,000 songs in the first week of operation.

Now Apple were by no means the first to offer music downloads in Europe: that distinction belongs to a company known as OD2, which provides a download service through a variety of ISPs and high-street music sellers. After three months of operation OD2 managed to sell a total of... 1 million songs.

Now why would that be? Why would a download service launched by a niche computer manufacturer almost beat in one week the sales of an established operator with multiple, high-profile distribution paths?

In a word: iPod. Not just the world's best-looking, easiest-to-use portable music player, iPod is a seamless part of Apple's iTunes, software which makes listening to music on your computer (and now, with AirPort, on your hifi too!)the easiest, most pleasant experience imaginable. The iTunes Music Store is an integral part of iTunes; you just click on the icon and the Music Store is there, tracks displayed as if they were already on your PC, previewable for 30 seconds with one click.

Another click buys the song, downloading it instantly to your music library, from where it will automatically end up on your iPod when you next dock it. Like any other song in your library, it can be burned to CD, listened to on another computer running iTunes (Mac or PC), and even copied permanently to up to two other computers. Songs cost just 79p each.

So if you love music enough to have an iPod, the iTunes Music Store is already there, in the application that manages and plays your music for you. Contrast that with buying music through OD2. I just went to one of their partners, the major high-street music retailer HMV. Their website hardly goes out of its way to advertise the download service: there's one tiny button on the very busy front page.

Clicking that takes you to the download page, where there isn't much music to be seen: there's a blurb about 50 songs for £4.99 (which sounds promising) and how, to get started, you need to register. Now why should I bother to register if they haven't yet shown me what they have? Further inspection shows that the aforementioned £4.99 is in fact a monthly subscription.

Let me outta here! I haven't seen any music yet and already they want to lock me into five quid a month! Run away!

Quelling my panic, I discover that you can actually browse a couple of tracks without registering. Immediately a confusing wealth of options materialises. I can stream the music for 1 credit, get it temporarily for 10 credits, get it permanently for 100 credits, or (aha!) buy it for 99p. A little math shows that the aforementioned 50 songs for my five quid must only be the temporary version. What exactly does all this mean?

Clicking the "Rights and information" fine print reveals that a temporary copy cannot be transferred to a player, cannot be burned to a CD, and can only be listened to on my PC (oh, forgot to tell you, Macs need not apply) as long as I am subscribed. So I buy the music, but need to continue paying five quid a month for the privilege of listening to it on my PC, and only on my PC. What a deal.

OK, so I'll get it permanently, or just buy it (to hell with this subscription model). What can I do then?

Apparently I get three transfers to portable players, and one CD burn. Scratch the CD, tough titty. Oh, and more fine print reveals that not all portable players are acceptable: some older players don't support the digital rights management (DRM) software that controls the number of transfers etc, so can't be used at all. Gee, thanks. And here I was, stupidly thinking you were going to help me buy and listen to my music more easily.

But wait! There's more! Everything, from the range of options available, to the number of devices and burns allowed, changes from label to label. Add to that the 99p price per song (when individual songs are available) and complete-album prices that are HIGHER than buying the CD, and you have a very un-compelling buying experience. Small wonder customers are staying away in droves.

Inject the iTunes Music Store into this reality, like the proverbial breath of fresh air, and it's little wonder that pent-up demand drives downloads through the roof. But of course that's what Apple is all about: providing what the user wants.

Now for some thoughts on pricing: Apple is said to have set a very challenging price bar at 79p, and certainly OD2 haven't matched it, spurious "temporary download" comparisons notwithstanding. The reason is that Apple don't want to make money on the music, they want to sell more iPods, which do cost, let's face it, a lot more than other players. But OD2 and the rest don't have a hardware agenda: the music is all they're going to make (or lose) money on. This looks like a problem for them.

Napster have an even bigger problem: they've started giving players away to subscribers! Their model is so screwed up, they think there's enough profit in the music to subsidize the hardware! They probably have that old "we lose money on every sale, but make it up on volume" canard in their Powerpoints. But how many subscribers realise that a subscription doesn't let them burn CDs or transfer music to a portable: you still have to buy the music, subscription or no subscription. Hello? Anybody home? Why on earth would anyone subscribe? At ten quid a month? You must be joking.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The Meaning of Life

So what's the answer? Work harder so you can at least have the status of owning the objects, even if you don't have time to actually use them? What's the point of that? That's like failing twice: sacrificing everything to get something, and then not having it.

How about this: work less, enjoy the Best Things in Life (the free things, natch) more? There's definitely something to this; we could all be less obsessed with consumption, and just enjoy the beauty that surrounds us on this amazing planet, the completely free pleasure of making connections with our fellow travellers on life's great journey, and sharing the experience with them.

There are a couple of pitfalls, though. The most common, I think, is a feeling of guilt, even a fear that one is deluding oneself, taking the easy way out, ducking the challenge. It's an old argument: is life for living, to be enjoyed? Or is our time here a precious gift, not to be squandered on trifles, but used in the struggle for the great cause, the high purpose?

Perhaps the answer lies in avoiding the trap of triviality, the mindless pursuit of pleasure that leaves you enervated rather than energised. When this starts to happen it could be time to take things more seriously, to rediscover your purpose and rededicate yourself to its service. And when this gets too much and the world shrinks to a treadmill again, step off, step out into the sun, find your friends... and relax! Remember, nobody here gets out alive. Have some fun before you die!

Monday, June 21, 2004

Money and time

All this stuff doesn't come cheap. To earn enough money to afford it, we need to work really hard. Here in London there is more than a trace of the American disease of "presenteeism", ie it's not whether you get your work done, and how well, that counts, it's how many hours you spend in the office. But the more time you spend working the less time you have to play with your hard-earned gadgets. (After you've spent the time to charge them all, of course.) And each gadget has either a time or a money cost to use (sometimes both).

It just seems to be getting worse. I haven't seen a movie in months, because in my mind it's hard to justify the expenditure of time (and movies are quite expensive as well). The time pressure is increased by all the gadgets, of course. Apple launches the iTunes Music Store in Europe, which is really cool, but after you've spent some time (and money!) choosing some songs and downloading them, you feel as though you should listen to them, either on the iPod, or burned onto CD and played in the car...

Actually, now that I think about it, Apple have a lot to answer for here. Their stuff is so cool and well-made, it just sucks you into using it. My digital camera has a new lease on life now because iPhoto lets me create slideshows, web pages, DVDs... GarageBand helped me to make music, a lifelong dream at some level... iMovie: edit your videos like a pro, adding your own music as a soundtrack, with effects and animated menus... Even just using the PowerBook, with all its cool little bits and pieces and so-well-thought-out user interface, is so much fun you just spend more time with it than you should.

I mean, how are you supposed to work, exercise, feed yourself, do your washing and cleaning, and also have time to do all the cool stuff that the people in the ads seem to do as if it's Their Whole Life? You start to feel like a failure because only a tiny part of your life is spent rollerblading through Hyde Park with your iPod. But every aspirational lifestyle activity shown in the media requires either time or money and usually both. Obtaining surplus money requires an enormous investment of time. No wonder people start to feel trapped, caught on an endless treadmill of consumerism.

It seems obvious that we need to accept that choices need to be made. Like the rational market participants of classical economic theory, we have limitations on our resources and need to make choices that will maximise them. We can't have it all. We need to choose. Just as there are no great film directors who are also platinum-selling rock stars, we can't reasonably expect to have the resources to pursue every avenue of creative expression that takes our fancy.

Obvious or not, it's a lot easier said than done. Some of the most creative of us spend their working time persuading us that we can have it all, or at least that we can have what their clients are selling. (Spending so much time at it, no doubt, that they have no time to actually live out the precepts of their own creations.) And they are very, very good at it. The cumulative effect is a kind of life-spanning Attention Deficit Disorder, as we flit from one product to another, trying to capture the portrayed lifestyle and experience the ersatz pleasure we see acted out with such consummate skill before our eyes, but without enough precious time to invest in any of them to really make it work. Serial frustration, always falling short of the impossible dreams of advertising.

Friday, June 18, 2004

And so it begins...

Well, here I am, doing the blog thing. Why? Not completely sure, maybe it's just to get a Gmail account ;¬)

What is BatFlattery? To me, it's the feeling that you are starting to spend your life looking after the things that are supposed to be making your life easier. Like, between the laptop (Powerbook G4), the iPod (15Gb 2Gen), the digital camera (Fuji FinePix A310), the Palm (Tungsten T3), the mobile phone (Sony Ericsson T610), the Bluetooth headset (OK, no more details), the shaver, the beard trimmer and the electric toothbrush, it seems like at any given moment, at least one of the things that I own needs to have its battery charged. I feel as though I can't buy anything new to improve my life because I won't have any life left to devote to looking after it. Soon I'm going to have to stop working so that I can devote myself more fully to taking advantage of the life-enhancing benefits that modern technology has made available to us. Something doesn't feel quite right...