Friday, June 20, 2008

5 billion served

Apple announced Thursday it has surpassed the 5 billion milestone on songs downloaded from the iTunes Store. I wanted to say it was reminiscent of the old McDonalds signs, but apparently that number was “over 3 billion served” — and thus more appropriate for the milestone Apple passed last summer. (Note: they didn't say how many movies they have sold to date).

This cements Apple’s position as the number one desktop-based music service. In a distant second in the US is AmazonMP3. Amazon’s success seems to be growing the market, not stealing share from Apple.

As it turns out, I finally got around to trying AmazonMP3 this week. As with the two earlier Pepsi/iTunes promotions, my tracks came from my wife’s two-case/week Diet Pepsi habit. This time around, with the Pepsi-Amazon promotion, 2½ cases = 5 Pepsi Points = 1 Amazon MP3. (But unlike the iTunes promotion, the points can be used for other products, like her Pepsi T-shirt that arrived this week.)

I decided months ago to use the free (Pepsi) downloads on Amazon to fill in the gaps in my Linda Ronstadt collection (just as I used the free iTunes downloads to fill gaps in my Jackson Browne collection). I once had a complete collection on tape of all her albums from 1967 to 1978, but on CDs only bought the good stuff from 1973 to 1976: Don’t Cry Now, Heart Like a Wheel, Prisoner in Disguise and Hasten Down the Wind.

The Amazon collection of Ronstadt tracks was pretty complete: 321 songs, counting remixes and other variants. I was able to find the Linda’s 1970 version of the Jackson Browne hit “Rock Me on the Water”, as well as her 1977 cover of the Elvis Costello song “Alison”. I had less luck with one of the songs from her earlier band Stone Poneys — perhaps because the band disappeared 40 years ago and isn’t around to negotiate download rights.

The songs downloaded easily, and once installed, they played great; the lack of DRM makes the songs much more convenient to use than Apple’s original DRM’d downloads. DRM-free MP3 files for 89¢ is about as close to a commodity as you get. The only problem was, the UI was terrible — hard to find songs, even harder to browse. (321 songs, not browsable by album? Gimme a break).

So Amazon will continue to commoditize the DRM-free download business. Perhaps it will help persuade more kids to buy rather than steal music, but somehow I doubt it: Apple seems to have the hearts and minds of the teen set (and gift cards from their parents), so if any one will get them to pay for music, it’s Apple. I certainly don’t see how Amazon will dislodge iTunes; perhaps a rival in CJK (China, Japan or Korea) will pull it off, but Amazon plays to the same audience that Apple does.

Mobile phones are another story: this market has yet to take off. At least in the US, Apple’s lead on paid desktop downloads give it a leg up on the sideload market. Real is still hoping to establish its PC-based subscription model (with sideloading), while both Nokia (with “Comes with Music”) and France’s Orange (with “Musique Max”) have proposed mobile-based subscriptions. (Some details of the business model are still being worked out).

I have about 15gb of legal MP3s on my laptop and various backup hard disks, and thus I’m pretty sure that any song I buy will go there, and sideloaded to my iPod or phone. We’ll see what my daughter does in a few years when she gets her first mobile phone, but right now she’s pretty PC (actually Mac) centric.

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