Downloading digital music

Majors and minors, players and platforms, lawsuits and licences


2004 in review It wasn't quite the 'Year of Digital Music', but 2004 certainly paved the way for 2005 to take that title.

In the UK, Apple and Napster both opened online music services, with the iTunes Music Store also making an appearance in France, Germany and, later in the year, in a number of other European states. Sony, too, targeted the UK and Germany with its Connect service, though it came a month later than its rivals, offered fewer songs and was widely criticised for its poor jukebox software, particularly in comparison with Apple's iTunes.

Sony Connect had made its US debut a few months previously. In September, it was joined by Virgin Digital, which had announced its plan to launch in the US in April. Richard Branson's company also said it was preparing to set up shop in the UK, but so far there's been little sign of when that will be. Part of the problem may be the company's existing UK download supply deal with European digital music pioneer OD2.

OD2 has been selling digital music through online retailers, music-related websites and ISPs, including Virgin, HMV, MTV Europe, Tiscali and others, since 2003. In the summer of 2004, however, it was bought by US digital content distributor Loudeye for $40.5m. Yahoo!, meanwhile, acquired Musicmatch. Loudeye's latest financial results show the purchase has improved the company's revenue by a couple of million bucks, not quite doubling it, yet still widened its loss.

OD2/Loudeye's example showed just how much digital music companies need to promote their offerings actively to the market. Apple has proved the master here, primarily through its iPod marketing campaign, which has encouraged sales of hardware that ultimately drive content sales. Other companies, without such a lure, had fared less well, though Napster entered into a string of alliances to push its song vouchers into the mainstream.

Hangin' on the Telephone

Hardware is crucial, and will continue to drive the digital music market in 2005. Apple will, with Motorola, unveil an iTunes-enabled mobile phone during the first half of the year, possibly as early as January. The deal was announced back in July, but soon after Loudeye partnered with Nokia to promote its music service to network operators. Microsoft made noises about the phone business too, equipping its Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition software for PocketPCs and smart phones with a version of its latest Windows Media platform.

WM10 introduced a new level of DRM, allowing players to be loaded with subscription-sold songs. Napster quickly launched Napster-to-Go on the back of it, but so far it's shown little benefit. MS hopes its PlaysForSure scheme will have more success in the coming year.

Perfect Harmony?

DRM compatibility got Apple and Real Networks into a shouting match over the latter's launch of Harmony, a DRM conversion too, translating Real's Helix DRM technology into Apple's FairPlay DRM rules, effectively allowing Real's Rhapsody music service to sell songs to iPod customers. Apple cried foul, and threatened to tweak the iPod firmware to spoil the trick. Real pledged to continue to develop Harmony to cope with such changes.

It's arguably made little difference in any case. There's no indication that Harmony has increased adoption of Rhapsody. Real had more luck by slashing song prices for a time. iPod owners remain happy to buy only from the iTunes Music Store, showing that it really is hardware that's leading the download market. That will eventually change, but nothing Apple has done to date will preclude it from opening both the iPod and iTunes to other formats and music stores when the need arises.

Not only is that a long way off, but so too is the point at which downloads seriously impact physical media sales. Statistics released through the year showed that CD sales remain strong, while downloads account for a tiny percentage of the market. That's one reason why Apple UK's initial unwillingness to sell the new Band Aid 20 single, because it and supplier Universal Music could not agree on a price, will have had little effect on the single's sales. The two eventually reached a compromise: Apple would sell the song for £0.79, but Universal would receive the £1.49 it was asking for, and which every other music provider was charging. Apple made up the difference out of its own pocket, a move just adopted by UK service Wippit, which is selling the song for £0.49.

Wippit had a good year. It signed up all the major labels to the download service it added to its existing subscription-based, P2P-like service, and even struck a deal with easyGroup to power the airline-to-Internet cafés empire's low-cost digital music service. It went live this week, just after bricks'n'mortar music retailer HMV announced it plans to spend £10m refreshing its download service in 2005.


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