Universal chief Doug Morris’ quest to defang Apple’s iTunes Store

“Relationships in the entertainment world can be famously fraught. And few are more so these days than the one between Steve Jobs and Universal Music chief Doug Morris. You may recall that Morris recently refused to re-up a multi-year contract to put his company’s music on Apple’s iTunes Music Store. That’s because Jobs wouldn’t ease his stringent terms, which limit how record companies can market their music,” BusinessWeek reports.

“Now, Morris is going on the offensive. The world’s most powerful music executive aims to join forces with other record companies to launch an industry-owned subscription service. BusinessWeek has learned that Morris has already enlisted Sony BMG Music Entertainment as a potential partner and is talking to Warner Music Group. Together the three would control about 75% of the music sold in the U.S. Besides competing head-on with Apple Inc.’s music store, Morris and his allies hope to move digital music beyond the iPod-iTunes universe by nurturing the likes of Microsoft’s Zune media player and Sony’s PlayStation and by working with the wireless carriers. The service, which is one of several initiatives the music majors are considering to help reverse sliding sales, will be called Total Music,” BusinessWeek reports.

“This isn’t only about Jobs; Morris badly needs to boost his business, and Apple is the one to beat. The iTunes store has grabbed about 70% of downloads in the U.S. And the iPod–well, what’s left to say about that juggernaut? Plus, music companies have been here before. A few years ago they launched services with the aim of defeating Napster-style file-sharing–and failed miserably. And let’s not forget that existing subscription services have signed up only a few million people, vs. hundreds of millions of iTunes software downloads,” BusinessWeek reports. “While the details are in flux, insiders say Morris & Co. have an intriguing business model: get hardware makers or cell carriers to absorb the cost of a roughly $5-per-month subscription fee so consumers get a device with all-you-can-eat music that’s essentially free.”

“With the Total Music service, Morris and his allies are trying to hit reset on how digital music is consumed. In essence, Morris & Co. are telling consumers that music is a utility to which they are entitled, like water or gas. Buy one of the Total Music devices, and you’ve got it all. Ironically, the plan takes Jobs’ basic strategy– getting people to pay a few hundred bucks for a music player but a measly 99 cents for the music that gives it value–and pushes it to its extreme,” BusinessWeek reports.

“The big question is whether the makers of music players and phones can charge enough to cover the cost of baking in the subscription. Under one scenario industry insiders figure the cost per player would amount to about $90. They arrived at that number by assuming people hang on to a music player or phone for 18 months before upgrading. Eighteen times a $5 subscription fee equals $90,” BusinessWeek reports.

Full article here.

The devil’s in the details when it comes to the Total Music concept. Will it work with all players, including Apple iPods? Will it work reliably? Do you get new releases the day they’re released? Will it require ‘Net access and leave subscribers without music if a ‘Net connection is unavailable? Will the music carry DRM? If so, how will that limit the subscriber’s ability to move the music among devices? Etc.

Some of these music cartels are obviously very threatened by Apple. Jobs played them perfectly. They now make too much from iTunes Store to pull out, but they are driven to dent iTunes Store’s dominance, so that they can wrest back the control they see slipping away to Apple.

So, there are lots of questions, but the bottom line is that competition is good, but the competition has to be good in order to compete. Do this “Total Music” thing right and we say “bring it on!” Who wouldn’t want to buy an iPod and get all the music they want for free – even if it costs $90 extra upfront? If it includes Apple iPods, we can’t see how it hurts Apple, as they make the best players and will only sell more iPods and iPhones. Do “Total Music” wrong (too many restrictions, crappy formats and quality, limited catalogs, and the rest of the usual B.S.) and it will die like so many others.

On a related note: We’re left to imagine what if Apple’s Mac had the benefit of entire industries working for years on various methods of toppling Microsoft’s Windows hegemony? We guess it’s okay to build entire industries (anti-virus, for example) around Windows’ deficiencies and support Windows no matter what while ignoring or even denigrating Apple’s superior Mac solution, but when Apple creates the best player/jukebox/music store combo all of the two bit also-rans must be propped up with higher bit rates, lower prices, DRM-free music, etc. for everyone but Apple’s iTunes Store,. Is that sort of stuff even legal? It sounds like collusion or something to us. Of course, we’re not lawyers – thank God!

It’s weird; almost like the world requires inferior solutions and products to dominate. Perhaps because there’s more money it in? Think about it: if everyone’s computer just works, then Best Buy wouldn’t have a Geek Squad employing unnecessary people, VW wouldn’t sell extra VW bugs with “Geek Squad” logos to Best Buy, the advertising firm wouldn’t need to make “Geek Squad” ads, the ads would run on the TV networks, the “Geek Squad” logo decal maker wouldn’t get paid, and so on, and so on, and so on. It would follow that, if everyone gets a Zune or some other piece of junk, maybe consumers have to buy players more frequently as they break, meaning the music cartels get a more frequent replenishment of subscription cash to fund their coke habits, and entire leech industries can perhaps be created to “fix” problems that don’t exist in the superior solution.

Maybe, in order to really grab market share and garner more support from companies, Apple should make Mac hardware that breaks more often and work to screw up Mac OS X, so that it requires a wipe and reinstall every six months in order to properly function?

64 Comments

  1. “Control” is the keyword here. Record companies are too used to being dictatorial overlords in the world of brick-and-mortar music distribution. Now that brick-and-mortar are crumbling and Apple has grabbed the control in the online world, the companies are resenting having to dance to someone else’s tune.

    Still, as MDN says, competition is good. It can only make already innovative Apple offerings even better.

  2. More Music ships to get crushed on the rocks of iTunes.

    How many service plans from others have already died.

    Jobs said that most ipods have very few bought tunes. People can so easily copy music to and from ipods and rip CD’s they, or their friends own (OULA – is a joke), why sign up to something that may get pulled in 12 months and leave you with nothing to show for it.

    Sorry, wrong plan

  3. If their plan is to keep DRM and break the Apple stranglehold, then essentially the only other game in town is MS. Do they REALLY think things would be better with MS holding 80-90% market share? Look how well it has turned out for the PC clone makers!

    MS would licence 10 versions of the Zune OS from $10-$100 depending on the level of ‘Media Centre’ you wanted, devices would be ‘built to a price’ and you would be constantly rebooting. The labels would be made to compete with one another for 20¢ per song royalty since MS would set itself up as a label to compete alongside them (like they do in PC applications, hardware, anti-virus).

    The other alternative is that Amazon or Walmart owns 80% of the market. Do the labels REALLY think their margins would remain at 70¢ from 99¢ with Walmart in charge?

    The labels need to be careful what they are asking for.

  4. “…Morris & Co. have an intriguing business model: get hardware makers or cell carriers to absorb the cost of a roughly $5-per-month subscription fee so consumers get a device with all-you-can-eat music that’s essentially free.”

    oh boy. unlimited access to Justin Timberlake and 50 Cent. where do i sign up.

    most of the artists i listen to are on small, independent labels. a few of them self-publish. and now more popular artists are finding ways to break free from the suffocating grip of the big music groups.

    Universal, you and your partners in crime can take your “business model” and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.

  5. Ummmm. No.

    I do not want a music subscription. I want to own my music.

    It’s a collection. And here’s the thing. Like everyone who has accumulated music over the years my collection includes stuff NOT AVAILABLE from the music industry.

    I don’t trust them on terms, pricing, DRM, quality. I especially don’t trust availability. How can music be a utility in the clouds without the Beatles, Led Zeppelin. What about the ‘B’ cuts from my obscure Veruca Salt singles? What happens when one of the major groups doesn’t like its cut of the fees and bolts? All you can eat is really “all they care to supply”.

    And I don’t trust my subscription fees to go to the artists I’m listening to.

    It’s ironic because they taught us to treasure our music. To own it physically. Perhaps only because it was the only way they had to distribute it. But it worked. I treasure it. I insist on having it physically.

    And over the years, the rare music, the stuff you own that will never be in “in the cloud”, becomes the most treasured.

    Now maybe future generations won’t bother to build collections and subscriptions will catch on. That’s a very different relationship with music though. Without the permanence of a collection, will it be as treasured?

  6. It’s funny watching these guys who basically had their bacon saved by iTunes try and kill it. What a bunch of asshats.

    20 years from now, business schools will be looking at two stories. One will be how Apple came back from the brink of destruction and the other will be how the short sighted greed mongers of the music industry completely screwed themselves during the biggest paradigm shift they had ever faced.

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