BBCi Tunes?

The BBC’s Director-General Mark Thompson stated on Saturday that the BBC is considering partnerships with digital music providers to sell downloads. The BBC’s thinking is that there is significant opportunity for contextual impulse purchases by enabling consumers to click and buy a download of a song they have just heard or seen in a piece of BBC programming. Whilst there is undoubtedly some demand here, particularly for bringing the less engaged mainstream consumers (what Jupiter calls the disinterested majority) into the digital fold, it also raises questions about what the BBC’s role should be. The BBC is a state funded body that has used significant portions of its revenues to invest in digital to meet charter related targets. In doing so the BBC has innovated and created a web strategy that stands as a model of good practice in many respects. However there is concern in sections of the commercial sector that this is at the expense of commercial sites which find it hard to charge for content when so much is available for free from the BBC. In a recent report we looked at the impact that the BBC’s web strategy has had on one particular section of the media: newspapers.

But back to music, what impact would the BBC have? In all probability they would partner with some one like MusicNet or OD2/Loudeye and so would be providing direct revenues for the commercial sector. Would they ever become a mainstream player to compete directly with iTunes and Napster? I don’t think so. The BBC have been ‘doing music’ for years but are no HMV. That’s neither what they’re about, nor what they’re capable of. What the BBC is capable of is becoming an important niche player.

Finally a little anecdote on contextual purchasing: I was watching a BBC documentary the other night and heard a song on the soundtrack by a band from my mis-spent student youth (Slowdive). Overcome by a wave of nostalgia I decided to try and buy a digital download of the track. Unfortunately my search of each and every main (and plenty of minor) digital download services came up with nothing. One click on Amazon though found me the song on an Anthology CD which had been released the year before.

However big the catalogue numbers that are quoted by the services, there are still gaps and these enable the CD to trump digital when it shouldn’t have the opportunity to. The CD arrived two days later, the download would have arrived 2 minutes later.