The UK music industry and ISPs have been working towards the goals of the government-brokered Memorandum of Understanding since last summer but we’ve yet to see concrete results, in particular with regards to new music offerings. All stakeholders recognize the crucial importance of having a big fat carrot to accompany the stick. Yet we still seem to be some distance from the ISPs being empowered with truly compelling music services they can offer to their subscribers as a genuine alternative to file sharing.
On the surface of things this week’s reported tie up with Sky and Omnifone for a music subscription services seemed like a positive step forward. However, the lightest of scratches beneath the surface reveal it to actually be a microcosm of broader problems. Omnifone’s press announcement pointedly doesn’t even mention Sky as a partner for their new ISP white label offering. Although many press reports imply Sky have signed up, the only actual substance is that Sky are considering using Omnifone to power some of the technology on its offering.
The nuanced specifics here are important. Last year Sky and Universal Music proudly announced a music JV. Details were scarce in the extreme but the strategic ambition was bold. Sky has since then not been able to add any of the other 3 majors onto the JV roster. Part of this may well relate to the other majors getting increasingly narked about UMG’s highly proactive (even aggressive) digital strategy. But more broadly it talks to the fact that there is a lot of distance between what Sky wants to be able to offer its customers and what the labels feel they can provide for the financial terms Sky are willing to consider. This follows on the heels of Virgin Media dropping pursuit of PlayLouder’s MSP offering due to label concerns and also 7Digital so far failing to get any ISP to take up their white label offering.
The root of the problem is that the ISPs want to offer consumers more content and flexibility for less money (and pay the labels less) than the labels are willing to countenance.
But most UK ISPs have good reason for having high demands, as do many other continental European ISPs. They’ve been burnt once, launching poorly featured, weakly differentiated services near the turn of the century. Their inadequacies (and the subsequent failures) weren’t the fault of the ISPs per se, rather they were products of their time, restricted to the terms that the major record labels were willing to countenance back then. (e.g. 99 cents downloads that could only be played on your computer)
Apple changed the rules of the game and the failings of the ISP services were only accentuated.
The ISPs know now that if they get back in the game they have to be differentiated and be able to compete with Apple. But they also know that most of their file sharing subscribers are unlikely to be able or willing to pay much either. So the ISPs want compelling (ideally MP3) services that cost little or nothing to consumers. The labels business models can’t support that model without the ISPs picking up a lot of the cost, which they can’t afford to do due to falling broadband ARPU.
So we’re in a stalemate that nobody really expected to be in. (Indeed back in the summer of last year BMR CEO Feargal Sharkey said he expected to have something to announce “within a matter of weeks”). The labels thought the ISPs would lap up what they had to offer, and the ISPs thought they’d get more. The record labels are not about to change the fundamentals of how they value their IP, but there are some viable mid term compromises that can get us out of this malaise:
- A series of Joint Ventures: MySpace have created a blue print for using this approach to get favourable licensing terms to deliver free music that wouldn’t have been financially viable otherwise. And the labels get lots of potential upside and to extend their role in the value chain. JVs would bind the ISPs and labels closer together, create common purpose and engender greater strategic flexibility.
- Focus on free, not MP3: the success of Spotify has shown that MP3 isn’t everything. Free music streaming with good catalogue and easy to use UI is actually a winning formula. The business case for hiding the cost of a streaming service in the access subscription is a lot stronger than for MP3 downloads
- Leverage all elements of the multiplay: ISPs typically have multiple products (TV, mobile etc.). Fully leverage these. Creating a compelling music offering means going beyond a balkanized online vs mobile vs TV strategy. Fully integrate and actually drive other business areas in the process e.g. extending a streaming music offering to mobile via an on-handset app will drive mobile data usage
Time is of the essence: every day that goes by, file sharing grows in popularity and becomes more entrenched. So agreeing on intermediate solutions with a view to a longer term roadmap is far favourable to stalling until the perfect solution can be agreed upon.