Omnifone and the Bundled Music Opportunity

I spent this morning listening to Omnifone’s CEO Jeff Hughes and CFO Matthew Bagley rounding up what has been a good year for the white label music service provider.  Omnifone have been in the game for a lot of years and have seen their fair share of ups and downs.  Now 10 years on from being founded they have turned their first annual operating profit, from a record full year revenue of £29.5 million.

When Omnifone first came to market it had no shortage of direct competitors. But as the first wave of digital music services, powered by Omnifone competitors such as OD2 and MusicNet, smashed against the rocks of the new upstart iTunes Music Store, the marketplace soon consolidated.  Omnifone wasn’t quite the last man standing, but it certainly had a lot more competitive leg room.  Over the intervening years it has managed to establish a solid reputation for providing the back end infrastructure for music services for global brands such as Sony, Blackberry and Vodafone.

Over the last year or two though, Omifone has been quietly repositioning around the streaming zeitgeist.  The most visible ouput of this strategy to date has been the formation of the direct to consumer streaming service Rara, which has since been spun out of the company.  Hughes says of streaming music that Omnifone has “built a racetrack and now we want to put horses on it”.   This, he adds, will not just mean working with big global companies but also starting to work with a select number of ‘interesting’ start-ups, up to 5 a year.

Hughes points to bullish streaming and cloud music revenue forecasts by the likes of Strategy Analytics and ABI Research as an indicator of the market opportunity.  Although these forecasts are optimistic (to put it mildly) there is clearly a pronounced pivoting towards streaming consumption.  As regular readers will know, I have little faith in 9.99 ever being established a mass market consumer price point and it will certainly never drive the numbers some people are forecasting.  But work with a hardware company to absorb some or all of the cost of the music into a device or car (or even a home as Hughes suggested) then you start to have the ability to drive mass market adoption.

Four years ago I proposed the creation of digital music box for the living room, to halt the steady demise of the home hi-fi.  Back then the economics of the proposition had to be engineered around pre-installed downloads, making it nigh on impossible to make the concept work at mass market price points without dramatic license rate discounting.  Streaming changes all of that.  Now the concept of a $/€/£250 hi-fi unit with a year’s worth of fully integrated unlimited music is a genuine opportunity (and one that some one should address with urgency).  Omnifone is exactly the sort of company who could make it happen with the right device brand.

Of course Omnifone no longer has as much competitive leg room as it once did, with the likes of 24/7, 7 Digital and Aspiro all contributing to an increasing competitive marketplace.  But as streaming continues to help drag digital music out of doldrums, Omnifone could yet play a key role in the future of digital music. Though the ISP bundle opportunity appears to be diminishing with every month that passes, mobile carriers (e.g. Cricket Wireless) and handset manufacturers (e.g. HTC) are showing growing enthusiasm for bundled music strategy.  Once the dust settles on Spotify’s stellar year, and it is clear just how much all the other streaming service ‘boats’ have been risen by Spotify’s ‘high tide’, I expect we’ll see an even stronger case for the bundled music service, and in turn more demand for the services of Omnifone et al.

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