Amazon today entered the streaming music foray with the launch of its own bundled music service. Amazon Prime subscribers get free access to on demand streaming from a catalogue of 1 million tracks, the majority of which are older catalogue titles rather than frontline hits. Amazon’s move has received considerably less interest and hype than Apple’s acquisition of Beats but is in many respects every bit as important.
The future of digital content is going to be defined by the content and device strategies of three companies: Apple, Amazon and Google. Each has a very different approach resulting in an equally diverse set of products and audiences (see figure). Amazon and Apple have mirror opposite content strategies: Apple loss leads on content to sell devices whereas Amazon loss leads on devices to sell content. (Google loss leads on both because its end goal is your data). All three have a strong focus on music but all three understand clearly that the future of digital content lies in having multiple genre stores that traverse music, games, apps, video, books etc. All three also recognize the importance of hardware for delivering the crucial context for the content experience. Similarly, all three have a Content Connector strategy aimed at opening up the mass-market digital content opportunity in the home via the TV.
Amazon’s inclusion of music streaming in its Prime offering speaks volumes about the perceived importance of music as a product to the retailer. Music used to be the crucial first rung on the ladder for Amazon customers. Buyers would start off with a low consideration purchase item like a CD or DVD and the next thing they knew they were buying microwaves and computers. Music is still plays an important role in Amazon’s customer life cycle, but it is no longer a product needs paying for with a separate payment. Music has become the ‘feels like free’ soundtrack to a video subscription with the added benefit of free shipping for online shopping. Out of those three core value pillars of Amazon Prime, music streaming is probably the smaller. Music has become the National Geographic channel in the cable subscription: a nice part of the overall proposition but not something that carries inherent monetary value on its own.
The harsh reality is that this is probably a sound strategy for engaging the mainstream consumer with music streaming (the extensive selection of curated playlists on top of a modest 1 million track catalogue hints at the mass market positioning). But whether this is the best strategy for the mainstream is another thing entirely. Labels fear that free services like Spotify free and Pandora threaten to erode consumers’ perceptions of music as a paid for commodity. But at least in those environments they are actively adopting a music service in its own right. With Amazon Prime there is a real risk that music is being relegated to the role of muzak in the elevator.