Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Apple Signs Off on Spotify. When Will Big Music Play Along?

spotify-logoSpotify is the best music service you’ve never used. That’s because the much-hyped streaming music service is only available in Europe and for a select few in the U.S. who have either gotten sneak peeks or hacked their way into it.

The service took one step toward wider distribution today when Apple (AAPL) approved its iPhone app (for a glimpse of the app, see the video at the bottom of this post). But that won’t help U.S. users until the big music labels–Warner Music Group (WMG), Sony (SNE), EMI and Universal Music Group–agree to American distribution deals.

But before we get to that, let’s back up and explain what Spotify is: A streaming-music service that lets you listen to whatever you want whenever you want, as long as you have a Web connection. A free version comes with ads, and if you want to do away with those, you can pay for a subscription.

Does that sound familiar? It should. There are plenty of models like this available in the U.S. right now, from RealNetworks’s (RNWK) Rhapsody to MySpace Music, a joint venture owned by News Corp.’s (NWS) social network and the big labels. For various reasons, equivalent (and legal) models have been much harder to come by in Europe, which explains part of the appeal there. The other explanation is that Spotify works beautifully.


But don’t take my word for it. Ask columnist Farhad Manjoo (“The best streaming music service in the world”). Or better yet, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (“Spotify is so good”).

Meanwhile, investors–primarily European ones–have been throwing money at Spotify, and the big music labels’ international arms are enthusiastic partners (and equity shareholders). And the company’s boosters have been pointing to a U.S. launch as early as the fourth quarter of this year.

So let’s assume this happens. What then? The problem with the digital music business, as company after company has found out, is that it’s a miserable business:

  • Selling music by the track is a low-margin affair that only works if you have enormous scale–Apple sells some two billion songs a year.
  • It’s been nearly impossible to get more than a few hundred thousand people to pay a monthly fee for music–ask Rhapsody or Best Buy’s (BBY) Napster, which have been slogging away at this for years without gaining any traction.
  • And it’s been impossible to support a free service with advertising while ponying up big licensing fees to the labels–ask Imeem, et al.

So why will Spotify be any different? Depends on whom you ask. Some figure that it has the best chance of working as a mobile service and that since phone users aren’t used to the idea of getting all the music they can eat on their phones for free, they’ll pay up if given the chance. Others think the big labels have gotten wiser and/or more benevolent about their licensing fees and are willing to wring less out of Spotify at the start in the hope that it will pay off down the road.

Still others just shrug and figure it will work out somehow because…well, one of these days, someone has to figure out how to make this work. “Everybody loves the product,” says an industry executive familiar with the company’s plans. “And there’s a hope that the business model is realistic.”

I have heard rumbling that not all of the big labels are equally enthusiastic about a U.S. licensing deal. It’s unclear whether that’s due to something specific about the U.S. market or to internecine squabbles at particular labels. But Spotify will need at least three of the big four to play along. And then we can see just how realistic the model really is.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald