Why 99 cents per song?

Apple’s iTunes charges 99 cents for every song downloaded. Why? Is Outkast’s “Hey Ya” really worth no more than a creaky Pat Boone ballad?

Some artists object to this “one price fits all” model. A star may feel it cheapens the value of her wares, or that she simply deserves a higher return.

An alternative business model asks users to donate to the artist, depending how much they like the song. For one service, you can pay as little as $5 but it is suggested that you pay more. The average payment is running at $8.93, though this is a small and self-selected group using the service. In any case not all songs go for the same final price. The service is called Magnatune: We Are Not Evil, check out their web site.

Yet another idea would use an auction system. Listeners could bid for song downloads, with the price determined periodically by supply and demand. We would then expect the songs in highest demand to bring the highest price. Note also that when bands sell their concert recordings on-line, they don’t generally all charge the same prices.

Alternatively, songs may be like books. You charge a low price at first, to stimulate a snowball of fan demand. Bestsellers sell for less, per page, than academic books. (Imagine a professor boasting “Stephen King’s books sell for a mere $6.99; my books sell for a royal $75 a piece.”) In this case the supplier would flood the downloads market with copies, so that the price of the more popular song would be less, not more, despite higher demand.

Different movies sell for the same prices. Either Return of the King or the latest bomb both go for $8.50 at the same theater. This practice has long puzzled me. Perhaps the low price satisfies a fairness constraint, and also helps generate a snowball of fan demand, as with books. It might make more sense to expand the number of screens for the movie rather than raise the price. And hit movies pull people into movie theaters more generally, which spills over into demand for other movies.

The big change may come when downloads are used as advertising. Pepsi is expected to give away up to one million downloaded songs, through iTunes, in connection with the Super Bowl. Coca-Cola may be entering the market as well. Keep in mind that the recorded music industry is small in size relative to corporate advertising budgets. Perhaps corporations will become patrons of music, giving away songs wrapped in an advertisement.

The bottom line: iTunes is just one business model, and it has yet to prove itself. Apple is making money off the hardware, not the songs. Returns will plummet once the hardware business becomes more competitive. It remains to be seen how the downloads market will evolve, but do not expect a mere extrapolation of current trends.


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