Stardust is sprinkled all over music service Spotify.
In recent months, users, reviewers, and even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have heaped praise on the European service, which has yet to launch in the United States. But while Spotify may be a nifty service, it may also be a textbook example of how popularity doesn't mean profits.
CEO Daniel Ek appeared to acknowledge that his company has a long way to go before hitting profitability in a candid note he posted to the site on Thursday. Writing on the anniversary of the site's launch, Ek signaled that the service may be struggling to generate revenues by becoming the latest CEO to complain about music-licensing fees.
Ek began his post by saying he envisions a future where Spotify helps the music industry pocket $50 billion annually and lures people away from illegal file-sharing sites by the truckload. But before this happens, Ek said, the labels must help him help them.
"The new business model in music," Ek argued, "is a mix between ad-supported music, downloads, subscriptions, merchandising, and ticketing where, the user comes first...It can't happen if the industry continues to enforce the per-play fees it has tried so hard to hold on to. The new model is about figuring out how to increase the revenue per user between the different models--not squeeze as much as possible out of every single transaction."
Blaming the labels for an underperforming business model isn't new. Everybody from SpiralFrog to Imeem has claimed that overinflated licensing fees are the cause of their struggles. No doubt, the world would be a better place for consumers, if the labels gave their music away for free. The reality is that they aren't going to do that.
Label chiefs have a number in their heads that they think their songs are worth, and it's higher than Ek's valuation. All the moves of late by the record industry indicate that while they will try to help these sites, to a point, the labels appear determined to hold the line on their overall pricing strategy.
Here are some of things I've learned about the big record companies over the past year:
The labels don't think the failure of ad-supported Web sites will spell their doom. Not by a long shot. Many label honchos were skeptical of the ad-supported model from the start. The performances of these companies haven't raised the confidence level much. Ruckus and SpiralFrog are closed, Imeem barely survived a financial crisis, and no one in the sector has reported profits. In other interviews, Ek has acknowledged that less than 10 percent of the site's users actually fork over any money.
None of the services have shown that their sites appeal very much to advertisers (people listening to music don't look at ads). There's also evidence that instead of promoting song sales, ad-supported sites cannibalize them.
To hear Michael Robertson tell it, the founder of MP3.com says the top labels don't care if Spotify or the other services fail because there are always more "dummies" willing to pay big bucks to partner with the labels. One goes down, another will leap to take its place.
Here's the direction where music industry chiefs appear headed:
First, they are trying to get back control of distribution, and that means plugging the holes.
The industry knows that file sharing isn't going away, but the record companies appear to believe that they can discourage mainstream music fans from pirating music. To do that, the Recording Industry Association of America continues to lobby bandwidth providers to establish a graduated response program, which may include cutting off service to the worst offenders. The RIAA, the trade group representing the four largest music labels, hasn't been very successful so far. Not a single Internet service provider has publicly acknowledged working with the music industry on graduated response.
The next step for the labels is to focus on what works. My music industry sources say the labels, with their shrinking revenues, are backing away from risky digital models. Selling downloads is the only proven way to make money off the Web. The problem for the labels is that downloads are synonymous with iTunes, and that means they are forced to share too much control with Apple. The labels would like to see a world where lots of outlets sell songs online and the industry isn't overly dependent on a single store.
The business model that the labels really want to see succeed is subscriptions. Enticing people to pay a monthly fee to hear all-you-can-eat music wouldn't offer the same fat margins that CDs once did, but it has the potential to deliver consistent revenue and volume. So far, the public has by and large rejected paying monthly fees because they know that as soon as they stop paying, they lose their music.
As for Spotify, Ek wrote that "overnight success takes a long time," and he supported his statement by noting that iTunes "missed its revenue targets in its first year by 30 percent."
What Ek failed to mention was that in its first year--at a time when far fewer people were buying music online--iTunes sold 70 million songs and managed to turn a small profit. Apple forced the music industry to yield to its wishes by creating a wildly popular and self-sustaining business, not by pleading for mercy.
"It would obviously be wrong for me to compare Apple's success with iTunes to Spotify."
On this, Ek is right.