Why is Apple suddenly in talks with record labels about bundling an unlimited music plan with new iPods, after resisting such a move for years? Steve Jobs has scoffed at music subscriptions in the past, saying customers want to "own their music." Never take Steve at his word: For years, he shot down the idea of iPods with video or an Apple-branded cell phone — until he made them happen. The same is about to happen for music subscriptions, I suspect — but not because Jobs has suddenly changed his mind about consumers' tastes.
No, this is about the twisted dynamics of the music industry. Selling unprotected MP3s is all the rage now, even though label executives have insisted for years on copy-protected formats, like the kind Apple sells through iTunes. Forget Jobs's propaganda about Apple wanting to "free" music from copy protection. He doesn't care one bit about the digital-rights management software, or DRM, that record labels insist on. And he knows that most consumers don't care about the issue. He just wants to sell iPods, and his customers just want to buy them.
What Jobs does care about is other music stores having something Apple doesn't. The labels have been favoring competitors like Amazon.com with licenses for MP3 files — because they now fear Apple more than they fear piracy. And Jobs knows that DRM doesn't work to stop piracy, anyway. But what it does do is lock music to devices, because hardware manufacturers can't risk breaking the DMCA's circumvention provisions.
So Apple needs a new hook to win the labels back. Selling subscription music would allow Apple to lock down its music once more. According to reports of the proposals Apple and the labels are considering, iPod buyers would pay anywhere from $20 to $100 to get all the music they can download. Ah, but they'd have to download it from iTunes, onto an iPod.
Bundling music would give Apple a huge edge over the competition. Nokia's also proposing an all-you-can-hear music plan. But for all of Nokia's talk about cell phones replacing MP3 players, only 7 percent of cell-phone owners listen to music on their handsets. Amazon.com could try a subscription plan, but it's hard to see how it would make money, since it doesn't have the iPod's hefty profit margins.
Jobs comes out on top, again. Apple sells more iPods by giving the record labels what they want — copy protection and revenue — without having to share the iPod's profits. The compliant tech press corps will hail his plan as genius, forgetting he ever said anything about consumers wanting to own their music. The losers here are the musicians. Apple and the labels will divvy up subscription revenues, and the artists' cut will likely be smaller than what they'd make off of by-the-song sales. But since when has anyone asked their opinion about how to run the music business?
(Photo by AP/Paul Sakuma)