Recently, the last holdout of the major label bastion conferred their catalogue to the open-access digital world. Number two ranked label group, Sony-BMG, began an experiment to open their catalogue up to the widely accepted MP3 file format. This move follows not only the other three majors 2007 conversion to DRM-free MP3s, it comes on the heels of Amazon.com’s announcement to go into the digital download business via open-format MP3 files.
On the surface it would appear Sony-BMG is finally heeding the calls by consumer advocacy groups and overwhelming customer preference already leaning to the file format. However, looks can be highly deceiving, as they tend to be from the Sony-BMG label group. In the past, Sony-BMG used its Dual-Disc technology to revolutionize CD-DVD layering only to be criticized because of incompatibility of Dual-Discs in many players, followed by a root-kit fiasco with its traditional CDs that featured bonus CD-ROM based material. Those mis-steps caused only minor hurdles as the entire industry continued to cope with throngs of bad publicity coming from RIAA lawsuits, criticisms by Steve Jobs on the digital distribution system and continually diminishing physical CD sales.
The current offering of DRM-free MP3s by Sony-BMG comes rife with potential problems all their own. For starters, unlike much of the rest of the industry that embraced the format, Sony-BMG is doing a very limited test run of only a handful of titles. Of the hundreds of releases the distribution group is a part of each year, this will equate to only a small percentage of the new releases. Furthermore, one of the greatest assets of digital distribution is the ability to rekindle long dormant catalogue pieces at a fraction of the manufacturing and distribution costs, but the small sampling of the overall Sony-BMG catalogue hardly scratches the surface of interesting titles even for the most passive consumer.
Secondly, the purchase of the titles will require a pre-purchase of a download card. This card will cost the consumer an additional $12.99 in order to provide them access to the DRM-free files. If the average consumer considers the $12.99-$17.99 MSRP of a physical disc an excessive cost and the 99c cost of downloadable tracks on line to be too much, it is doubtful they will react well to paying an additional fee for the privilege of these additional songs. Ultimately, the card increases the per-cost of the DRM-free tracks to the consumer. Furthermore, the cards are not for infinite downloads and with a cap on the number of tracks that can be purchased per card it becomes a further deterrent for the average consumer’s needs.
Another problem with the download cards is, at present, they are only available for purchase at a physical retailer. Online purchases are, in many cases, a part of consumer instant gratification. The necessity to plan ahead and purchase a download card removes an element of spontaneity to the purchasing pattern of the consumer. Considering, most music purchases are based on impulse and not pre-planning, the entire download card scenario goes against the typical customer pattern.
Additionally, the cards are only available at select physical retailers and redeemable at select online retailers further confusing the consumer and hindering their normal nature. Considering how finicky the consumer is this could prove to be the ultimate undoing of the program.
Although, conceptually as it is presented in the press releases, Sony-BMG feels they are catering to the consumer, what they are really trying to control their copyright and therefore exercise a level of consumer manipulation. The overarching premise maybe to discourage the misuse of the songs but the result may be resentment by the consumer to the tactic more so then they already feel and the ultimate excess proliferation of the tracks via peer-to-peer networks to circumvent the system further .
Only time will tell what the future ultimately holds for the program is. As it stands now, the digital download marketplace of full-length music tracks alone is not enough to offset the diminishing physical sales of music, but the increasing nature by which content providers are willing to work with the consumer to overcome this hurdle is finally beginning to look a bit more consumer-centric even if every attempt is not fully successful. Hopefully, this trend will continue and things will progress further into a more open world where content providers and consumers can both co-exist in a space where content is respected and consumed en masse.