Digital Audio Insider -- the economics of music and other digital content


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Digital Audio Insider is David Harrell's blog about the economics of music and other digital content. I write from the perspective of a musican who has self-released four albums with the indie rock band the Layaways.

My personal website has links to my LinkedIn and Google+ pages and you can send e-mail to david [at] thelayaways [dot] com.

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November 30, 2007

The Digital Pricing Conundrum Part IV: The Loss of Resale
by David Harrell
In a comment to Sub Pop records' recent announcement of the sale of digital downloads, one potential customer summarized the shortcomings of digital downloads relative to compact discs:
We are asked to pay something not too far from what we would (especially given sale prices) for the physical product, which includes tangible artwork, often lyrics, and a lossless source that we can rip from in any bitrate we choose, as many times as we choose.
But one difference wasn't mentioned -- the right to legally sell or trade a disc that you don't like or have simply grown tired of. (Or, to be cynical, one that you've already ripped to mp3, though ripping and then selling/trading a disc is considered a "fair use" no-no.)

Granted, many consumers never sell or trade CDs and some discs have little (if any) value in the resale market. But even if you never opt to sell a disc -- the ability to do so has an economic value and it's one that seems to have been frequently overlooked in the transition from physical CDs to "licensed" digital files. (Though Zune honcho J Allard recently noted that you can't trade a digital album for a burrito.)

How much is that value? That's tough to say. Unlike new CD prices, which generally stay within a somewhat narrow range, regardless of the relative popularity of the release, once you enter the used market, it pretty much comes down to supply and demand.

continue reading "The Digital Pricing Conundrum, Part IV: The Loss of Resale"

The used CD prices on Amazon.com seem to be a fairly accurate representation of this relatively efficient market. I've seen "like new" copies of recent releases selling for close to the price of a new disc from Amazon, while on the other end there's the ubiquitous "one cent" discs offered for sale. That one-cent price is a bit misleading, however, as Amazon tacks on a $2.98 shipping charge.

While it's impossible to assign a fixed universal value for used discs, in an attempt to estimate the average value, I looked at the top-selling digital albums on both iTunes and Amazon.com's mp3 store. I then compared the prices of the download versions to the least expensive used copy offered by Amazon.com sellers. I used the "sell yours here" link to find out exactly how much you'd receive for selling a used copy for the current low price, and subtracted postage and packaging costs, to arrive at the final price you'd receive for selling the disc. For example, here's what you can expect to receive for selling a used disc for $6.99 on Amazon.com:
Used CD price: $6.99
Amazon shipping credit: $2.98
Amazon commission: - $2.84
Mailing costs: - $1.81
Packaging: $0.50
Net return: $4.82
By subtracting that number from the price of the new disc (based on the current Amazon.com price), I arrived at the out-of-pocket cost for the consumer who buys a new CD, decides he longer wants it, and opts to sell it via Amazon.com. The difference between that amount and the cost of the digital download version of the album might be considered the "premium" the consumer is paying due to the lack of resale for digital albums.

A few caveats: Obviously, this analysis doesn't quantify the hassle factor associated with selling a used CD. And I'm also assuming that all new CDs were purchased from Amazon.com with no sales tax or shipping costs. (My informal Amazon.com shipping survey from earlier in the year revealed that many Amazon shoppers avoid shipping charges by bundling purchases or via an Amazon Prime membership.) Also, some label types might argue that $9.99 CD prices are artificially low, due to loss-leader pricing by Amazon.com and big box retailers. That may be true, but the $9.99 retail CD price is an increasing reality for many consumers, regardless of the economics behind it.

Let's start with top sellers at Apple's iTunes store. To make the comparison as fair as possible, albums where there was no identical CD version of the iTunes album were ignored. Interesting, I had to go all the way to the 24th top seller to find top-10 albums that had identical CD versions (no iTunes-only bonus tracks, no bonus DVD with the CD version, etc.)

Here are the top-selling digital albums at iTunes, as of Tuesday, November 13th. The "Used Net" column lists what a seller ends up with after commission and mailing/packaging costs. The "Out of P" column lists the difference between the cost of the new CD and the Used Net. Subtracting that amount from the cost of the iTunes album then reveals the "Premium" that purchasers of digital albums are paying because of the loss of resale value:

iTunes digital pricing premium
On average, you'd pay $10.19 for one of the top-10 titles in iTunes, as opposed $11.49 for the equivalent CD. But you could, on average, net $6.23 for subsequently selling your CD. So the mean potential "loss of resale" premium for these iTunes albums was $4.93.

That premium varied considerably across the top 10. Timbaland's "Shock Value" is much cheaper as a download ($9.99 vs. $13.98 for the CD) and the current market price for the used disc is relatively low. So an iTunes purchaser gives up just 39 cents due to the loss of resale. On the other end of the scale, an iTunes purchaser actually paid more for the download version of the Killers' new Sawdust record than the CD ($11.99 vs. $9.99) in addition to giving up a net resale value of $6.42, resulting in a digital premium of $8.42.

I conducted the same experiment for Amazon.com's mp3 store:
Amazon.com digital pricing premium
Here, because of the lower average prices for download albums ($8.69), the average digital premium due to loss of resale was significantly less than that seen for iTunes purchases, just $2.86. Also, two Amazon.com mp3 albums -- Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" -- had no measurable loss-of-resale premium, further contributing to the lower average. The mp3 price for the former is less than half of the cost of the CD version. Similarly, the "Back to Black" album was priced significantly less as download than as a CD.

All's Fair in Love and Music Retailing
So is it fair to say that download albums are overpriced by the loss-of-resale premiums shown above?

Not really, because not every purchaser intends to sell his or her copy of a purchased CD. The market price of a used CD reflects the relative supply and demand for the album -- if everyone opted to sell, the market value would plunge because of a supply glut and the premiums shown above would also diminish.

And there's also the inconvenience factor -- selling an individual CD via Amazon.com is relatively easy, but it requires listing the disc, packaging it, and mailing it. For many music listeners, it's just not worth the bother for a few bucks. While sellers always have the option of lugging a stack of CDs to a local used CD shop to sell in bulk, they're likely to receive less money per disc.

Further, if you take free shipping from Amazon.com out of the equation and assume buyers of new discs are paying $2.98 for shipping, the average premium for iTunes album purchasers drops to just $1.95. The premium actually disappears for purchasers of mp3 albums from Amazon.com.

Finally, these comparisons are based on the assumption that digital downloads and CDs are an interchangeable format, and that consumers are carefully pluses and minuses of each format and the relative prices before making a purchase decision. While my personal belief is that the lack of artwork, lower fidelity, and loss of resale value associated with digital albums requires a significant discount from the CD price -- something close to the eMusic price of approximately $3 for an album -- other consumers clearly feel differently. Digital downloads offer immediate gratification, with no waiting for discs to arrive and no need to rip them for use on a portable device. And for many listeners, the diminished sound quality of digital downloads is negligible.

Hence, I'm reluctant to assign a specific dollar amount to the loss of resale premium, in isolation from the other differences between physical CDs and digital downloads. However, for the subset of consumers who truly care about resale, it seems fair to say that digital albums need to be priced approximately three to five dollars below the total cost of the equivalent CD to compensate for the loss of a resale value. (At least for recent, top-selling albums.)

Of course, while consumers can argue about what's "fair," sellers of products aren't obligated to determine the most reasonable price relative to an older format. In an industry that's struggling to figure out where it's going, pricing really comes down to charging whatever the market will bear for a product. The iTunes store established that price as $9.99, but as a tight-fisted consumer, I'm happy to see some downward pricing pressure from the new Amazon.com mp3 store and cheap downloads from Wal-Mart. [Note -- the previous paragraph was modified on 12/01/07. In the original version, I wrote that the $9.99 digital album price seems likely to persist, but after further thought, I'm not so sure. Every digital album sold via Amazon.com for $8.99 or less is bringing down the average amount paid for digital albums. If some sort of price elasticity of demand for digital music is observed, the labels might be likely to embrace even lower prices, especially for older releases.]

One final thought: While my analysis here is solely for digital albums, the fact remains that most digital sales are single songs, not full albums. And I don't think 99-cent single song downloads are overpriced at all, given the huge value of being able to buy a single song as opposed to an entire album.

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November 27, 2007

Tuesday Odds and Ends
by David Harrell
CD Baby delivered our albums to Last.fm last week. I missed the news last spring, when the IODA catalog was delivered to Last.fm. Though I'm not sure if this means Last.fm will be selling downloads or simply offering free streams and promo tracks. The Last.fm page for the Wrens (distributed by IODA) offers a single mp3 for sale, but the link actually sends you to the Amazon.com mp3 store...

An eMusic subscriber notes the recent arrival of some "major label" names in the catalog -- Elvis Presley, Cake, and Pink Floyd. And thanks to Starbucks/Hear Music, you'll find James Taylor and Joni Mitchell releases as well.

And Pandora.com gets a mention in today's Doonesbury strip.

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November 26, 2007

More On eMusic Payouts
by David Harrell

eMusic banner

In a comment to last week's update on eMusic per-song payouts, Andrew Dubber wrote:
I'm not sure low 'per unit' returns are necessarily a problem for eMusic.

This is a plus in the balance sheet, it's not low because anybody's ripping you off, and the cost of generating those sales, in real terms, is effectively nil. You may have high fixed costs in the recording, but your marginal cost on each individual digital sale is as near to zero as I can figure.

Personally, I'd be happier with 10 cents per unit and 10,000 downloads than I would be with $1 per unit and 100 downloads.
I don't disagree, but eMusic also has to keep the labels in its catalog happy. In theory, you might think eMusic is indifferent to the per unit rate because of its revenue sharing model. That is, eMusic is simply paying out half of its subscription revenues to the labels in its catalog. Subscriber usage affects the ultimate per-song payout, but that doesn't directly impact eMusic's bottom line.

But -- and it's a big but -- the per-song payout matters a LOT to the labels in the catalog. And that's where the "health club" business model comes into play for eMusic. Digital "breakage" -- the failure of subscribers to use all of their monthly downloads -- directly affects the per-unit payout labels receive for each downloaded track. From eMusic's label relations page:
Like any subscription business (such as health clubs, mobile phone plans, and cable companies), our model is based on a consistently substantial percentage of subscribers downloading none or little of their paid allotment. Because these subscribers aren't downloading their full allocation of music, there is more revenue to be divided amongst labels. In other words, this "unused" revenue is part of the gross that is split among labels.
Also, that page mostly makes references to revenue sharing, not the per-track payout rates that I keep writing about here. My bet is that eMusic's strong preference is for the labels in its catalog think about it that way as well. That is, to consider revenues received from eMusic as an income stream, maybe even "income you might not have seen at all" if the label wasn't in the eMusic catalog, as opposed to per-song payments. The latter will always be a fraction of the iTunes per-song payout, which was the problem for Epitaph.

Finally, my guess is that the overall digital breakage of eMusic subscribers is relatively high. The current payout rate of 30.5 cents a track actually exceeds what I'm paying per track via my $9.99 for 40 downloads subscription (the old rate) and approaches what newer subscribers ($9.99 for 30 downloads) are paying for each track. (And the per-track rate actually goes much lower with booster packs and bigger subscription plans!) Using the "half the subscription revenue goes to labels" formula (and ignoring any deducted costs), it seems likely that the zero-breakage per-song payout rate would be somewhere around 12 to 17 cents. The fact that it's twice that amount indicates just how much breakage is occurring each month.

related: Increased Per-Song Payouts from eMusic

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November 21, 2007

Wednesday Odds and Ends
by David Harrell
The Freakonomics blog has a Q and A with Jonathon Coulton:
Q: Do you think having music available for free will make releasing some of it on a traditional album more difficult?

A: It's always hard to figure out the actual numbers on this, but I definitely get the feeling that having a more open attitude with MP3s has contributed to my ability to actually make a living. More and more, people don't like to buy things that they haven't heard first, which makes perfect sense when you think about it. This is why they have listening stations in record stores (er, I mean, when they used to have record stores). And because I depend so heavily on word of mouth marketing, it's extremely important that it's as easy as possible to hear my stuff. Again, it comes down to the extremely low cost that comes with digital content -- it's okay if only a small percentage of listeners buy, as long as the number of listeners is very high. That can only happen if you let people listen.
Nick Carr takes exception to the idea that Amazon's new Kindle is the iPod for reading:
The market for digital music players existed in 2001 because the content for the players -- the digitally compressed music file -- was already ubiquitous. Thanks to Napster, millions of people had stuffed their hard drives with MP3s and had installed jukebox software to manage them. What was required at the time was a simple, stylish way to make all that music portable, with a seamless connection between the PC jukebox and the portable device's software. That's what the iPod-iTunes system provided. The DRM, or copy-protection, embedded in the files that eventually came to be sold through the iTunes store was a non-issue for customers because they had a ton of easily shared DRM-free MP3s that worked just fine on the iPod.

There is no big, readymade supply of content for the Kindle. It arrives in your hands naked and empty, and the only way to fill it (other than through a kludgey and largely useless process of mailing Word documents and photos to a special email address for an extra charge) is to buy fairly expensive books and subscriptions through the Amazon store.
While I agree with many of his points, there is one HUGE difference between music and books: We listen to our favorite tracks again and again, which isn't the case for most books. Hence, the fact that potential iPod owner already owned content for the device played a huge role in the iPod's success.

But do consumers really need to have a backlog of pre-existing content before embracing the ebook concept? If you're a reader, you're most likely acquiring new books at a regular rate, so compatibility with content you already own is much less important to the Kindle that it was for the iPod.

I truly have no idea about the prospects for the Kindle, but if consumers believe that Kindle content is reasonably priced relative to printed books (and can be convinced to pay $399 for the device), it might have a chance. Then again, it might be another case where consumers are happy to pay for the hardware, but have the expectation that the content to fill it should be free...

Finally, I had hoped to have the fourth of installment of the Digital Pricing Conundrum series up this week, but it's going to have to wait until after the holiday weekend. Check back for it next week and Happy Thanksgiving!

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November 19, 2007

Increased Per-Song Payouts from eMusic
by David Harrell

eMusic banner

A (depressingly) few eMusic payments just showed up in our CD Baby account. For the most recent payout period, we received approximately 30.5 cents a track, based on the 27.8 cents a song CD Baby paid out after taking its 9% cut.

That number matches the largest per-song payment we've received, and is an increase from the 26.2 cents we received from the last payout period. Over the past few years, our per-track payout has ranged from 19 cents to 30.5 cents.

As I note with all of these updates, the eMusic payout rate varies based on subscription rates and download activity. Increased per-song payouts likely reflect some combination of either higher per-song subscriber payments and/or decreased downloads per subscriber. More details can be found on eMusic's label relations page.

related: A Drop in eMusic's Payout Rate, A Drop in eMusic's Payout Rate, Part II

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November 16, 2007

A Couple New Sites
by David Harrell
KnowTheMusicBiz.com is a new resource/community for musicians that covers the business aspects of the music industry, with a focus on the "do it yourself" approach. At this point, much of the content is simply links to other sites, but it's a nice collection of material relating to booking gigs, promotion, and online distribution. And it looks like musician John Doe will be a regular contributor with a "WWJDD" column/blog. Update: KnowTheMusicBiz founder David Rose sent me an e-mail, noting that much of the site's content is actually in its business wiki section.

Then there's a site that's received a lot of attention this week -- RCRD LBL. While the concept of "ad supported" music has always seemed off to me (Spiral Frog, etc.), I like the general idea here. You don't need to log in or listen or watch an ad to download a track. RCRD LBL appears to be an attempt to monetize the music blog model -- for both the blogger (RCRD LBL) and the musicians featured on the site.

While one reader of this Coolfer post feared that RCRD LBL is "another bad deal for artists," I think the model makes sense. At least for smaller acts, assuming that the contract isn't exclusive.

Say an unknown band receives $1,000 from RCRD LBL for the right to give away mp3s of a couple songs. That band is most likely ALREADY giving those songs away via MySpace or its own website. So any money from RCRD LBL is probably additional revenue for the band.

The potential problem here is that the high-profile free downloads from RCRD LBL will cannibalize an artist's paid downloads from iTunes, eMusic, etc. But in the case of my band, our top-selling iTunes tracks are songs that we offer as free mp3s on our own website.

The site clearly has technical issues to resolve, though. Every page is filled with widgets and, as of yesterday, the site was super slow to load -- I could only stream tracks, not download them.

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November 12, 2007

Zune First, iPod Second
by David Harrell
The rap on Microsoft's Zune, of course, is that it follows the lead of Apple's iPod. But here's a case where Zune was first, at least on the ad front. From the blog of Zune's Cesar Menendez:
A little over a year ago the Zune team partnered with CSS. We preloaded them onto last year's Zune 30, we used one of their tracks in the Zune-arts video, and we partnered with them on their tour with Ladytron...

Now, a little over a year later, Apple is using the same CSS track in its latest iPod advertisement.
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November 08, 2007

The Physical/Digital Pricing Differential
by David Harrell
Sub Pop is now selling mp3 albums for $9.90. One potential customer thinks that's too much:
We are asked to pay something not too far from what we would (especially given sale prices) for the physical product, which includes tangible artwork, often lyrics, and a lossless source that we can rip from in any bitrate we choose, as many times as we choose. A lossy digital file without physical media should be available at a SUBSTANTIAL discount -- not just a couple bucks.
A Sub Pop staffer responds, but dodges the pricing question by noting that the "retail" price of a CD is often below cost:
As an aside -- the sale pricing that you'd get at Best Buy or other big-box retailer is often below wholesale. If you are planning on buying a CD, do your local independent record store a favor and spend the extra couple of dollars! They're the ones who take risks in stocking small and obscure artists and they really do deserve our support.
That may be true, but I think he missed the point (or perhaps deliberately avoided it). The customer was likely referring to the relatively small price difference between Sub Pop's mp3 albums and the CDs it sells sold directly for $12.

Given that Apple's iTunes store has managed to establish $9.99 as the default price for digital albums, I can't blame Sub Pop for charging a rate it believes the market will bear. (Besides, Sub Pop has always been rather generous with FREE mp3s, generally offering several free tracks from its albums, usually at 192k.)

But -- for all the reasons listed above -- I agree that a ten buck digital album is a tad pricey. And there's another factor that the Sub Pop customer didn't mention: the loss of resale value. While some people never sell their CDs and some CDs are virtually worthless in the resale market, there's an economic value related to the ability to legally sell or trade physical CDs. I believe the loss of that value isn't fairly reflected in the $9.99 (or $9.90) digital album price.

This loss of resale value is the topic of the fourth installment in my Digital Pricing Conundrum series -- look for it next week!

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November 07, 2007

More Donation Data
by David Harrell
Aaron Schiff has posted some more analysis of the donations by Jamendo users. So far, it doesn't look like Jamendo donations will produce a lucrative revenue stream for musicians, though there's always the "something is better than nothing" argument:
449 unique artists received at least one donation during this period. The number of donations per artist ranged from 1 to 78, with an average of 3.5 and a median of 1. Overall, 55% of artists received only one donation and 7% received more than 10...

In terms of value, the average donations received by an artist during this time were $51, and ranged from $5 to $1,294.
related: The Donation Model

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November 06, 2007

Tuesday Odds and Ends
by David Harrell
Songvest allows songwriters to auction off part or all of their ownership, trading future revenue streams for upfront cash. (Via Idolator.)

Everyone's linking to this one, but in case you missed it, here's the Cory Doctorow interview at Kottke.org where he makes his case for free content. And dissects Andrew Keen:
What Andrew Keen has got his pants in such a ferocious knot about is that we are losing our "culture." Basically, if you unpack his arguments they come down to this: He thinks The New York Times did a pretty good job of figuring out what was good and he doesn't like the idea that they're not the only way of doing it and that it's getting harder to figure out who to listen to and media literacy is getting harder and that means bad stuff is going to become important and that wouldn't have happened if only the wise, bearded, white-robed figures at The New York Times had been allowed to continue to dominate our culture. That's really where he's coming from at the end of the day.
And Time gushes over the iPhone.

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November 05, 2007

The Donation Model
by David Harrell
Economist Aaron Schiff looks at the donation trends by users of Jamendo:
The donations through the site are made to artists, and are not necessarily linked to specific albums or songs. On the page with the donations data, the name of the musician or group that each donation was made to is given. However, a few quick searches revealed that almost all musicians received very few donations...

Looking at the raw data, people generally make donations of round numbers, mostly multiples of 5 dollars or 5 euros. There were a few odd donations though, like 5.99 or 6.49. The largest donation was about $204. The smallest was $5, which is the default minimum donation that the website suggests. Across all donations the average was $14.55.
I'm wondering if artists would be better off with a lower default minimum donation. It'd no doubt bring down that $14.55 average, but maybe having more listeners donating less money would increase the overall total.

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    THE LAYAWAYS

    Out Now -- "Maybe Next Year" -- The New Holiday Album:

    <a href="http://thelayaways.bandcamp.com/album/maybe-next-year">Joy To The World by The Layaways</a>

    "This is a sweet treat, deliciously musical without being overbaked for mass media consumption." -- Hyperbolium

    "Perfect listening to accompany whatever holiday preparations you may be making today." -- Bag of Songs


    O Christmas Tree - free mp3 lyrics and song details
    Away In A Manger - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, iTunes, Amazon MP3, or Bandcamp. Listen to free streams at Last.fm.



    album cover art from The Space Between

    <a href="http://thelayaways.bandcamp.com/album/the-space-between">Keep It To Yourself by The Layaways</a>

    "...about as melodic and hooky as indie pop can get." -- Absolute Powerpop

    "Their laid-back, '60s era sounds are absolutely delightening." -- 3hive

    "...melodic, garage-influenced shoegaze." -- RCRD LBL

    Where The Conversation Ends - free mp3
    January - free mp3
    Keep It To Yourself - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, iTunes, Amazon MP3, or CD Baby, stream it at Last.fm or Napster.



    album cover art from We've Been Lost

    <a href="http://thelayaways.bandcamp.com/album/weve-been-lost">Silence by The Layaways</a>

    "The Layaways make fine indie pop. Hushed vocals interweave with understated buzzing guitars. The whole LP is a revelation from the start." -- Lost Music

    "Catchy Guided by Voices-like rockers who lay it on sweetly and sincerely, just like Lionel Richie." -- WRUV Radio

    Silence - free mp3 lyrics and song details
    The Long Night - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, Amazon MP3, or iTunes, stream it at Last.fm, Napster, or Rhapsody.



    album cover art from More Than Happy

    "These are songs that you want to take home with you, curl up with, hold them close -- and pray that they are still with you when you wake up." -- The Big Takeover

    Let Me In - free mp3
    Ocean Blue - free mp3

    Download from eMusic, Amazon MP3, or iTunes, stream it at Last.fm, Napster, or Rhapsody.

    More Layaways downloads:

    download the Layaways at eMusic download the Layaways at iTunes

    the layaways website