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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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If you enjoy this site, please consider downloading a Layaways track or album from iTunes, Amazon MP3, Bandcamp, or eMusic. CDs are available from CD Baby and Amazon.

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April 30, 2010

Bye Bye Lala
by David Harrell
Apple will pull the plug on the Lala music streaming service on May 31st. From an e-mail sent this morning to Lala members:
The Lala service will be shut down on May 31st.

In appreciation of your support over the last five years, you will receive a credit in the amount of your Lala web song purchases for use on Apple's iTunes Store. If you purchased and downloaded mp3 songs from Lala, those songs will continue to play as part of your local music library.

Remaining wallet balances and unredeemed gift cards will be converted to iTunes Store credit (or can be refunded upon request). Gift cards can be redeemed on Lala until May 31st.

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April 28, 2010

Some Quick Thoughts on the Quirk Presentation
by David Harrell
Tim Quirk's presentation on the Walkman to the iPod and how portability and infinite storage changed the way we listen to music is a great read. And I completely agree that it's a shame that traditional radio formats are so narrow. It's hard to discover great new music if everything you listen to comes from the same genre or subgenre.

That said, I can't help thinking that his interpretation of the musical open-mindedness of Guns N' Roses fans is a little too generous. Quirk notes that Big Champagne data on P2P traffic reveals some surprising diversity in the music libraries of GNR fans -- more than a third of those listeners also have tracks from Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, and Garth Brooks. Quirk asks the rhetorical question, how many radio stations play all four of these artists?

After reading Quirk's post, Glenn Peoples at Billboard conducted a quick experiment and reported that the first three subsequent artists played on a Pandora Guns N' Roses station were Bon Jovi, AC/DC, and Metallica, even though, based on the Big Champagne data, Eminem and Black Eyed Peas had much higher GNR correlations those rock artists (and the three country acts above). Earlier today, I did the same thing on Last.fm and the first five subsequent artists were Aerosmith, Izzy Stradlin, Skid Row, Sebastian Bach, and Gilby Clarke.

So are GNR fans ill served by Pandora and Last.fm? The underlying methodologies for these two services are a very different, but it's probably safe to say that neither is likely to serve up tracks by Tim McGraw or Black Eyed Peas on a Guns N' Roses station. Yet even though it'd be wonderful if streaming services pushed the boundaries more on musical genres, I'd argue that the majority of those GNR listeners might not want to hear those artists.

Please don't get me wrong -- I'm not arguing for musical conservatism, I think almost every music fan could stand to expand his or her listening range. But a listener who likes Guns N' Roses enough to launch a GNR station on Pandora or Last.fm is no doubt a completely different listener than someone who just happens to have a GNR track in his or her library. (Especially when you consider that the tracks arrived there via a P2P service.) The former listener is a somewhat dedicated fan, the latter might just be someone who has fond memories of "Sweet Child O' Mine" and other 80s music and nabbed the track from a P2P service, but doesn't have much interest in the rest of the band's catalog.

Despite the correlations reported by Big Champagne, none of Last.fm's top 250 similar artists to Guns N' Roses (as determined by actual tracks played by listeners) are outside of the hard rock, metal, or rock genres. While I truly believe that fans of one genre like and appreciate great songs from completely different genres, unless the Big Champagne data shows a similar overlap in the number of listens, as opposed to a mere shared presence on a hard drive, it doesn't indicate that any given Guns N' Roses fan is open to hearing Black Eyed Peas, Eminem, or Kenny Chesney.

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April 26, 2010

Monday Odds and Ends
by David Harrell
CD Baby will now distribute a digital single for $9, with no ongoing annual fee. No specific mention was made of an ongoing commission, but I'm assuming it's the same 9% charged for digital sales of digital albums and individual songs from those albums.

Last week's New Yorker had a great piece on the iPad and the Kindle, and the economics of digital books. Also from that issue, Least Common Complaints About the New iPad.

From Sunday's NY Times Magazine piece on the National:
"The corporate model has collapsed, but small-label bands playing to 200 people a night can pay the bills and raise a family on it. That's why we’ll have better and more interesting innovations."
You can stream the band's new album from the NY Times article and a free download of "Bloodbuzz Ohio" is available here.

Senzoo is a new widget for soliciting online donations.

The transcript of Apple's earnings call from last week.

And BusinessWeek (or "Bloomberg Businessweek" as it's now billed) has a piece on Apple's app strategy:
For Apple, it's a Wintel-like cycle in which new Apple hardware drives the creation and purchase of new apps. Except it's better than Wintel; the combination of Intel processor running Microsoft's Windows operating system never really managed to leap from PCs to other devices. Apple has constructed its empire so that almost anything you buy on iTunes -- and Apple has your credit-card information with your first purchase -- can run on any future iProduct. "The laws of nature say that [Apple is] making too much damn money, that this has to be unsustainable," says David J. Eiswert, who runs T. Rowe Price's (TROW) $312 million Global Technology Fund (PRGTX). "But who is going to stop them?"
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April 21, 2010

Our First Spotify Payouts
by David Harrell
Spotify Banner
As the old saying goes, if you lose money on each sale, you can make up for it with volume. I thought of it when the first payouts for Spotify streams showed up in our CD Baby account last week. (CD Baby began delivering content to Spotify in early 2009.)

The payments, of course, aren't negative amounts. Yet the amounts for individual streams are small enough that it will take an extremely large volume to add up to any significant amount.

For August and September of 2009, we received per-stream payouts of .02 cents, .03 cents, .06 cents, and -- my favorite -- an amount so small that it apparently rounds to .000000 cents! These numbers are all after CD Baby's 9% commission, so the actual payouts from Spotify were approximately .022 cents, .033 cents, and .066 cents per stream. I'm assuming that the different amounts represent streams by different Spotify user types (free, day pass, and premium) and/or regions.

A couple years ago, Glenn Peoples discussed the disparity between per-stream payouts and those for actual digital downloads, noting that it takes 70 plays at a one-cent payout to equal the revenue generated by a single paid download. At the .022 cent rate, the disparity is much greater -- it would require 3,500 Spotify plays to generate the same payout as that from a 99-cent iTunes download.

So when Spotify listeners (both free and subscription) use the service as a direct substitute for the purchase of music, then it likely has negative consequences for music labels. On the other hand, when services like Spotify steer some listeners away from P2P downloads, it's a positive for labels, even if the amounts are small.

Finally, you can make an argument in favor of the streaming services when they're used to stream music that the listener already owns. That is, once you buy a song (on CD or as a digital download) that's the end of the revenue stream for the label and artist, no matter how many times you listen to it. But if you listen to a track or album you already own via a streaming service, you make an additional micro-payment to the artist and label with each play.

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April 19, 2010

A Long Tail Experiment
by David Harrell
A Long Tail Experiment
Last spring, some research by Will Page (PDF), the in-house economist for PRS (the U.K. equivalent of BMI and ASCAP), received a ton of coverage. Page believed his numbers refuted the "Long Tail" theory, at least for music consumption. The sales figures for the U.K. iTunes store revealed that -- unlike the trends observed by Chris Anderson of the listening habits of Rhapsody subscribers -- the majority of tracks in the iTunes catalog had never been purchased. At the time, arguments were made about the shape of the sales curve and whether or not Page was using the same definitions as Anderson. (Page seemed to imply that the theory predicted that 80% of sales would come from the tail, while Anderson gave a much smaller percentage.) These details aside, the fact remains that Page's research revealed that most digital tracks weren't purchased, a seeming contradiction of the main music example in Anderson's original 2004 Wired article and his subsequent book.

Yet it's not difficult to reconcile these results -- Page and Anderson might both be right. Keep in mind that the music example Anderson gave in the original 2004 Wired article was based on data from a Rhapsody catalog that included less than 1 million tracks. Page examined sales from a catalog of more than 10 million tracks, so it's really no surprise that he saw a much larger number of "dormant" tracks.

The other thing to consider is that there's probably a huge difference in usage within a subscription service vs. sales within a download store. If you're a subscriber to Rhapsody, Napster, or Netflix, there's no additional cost associated with any individual song or film you choose to consume. Indeed, Anderson suggests so in a response to the initial reports of the Page research:
It could be that the pay-per-track model discourages risk-taking and exploration of new music, which is not an issue with Rhapsody, which uses an all-you-can-eat subscription model.
While eMusic phased out the "all you can eat" component of its subscription service years ago, the behavior its subscribers seems closer to that described by Anderson than that observed by Page. An early 2009 press release, which referred to the PRS study, touted the fact that approximately 75% of the eMusic catalog was downloaded at least once in the prior year.

Although tangential to the dormant track conundrum, another issue with the "Long Tail" theory for music sales is that it has too frequently been misinterpreted to imply that artists could somehow expect to earn money from "Long Tail" sales. Anderson, of course, never made that claim -- he suggested that aggregators of content (retailers and service providers such as Amazon.com, iTunes, eMusic, Netflix, etc.) were the ones who would profit from the Long Tail phenomenon, not the individual creators of that content. As I've noted here before, a single play by a Rhapsody subscriber might be enough to include the track in the Long Tail of music consumption, but that single play results in a payment of approximately one cent, hardly enough to think of as actual income.

Back in August, I started a Long Tail experiment of sorts. My current band, the Layaways, is something of a Long Tail act, in that while relatively unknown, we've consistently sold something, if only a few downloads, every month for the past five years. But I was curious to see what might happen with a music act without any Internet footprint, a defunct band with no website and no material currently for sale in any form -- CD, mp3, etc.

So I uploaded a single song from one of my very first bands to Last.fm, making it available for streaming and free download. This group existed in the dark ages before mp3s and music blogs, and we released three "cassette only" albums (we were too broke to release anything on CD or vinyl!). While we sold a few hundred cassettes at gigs and local record stores, as far I could tell, nothing from them had ever made it online in any form. I tagged the track a few times with appropriate descriptions and waited to see what happened.

Nearly eight months later, 30 listeners have heard the song 50 times. The most-frequent listener of the song has played it 10 times and it has been added to one playlist. (I'm not disclosing any details about the song or linking to here because I'd like to keep the experiment running.) Last.fm doesn't supply stats on how many times a free track has been downloaded, so I don't know how many of those listeners liked the song enough to acquire a free mp3 version of it.

I'm not sure if this result proves anything about the Long Tail -- the only thing I can safely say is that if something is uploaded to Last.fm and tagged, someone will hear it. Perhaps this is simply a testament to the popularity of Last.fm and how its tag-based streaming radio service works. The song I uploaded isn't available for sale anywhere, so I don't know if anyone would have actually paid for it. Besides, given how subjective musical tastes are, it's difficult to read that much into what happened with a single song. If an equally unknown song were deemed an undiscovered classic by the first few people to hear it, perhaps it might have taken off somehow, if those listeners were inspired to share or promote it.

But despite the relative "success" of my mystery song, one thing seems certain: The amount of available digital music has increased enormously since the original Long Tail article, and it will continue to expand each year. Unless the number of music listeners and their aggregate listening hours increase at a similar rate (I doubt they will), it seems likely that the both the number and percentage of dormant/unpurchased tracks will continue to increase as digital music catalogs grow.

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April 16, 2010

Feeling Cheap
by David Harrell
As a fan of the Cars, I was happy to see the addition of the group's entire catalog to eMusic this week. (The Led Zeppelin catalog was another major addition.) I own the band's first two albums but there are several tracks from their later releases that I wanted to pick up.

But my enthusiasm cooled somewhat when I saw that the Cars' catalog is only available as "album only." Given that my iTunes library is now more than 10,000 tracks (and I've barely ripped half of my CD collection to mp3), I've started to cherry pick, especially for older material. And even though it'd only cost me $4 to download the entire "Panorama" album from eMusic, I can nab the one song I really wanted, "Touch and Go," for 99 cents from Amazon MP3.

Don't get me wrong -- as an eMusic subscriber, I'm glad for the additions to the catalog. And if major labels opt to make some of their releases "album only," that's OK with me. I'd rather have them there with restrictions than not at all. Yet I'm now more likely to download new releases as full albums. For older material that I'm already familiar with, I'd rather just get my favorite tracks.

UPDATE: In this particular case, there's a workaround -- while the album it's from is "album only," the track is available from eMusic a la carte on this greatest hits collection.

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April 12, 2010

Monday Odds and Ends: Peter Gabriel's Filter and Apple's Moat
by David Harrell
BusinessWeek has a piece on the Filter, the recommendation technology company fronted by musician Peter Gabriel. Unfortunately, it provides very few details on how the recommendation engine actually works.

Has the introduction of the iPad made Apple a "wide moat" company? Morningstar analyst Toan Tran:
What Apple is doing, is that they are building a dominant mobile platform. Basically, they're recreating Windows in the mobile space with the iPhone.
Video and a full transcript are here.

And an interview with "In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise" author George Prochnik:
There's a reason people are turning their iPod volume too high. People are responding to several generations of mounting infrastructure noise. We are so loud in part because we have to create our own personal noise so that we don't feel like we're being held hostage to the grind and clash of the environment. I went to Florida, where these people were using their cars to blast super-loud music. But the places where these people live is horrifically noisy. When you're dealing with that kind of environment, I can really see the temptation to blast something that at least you like.
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April 09, 2010

Friday Odds and Ends: Minimum Wage Downloads, Free Music, and Live Nation
by David Harrell
This is fun: I've long joked with friends that -- if you add up all the hours spent practicing, performing, writing songs, recording, mixing, etc. -- many professional musicians are actually earning less then minimum wage for their efforts. Fazo, at the Cynical Musician blog, calculates how many downloads/streams you'd need from various digital stores/music services to earn the equivalent of a minimum-wage salary:
- In the case of Amazon and iTunes single-track downloads, 1,813 units must be sold monthly; 21,750 units a year.

- For CD Baby full album downloads (under the new commission rates), the numbers are: 155 units a month; 1,859 units a year.

- For eMusic single-track downloads, at the rates reported for Q3 2009: 3,392 downloads a month; 40,941 a year.

- With Rhapsody streams, you’ll need 127,473 streams a month; 1,529,670 a year (yep, that’s over one-and-a-half million).

- Finally, Last.fm rates mean you’ll need 7,733,333 plays monthly; 92,800,000 plays a year.
Chris Randall at Analog Industries wonders if he should give away the next Micronaut release.

And Morningstar equities strategist Paul Larson on why he recently dumped the stock of Live Nation Entertainment from one of the portfolios he manages for Morningstar's StockInvestor newsletter. (I work for Morningstar as well, though in a marketing capacity.) It's not available online, so I'm posting the best bits here:
I've always liked Ticketmaster's ticketing business; I figured that any business that could frustrate its customers but still keep them coming back is a business with a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, the merger with Live Nation greatly diluted the attractiveness of the overall company.

First, to get the merger past the antitrust hurdles, the company had to agree to license its ticketing software, providing a potential bridge across the moat of the ticketing business. Yet even if the ticketing business retains its moat (something with decent odds of happening, in my view), Live Nation's other operations are quite unattractive. It owns several concert venues, a business with a high degree of rivalry and modest barriers to entry. (This is almost the polar opposite of International Speedway ISCA, which essentially has mini-monopolies in any given city.) Live Nation is also involved in promoting concerts and managing artists, businesses for which I fail to see a moat. The old Live Nation generated an operating loss in four of the past six years, and the combined entity will also have to deal with roughly $1.5 billion in debt.

In sum, Live Nation is a financially levered firm with a declining moat and a management team that have done a good job destroying value. No thank you!
(Morningstar uses the term "economic moat" to describe how well a company can hold off its competitors.)

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April 08, 2010

Variable Digital Pricing at Rhino Records
by David Harrell
This is somewhat old news, but I just noticed that Rhino Records, a division of Warner Music Group, is now selling digital downloads directly from its site:

Digital Downloads from Rhino Records

Pricing is variable, with 99-cent and $1.29 320k mp3 tracks, and $1.49 and $1.94 "Hi-Def" (Apple Lossless, WMA, or FLAC) tracks. There's a range of album prices, though the standard price appears to be $9.99 for mp3 albums and 50% more for the Hi-Def versions.

Will higher-quality files lure music fans away from iTunes and other digital retailers? And will they pay up to $14.99 for a lossless digital album?

While the appeal to labels is obvious -- no 30% cut to Apple -- I've never thought that "direct from the label" downloads were that compelling for buyers, unless coupled with lower prices and/or higher audio quality. With its 320k mp3s, Rhino is offering higher-resolution downloads than those available from eMusic, Amazon MP3, and iTunes. (I've heard the argument that the 256k AAC files Apple sells in the iTunes store offer higher sound quality than a 256k mp3, though I've never done a serious A/B comparison.) As far as I know, Amie Street is the only well-known digital store currently selling 320k mp3s.

My guess is that within five years, as the capacity of portable devices increases, lossless files will become the new standard for digital downloads. (Higher quality files for streaming music will no doubt come much later.)

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April 01, 2010

Of Course the Demand for Music is Elastic: The P2P Numbers Prove It
by David Harrell
In a recent blog post, former eMusic CEO David Pakman notes that the new CD pricing strategy from Universal Music means that the music industry (or at least one major label group), is finally acknowledging that the demand for music is elastic. That is, lower prices will increase unit sales enough to boost the total amount spent on music.

Pakman has long believed that music is elastic, and I tend to agree. In previous blog posts he has cited eMusic sales figures as evidence of the price elasticity of demand for music, but I believe there's another set of data that also makes a strong, albeit incomplete, case for elasticity: peer-to-peer file sharing.

According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, for every track that is purchased from a legal download service, 19 are acquired via file sharing networks. No doubt a percentage of illegal download activity comes at the expense of legal sales, and P2P sharing and other forms of piracy are generally blamed for the decline of music sales over the past decade. (Check out the most recent IFPI Digital Music Report.) But a larger portion of this activity simply represents the increased demand for music when the price is zero. We know this because the sheer volume of music acquired outweighs the amount that was purchased before the advent of P2P sharing.

Think of it this way -- if all of the tracks now acquired via P2P sharing were instead purchased legally via iTunes or other download stores, it'd represent an annual digital music market of approximately $84 billion, 20X the total digital sales of $4.2 billion in 2009. Yet the total market for recorded music peaked in 1999 with worldwide sales of $38.6 billion and U.S. sales of $14.6 billion. And when you consider that the P2P crowd only represents a subset of music listeners -- those with both the basic technical skills to acquire music this way and no qualms about the legality/ethics of doing so -- the total demand for recorded music is obviously much greater than that reflected by total music purchases under traditional pricing models.

So it's undeniable that the demand for music is extremely elastic, at least as the price approaches zero. But you can't make money from $0 per unit, no matter how many are moved. What we don't know for certain is the shape and slope of the demand curve. Does demand only skyrocket as the price approaches zero, or is there some point between zero and current music prices where demand will increase to a level that produces total revenues that exceed the current dwindling numbers?

Keep in mind that -- because of fixed costs such as mechanical royalties -- the increase in demand must be significantly greater than the decrease in prices. Double the sales at half the price is a net loss for music labels. That is, due to mechanical royalties totaling 91 cents, if you drop the retail price of a 10-track album from $10 to $5, you need to sell 2.22 units at $5 to equal the revenue from 1 unit sold at $10, ignoring all other costs. (Physical CDs, of course, have manufacturing costs and shipping costs as well, but even digital albums have additional costs such as credit card transaction fees, though those tend to be percentage amounts.) The demand for music has to be elastic enough to offset the fixed costs that increase as a percentage amount as the selling price decreases.

I've long been convinced that Amazon.com, with its daily and monthly mp3 album deals, has been conducting an ongoing experiment in music pricing and demand, and that it will eventually use (or is already using) its sales data to try to convince labels to agree to a permanent restructuring of the pricing of digital albums. I'd love to see those sales figures, as well as those for Universal CDs under its new pricing model.

Can the music industry somehow adjust its prices to increase the sales of recorded music? Given the trend over the last decade, it seems like it'd be silly not to try. If nothing else, just halting or slowing the ongoing decline would be something of a victory.

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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