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.

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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September 28, 2006

Free Music
by David Harrell
Free Music: Indie Labels Are Giving It Away
I wrote a post for the Moistworks music blog, inspired by this BBC story about a new report from Jupiter Research. Basically, I wondered if all of the the "iPod owners buy relatively few tracks from iTunes" analyses overlook the total volume of free, label-authorized mp3s files that are now available for new releases.

So I took a quick look at a recent CMJ radio airplay chart and found that free, label- or band-authorized mp3s are available for 19 of the top 30 albums (the ones in green):

Position Artist Album
1 M. Ward Post-War
2 Yo La Tengo I'm Not Afraid Of You...
3 The Knife Silent Shout
4 Sufjan Stevens The Avalanche
5 Cursive Happy Hollow
6 Nouvelle Vague Bande A Part
7 TV on the Radio Return To Cookie Mountain
8 Thom Yorke The Eraser
9 Primal Scream Riot City Blues
10 Ratatat Classics
11 Muse Black Holes And Revelations
12 Jim Noir Tower Of Love
13 The Thermals The Body, The Blood, The Machine
14 The Mountain Goats Get Lonely
15 Mew And The Glass Handed Kites
16 Cut Chemist The Audience's Listening
17 The French Kicks Two Thousand
18 Hellogoodbye Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs!
19 Comets On Fire Avatar
20 Sonic Youth Rather Ripped
21 Ani DiFranco Reprieve
22 The Long Winters Putting The Days To Bed
23 The Velvet Teen Cum Laude
24 Dirty Pretty Things Waterloo To Anywhere
25 Sebadoh III
26 Matthew Friedberger Winter Women...
27 Michael Franti and Spearhead Yell Fire!
28 Johnny Cash American V
29 Pinback Nautical Antiques
30 Hot Chip The Warning

You can read the full story here.


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September 22, 2006

Friday Flashback Fun: Kevin Costner Apple Ad
by David Harrell
What was Kevin Costner doing back in 1983? Biking to the office on the weekend (with the family dog), and working all night on an Apple computer:

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September 21, 2006

Random Rules
by David Harrell
Random Rules
Carl Bialik (the Wall Street Journal's "Numbers Guy") on the randomness of the iPod's shuffle setting:
The iPod's shuffle feature also has sparked interest from a cadre of random-number experts and enthusiasts such as Mr. Haahr. I spoke to a few of them, including people behind several of the Web's major sources for random numbers, and found no definitive answer -- yet -- about iPod's claim to randomness, though I did learn that any computer algorithm for randomizing information can never be truly random. (An Apple spokesman said the iPod shuffles randomly, but declined to reveal details about its methods.)
When on shuffle, my iPod seems to REALLY like Teenage Fanclub, though that's probably explained by the large number of TF tracks on it.

More discussion on iPod randomness (or lack of it) in this WSJ Forum.


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September 20, 2006

A Tough Decision
by David Harrell
A Tough Decision
As reported by Coolfer and other folks, Yahoo is giving music buyers the choice between mp3 and WMA versions of the new Jesse McCartney album. Yahoo is also providing this handy comparison chart to help you choose the format:

mp3/WMA comparison chart

I'd love to see how many buyers actually opt for the WMA files...


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CD Baby Delivers Digital Content To Amazon
by David Harrell

Just saw in our CD Baby account that our second album was "delivered" on September 19 for digital distribution via There's no mention of Amazon yet in CD Baby's list of digital distribution partners, but things are obviously moving along with's proposed music subscription service.


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Wednesday Odds and Ends
by David Harrell
Wednesday Odds and Ends
Matthew Shaer on music recommendation engines (, Pandora, etc.) in Slate:
So, let's say a newfangled recommender takes off. What are the implications? First, the large-scale "depackaging" already initiated by the advent of the iPod would be expedited. Bands would spend less time on sequencing since a computer would be combing songs for individual characteristics that have nothing to do with the rest of the record. Musical content would "float" in libraries, waiting to be scooped up by a recommender.

Jason Fry writes in the WSJ about another advantage of digital downloads -- anonymity, no one knows what you're buying:
Therein lies a rarely discussed part of digital music's appeal. Sure, the Internet has revolutionized the spread of information and all that high-minded stuff, but its combination of reach and anonymity also makes it the greatest enabler of guilty pleasures ever invented. Indulgence is just a click away, and nobody needs to know, except you and some server somewhere. (At least you hope; iTunes and other legal digital-music services promise to guard your privacy.)

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September 19, 2006

More Napster
by David Harrell
More Napster
Napster shares were up 13% today, trading more than 13X the usual volume. But none of the analysts quoted in this Smart Money piece seem to think much of its prospects.


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Napster News, Profits from Breakage
by David Harrell
Napster News, Profits from Breakage
Napster is in the news today after announcing it has hired UBS to help evaluate third-party interest and/or strategic alliances.

I didn't realize (or maybe I had just forgotten) that Napster (NAPS) is a public company until I did a little research on the firm last week to respond to a comment to this post. Which means that all the details about the firm's finances are available in its public SEC filings.

According to its most recent 10K filing, Napster's online subscription service itself generated more than $25 million in gross profits for the fiscal year ending March 31, after royalty payments, bandwidth, hosting, etc. And Napster managed to increase its subscriber base to 606,000 as of March 31, 2006 from 412,000 as of March 31, 2005.

But Napster is spending a TON of money to acquire those subscribers ($51.7 million in sales and marketing), and for R&D ($13.1 million) and administrative costs ($20.8 million). All of which adds up to a net loss of nearly $55 million on sales of $94.7 million for the 2006 fiscal year. (Today's press release talks about annual revenues and Napster's strong cash reserves, but doesn't mention how much money the firm is losing each year.)

I didn't see any specific stats in the filings regarding subscriber retention/churn. That seems to be a (the?) key factor for any potential profitability for Napster. As long as it has to spend so much to maintain its subscriber base, profitability seems unlikely.

There was one very interesting tidbit in the firm's most recent 10Q quarterly filing, though. Those pre-paid cards are turning out to be very profitable because some purchasers never get around to using them:
Revenues from prepaid cards and promotions are deferred and then recognized as (i) tracks are downloaded by the end users, (ii) if redeemed for a subscription, over the subscription period or (iii) when Napster has no further obligation to provide services or refund the associated prepayments ("prepaid card breakage"). As of June 30, 2006, we have not had sufficient historical experience to estimate prepaid card breakage rates, so we recognize prepaid card breakage when our obligation to honor the redemption of the prepaid cards or promotions has legally expired. During the first quarter of fiscal 2007, based on the resolution of certain legal restrictions associated with previously sold prepaid cards, we recognized $2.2 million of prepaid card breakage, of which $1.9 million relates to cards that were subject to expiration based on their term prior to 2007 but had other legal restrictions that precluded our recognition of revenue. The remaining $300,000 was related to cards that expired during the first quarter of fiscal 2007.
I wonder if such "breakage" might turn out to be a profit center for the other subscription services and online stores.


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September 18, 2006

Monday's Wall Street Journal
by David Harrell
Monday's Wall Street Journal
The WSJ on the Rhapsody-specific portable music player:
There's no mystery here that what they've done is worth copying and improving on," Eli Harari, chief executive of SanDisk, says of Apple's approach to digital music.

Despite Apple's imposing lead, its rivals believe they may be able to win over consumers -- including large numbers of people who haven't already bought digital music players -- by offering products with features that aren't currently available from Apple. For example, Microsoft's new digital music device, Zune, has the ability to wirelessly share music, something iPods don't currently do. RealNetworks, for its part, plans to load SanDisk players with 30 hours music from artists like Coldplay, Jay-Z and the Rolling Stones (the songs can be played for 30 days, or longer if users become paying customers of Rhapsody).
And the YouTube revenue-sharing agreement with Warner Music Group:
The agreement, to take effect before the end of the year, illustrates YouTube's push to tackle the thorny copyright issues facing it and other sites that allow users to upload video content. YouTube is developing an automated system to digitally identify copyrighted music and video uploaded by its users. It will then give a percentage of revenue from any ads that appear alongside those videos on YouTube's Web site, if their owners have agreements with YouTube and opt for that rather than having the videos removed.

The closely held San Mateo, Calif., startup said it would extend that system to other copyright owners beyond Warner Music.

"Warner Music Group becomes the first media company working with us to truly embrace the power of user-generated content and allow users to use their content in legal ways, and be able to benefit by generating revenue," said YouTube Chief Executive Chad Hurley.

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September 15, 2006

What the F**k?
by David Harrell
What the F**k?
The iTunes store is protecting the sensibilities of the masses by listing the new Yo La Tengo album as: "I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your A*s." Yet the Apple folks appear to have no problem with the name of this band.


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Friday Flashback Fun: 1983 Apple Presentation
by David Harrell
No, not the one earlier this week. It's 1983 and an unbelievably smug-looking Steve Jobs describes the coming battle between Apple and the evil IBM:

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September 14, 2006

Long Tail Thursday
by David Harrell
Long Tail Thursday
Swindleeeee has a good analysis of the Long Tail effect and eMusic (with links to this blog's recent post), along with some thoughts that don't bode well for the idea that peer recommendation is the wave of the future:
I suspect that in many respects eMusic is "hit driven" as well, it's just that the "hits" are in the context of particular non-mainstream genres. Certainly from my own perspective I disproportionately download albums from eMusic based on their promotion on the eMusic front page, by the columnists for eMusic Magazine, and in the various "eMusic Dozens" lists. By contrast I rarely use the "so-and-so also likes" recommendations on individual album pages, and have never downloaded anything based on what my supposed "eMusic neighbors" are listening to.
And Christopher Carfi recently posted four separate Long Tail pieces at the Social Customer Manifesto. Not specific to online music, but he does include a bit about how he discovered Nina Gordon's cover of Straight Outta Compton:
Now, never in a million years would I have gone to Google and done a search on "sultry-voiced chanteuse doing an acoustic cover of an anthem of gangsta rap." Yet, that's exactly what I found...and I love it.

The key point here: if your niche in the Long Tail is truly one-of-a-kind, it may be so unique that no one would ever even dream to search for what it contains. The only way someone will find it is through collaborative filtering (a la Amazon) or through word-of-mouth recommendations from a trusted source that traverse the tail.
related: The Long Tail, the Fat Middle, and Tiny Slices, The Long Tail of eMusic?


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September 13, 2006

Wednesday Odds and Ends
by David Harrell
Wednesday Odds and Ends
Just noticed some new "sales" data in our CD Baby account for streaming income from Napster. Some streams are paying out at 0.2 cents a stream (after CD Baby's 9% cut) and others at 2.3 cents. I'm assuming the smaller number is for the lo-fi, ad-supported free streams and the larger payout is for full-bandwidth streams by Napster subscribers.


Marc Geelhoed examines the top-selling iTunes classical tracks for Slate:
The top 10 best-selling classical "songs" on iTunes show exactly this split between calm and stormy. The list also shows an unhealthy obsession with Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian tenor whose voice adds entire new dimensions to the word lackluster. While he tried to sing both straight classical and crossover material in the mid-'90s, he now plies a musical river that's lined with lira alone these days. And since he's appeared on American Idol, he's hit the jackpot. Recently, I downloaded all the Bocelli and non-Bocelli tracks and spent an afternoon coming to grips with what really sells.

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September 12, 2006

DRM and File Incompatibility Hit Home
by David Harrell
DRM and File Incompatibility Hit Home

While I have a professional (and blogging) interest in DRM and file compatibility issues, they really haven't affected me at the personal level. Most of my digital music comes from eMusic in the form of non-DRM mp3 files, the rest from band websites and mp3 blogs. I also rip songs from my own CDs and very occasionally buy a song from iTunes, and all work fine for listening on my iPod.

But a large chunk of my iPod listening hours -- generally when I'm walking to and from the train each day -- are devoted to audio books and spoken word tracks. I used to subscribe to (which uses iPod-compatible .aa files) and have found some great lectures at WGBH's Forum Network, though I've pretty much made my way through everything I want to hear/read from those sources. So I was thrilled to see a poster last week for the Chicago Public Library, advertising free downloads of audio books from the library's website. After checking out the site, I'm not so excited.

Overdrive files are protected Windows Media files and obviously won't play on my iPod. For some books, you're given the right to burn an audio CD of the files, so there is a potential workaround of burning the files to a CD-R and then importing them as mp3s from the disc. The other option is to find software that will break the DRM to allow direct conversion of the Windows files to mp3s. I'm not particularly bothered by any legal or ethical issues here -- I'm simply trying to listen to library files that I'm paying for with my hefty Cook County property taxes on a portable device that I already own. But both options seem somewhat cumbersome and time consuming.

My third option is to just buy a player that supports the dreaded Windows format. There are inexpensive models available, which in some ways makes this the most attractive route. I'm just not wild about having to manage and carry another digital device!


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September 11, 2006

The Long Tail of eMusic?
by David Harrell
The Long Tail of eMusic?
We haven't announced anything yet, but my band is considering a -- let's say -- seasonal release before our third album comes out in early 2007. So I spent some last week looking at chart numbers on the eMusic site to try to get a gauge of the popularity of various sub-categories. Specifically, I was trying to determine what percentage of albums are downloaded within the three charting periods.

You can use the Browse section to find out how many albums are in the overall catalog (144,896), as well as numbers for each of the 12 main style categories. And the Charts section shows the number of albums in each category that were downloaded during the past day, month, and week. (Based on the sales figures and chart positions of the two albums we have in the eMusic catalog, I'm fairly certain that an individual download from an album counts towards its chart placement.)

After half an hour of clicking, I was able to put together the following table (shoot me an e-mail if you'd like a copy of the Excel file):

The Long Tail of eMusic -- Percentage of Albums Downloaded
Category # Albums % Day % Week % Month
Entire eMusic Catalog 144,896 9.95 29.53 52.87
Alternative/Punk 17,801 14.64 38.99 63.29
Blues 4,443 12.33 39.30 68.08
Classical 11,734 9.42 37.15 67.55
Country/Folk 9,944 12.00 32.06 53.92
Electronic 15,559 9.80 31.12 55.66
Hip-Hop/R&B 9,256 10.73 29.27 49.48
International 26,763 6.07 22.11 44.49
Jazz 13,216 12.83 42.34 69.70
New Age 3,175 8.91 35.24 62.71
Rock/Pop 29,753 8.88 25.23 43.60
Soundtracks/Other 7,514 9.44 28.55 50.96
Spiritual 4,576 7.41 25.68 46.59

Note: The sum of album numbers for each category exceeds 144,896 because some albums appear in more than one category. Data obtained from on Sunday, September 10, 2006, "All of eMusic" numbers are from Monday, September 11, 2006

Overall, more than half of the albums (or at least portions of those albums) in the eMusic catalog were downloaded during the past month. Given the obscurity of many of the artists in the catalog, that's a big percentage. However, it's quite a bit smaller than some of the numbers given in the Long Tail book -- 98% for the Ecast jukebox, 95% for the NetFlix catalog, etc. Those 90+ percentages, however, were generally for a quarter, not a single month. Over a three-month period, I'm assuming the percent-of-catalog numbers for eMusic would be somewhat higher.

I don't have the data to assess the slope of the curve for eMusic downloads, but I've often wondered if it's somewhat hit-oriented. That is, high-charting albums might tend to stay that way because they're more prominent in the system. A subscriber looking for something to download is more likely to see the top-ranked albums when looking through the charts or browse pages, resulting a self-perpetuating chart position.

Also, I wouldn't read too much into the relative percentage downloads for a particular category. They're not necessarily a good indication of its actual popularity with eMusic subscribers. For example, in the Blues category, tracks from 3,025 albums were downloaded over the past month, resulting in one of the higher percent-of-category numbers (68%). The International category has a much lower percent-of-category number, just 44.49%, but tracks from 11,908 albums were downloaded over the past month, nearly 4X the number of downloaded Blues albums.

As for the seasonal project we're considering, the eMusic numbers look good, even considering the above caveat. There are 998 "Holiday" albums in the catalog. Nearly 60% of them have had downloads in the past month. Not bad, given that it's only September.

related: The Long Tail, the Fat Middle, and Tiny Slices


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September 07, 2006

Variable iTunes Pricing
by David Harrell
The 99-cent download is still the standard within the US, but as previously noted here, there's a fair amount of variation in the default iTunes price between different countries.

Economist Joshua Gans has created his own version of The Economist's Big Mac Index which uses the price of the sandwich in different markets to compare exchange rates and purchasing power. Gans used the price of a single iTunes download to create the following chart, with the Australian dollar as the starting point:

In this post, Gans postulates that Apple is engaging in a form of international price discrimination, generally charging more in countries with higher GDP rates, with the major exception of the US. He also writes that "...Apple got its pricing wrong in the US (setting it too low relative to what it would have preferred to do in hindsight)."

I disagree. Given that Apple recently held the line against variable per-song pricing -- which would probably result in higher prices for the most-recent hits -- it seems far more likely that Apple is happy to essentially break even on the sales of iTunes downloads. The highly profitable iPod is where the company is making from digital music. It seems that variable international iTunes pricing simply correlates with the variations of the prices of CDs. And, in general, music is cheaper in the US, supposedly because of higher licensing rates and fees in other markets, though that doesn't seem to explain all of the price differences.

Regardless, it's a great chart, showing a very wide gap between the cheapest market (Canada) and the most expensive (Japan).

related: Varying iTunes Prices for Different Markets, The European Premium for eMusic


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September 05, 2006

CD Artwork for Digital Downloads?
by David Harrell
CD Artwork for Digital Downloads?
Saturday's WSJ had a piece on the new Naxos /eMusic/Border's program:
On Tuesday, classical label Naxos will unveil a dozen new albums in a line it's calling MPkey. The albums are packaged in CD-sized boxes and will be placed on store shelves at Borders. Inside each box, however, customers will find not a CD but a card with an access code and a booklet of instructions for downloading the album from eMusic, an online music store and Naxos's partner on the series.

The partners are betting the music department of a major retail chain is an ideal place to recruit customers who haven't yet jumped the digital divide. The enclosed step-by-step instructions could make the process less daunting for first-time downloaders.
The article doesn't mention if the boxes will contain liner notes or album artwork, but I'm wondering if this sort of thing might work in reverse: self-released bands and small labels could offer to mail the artwork or CD booklet to anyone who purchased the album in iTunes or eMusic. As a test, I might post the following offer on my band's website and Myspace page:
Want the CD booklet to go with your digital downloads? Just forward us your iTunes e-mail receipt or a link to your downloaded albums page in your eMusic profile, along with your mailing address, and we'll send you the complete CD artwork free of charge.
This idea, of course, is just a low-tech version of the digital booklets already available for many albums within the iTunes store, as are various premium offers for pre-orders. But those options aren't available to every artist. The above idea could be implemented by just about anyone, to offer printed CD booklets, discounted concert tickets, bonus tracks, links to PDF files of the CD booklet, etc.

related: press release for Naxos/eMusic


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September 01, 2006

Viral Frog
by David Harrell
Viral Frog
As my grandpa used to say, "everyone and his brother" had something to say this week about SpiralFrog and its prospects. I thought the Big Picture had the most succinct take on the main issues:
There are three questions that come to mind anytime I see a new music site:

- Is it iPod compatible?

- How intrusive are the commercials?

- How restrictive is the DRM?

The answers to these often determine how successful the site will become. In SpiralFrog's case, the answers are no, not sure yet, and somewhat.
I don't have much to add to all of this coverage, except to say that having name that rhymes with "viral" is moderately clever. (Though I'm fairly skeptical about the chances of SpiralFrog developing much traction.)


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Friday Flashback Fun: 1983 Musicland Commercial
by David Harrell
Back in the day, record chains ran TV ads! This YouTube clip is rather low-fi, but still fun -- check out the dancing at the end:

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

    <a href="">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

    album cover art from The Space Between

    <a href="">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 or Napster.

    album cover art from We've Been Lost

    <a href="">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, 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, Napster, or Rhapsody.

    More Layaways downloads:

    download the Layaways at eMusic download the Layaways at iTunes

    the layaways website