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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May 31, 2007

An Increase in eMusic Payouts
by David Harrell

eMusic banner

Some more eMusic sales showed up in our CD Baby account last week. It looks like they're from the quarter ending 3/31/07 and we received 27.8 cents a track after CD Baby took its 9% cut.

Adding that 9% back in gives a per-track payout from eMusic of 30.5 cents a track, the most we've ever seen for eMusic sales. (It might be an error, but there was also a single download -- supposedly from the same sales period -- that paid 18.9 cents from eMusic. If not a reporting error, the only explanation I can think of is a lower payout rate for the "free" tracks offered to trial subscribers and the bonus tracks subscribers can earn by referring new subscribers.)

That's a decent-sized jump from the 27.4 cents a track payout rate from our last reported eMusic sales.

There are some details about the eMusic model that I haven't been able to confirm, but per-track payouts to labels/artists are basically a function of the average track "price" for subscribers and subscriber download activity. If the per-song payouts are increasing, it's likely a result of an increase in average song price (based on subscription plans, which changed late last year), a decrease in overall subscriber usage, or some combination of the two factors.

Update: Just to clarify, the "per-song" price is simply another way of looking at total subscriber revenue, which is the basis for eMusic's sharing model. It doesn't really matter if you break it down to the individual track "price." While I prefer to think of it that way when analyzing the payouts, the basic equation for computing the per-song payout from eMusic is to divide the portion of total subscription revenue that is shared with labels by the total number of subscriber downloads for the time period.

One final note: these numbers are all for a self-released musician distributed via CD Baby. It's certainly possible that there are different payout rates for labels working directly with eMusic (or the Orchard).


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May 29, 2007

Not a Joke...But Should Be
by David Harrell
Via Freedom to Tinker: I truly hate to give this sort of thing any attention, but there is an amusement value here.

A company with a DRM technology is threatening to sue Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, and Real Networks for NOT using it:
MRT and BlueBeat have developed a technological measure which effectively controls access to copyrighted material. That product, the X1 SeCure Recording Control, has been tested by the industry's standards bodies, the RIAA and IFPI, and has been proven effective against stream ripping, while protecting privacy and limiting infringement liability for users, distributors and academic institutions. It has been designed for rapid deployment on a reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND) basis.

Therefore, Media Rights Technologies (MRT) and have issued cease and desist letters to Microsoft, Adobe, Real Networks and Apple with respect to the production or sale of such products as the Vista OS, Adobe Flash Player, Real Player, Apple iTunes and iPod.

MRT asserts Apple, Microsoft, Real and Adobe have produced billions of these products without regard for the DMCA or the rights of American Intellectual Property owners, actively avoiding the use of MRT's technologies. Failure to comply with this demand could result in a federal court injunction to any of the above named parties to cease production or sale of their products and/or the imposition of statutory damages of at least $200 to $2500 for each product distributed or sold.

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May 25, 2007

Easy Covers
by David Harrell
While we've had tens of thousands of free mp3s downloaded from my band's website, I've had no desire to try to sell them directly from our site. That's mainly because the percentage payouts from iTunes and other download stores (via distribution with CD Baby) are high enough that it doesn't seem worth the hassle of setting up our own online store. As I've noted before, our total sales are modest enough that picking up a few cents more for each track doesn't add up to much.

But if we were really "moving units," direct sales might be more appealing, and there are several services out there that allow musicians to sell downloads directly to consumers. One that's doing something really interesting is It has a blanket license agreement with the Harry Fox Agency to directly deduct mechanical royalties from online sales of cover songs.

This is something of an innovation. Anyone can legally cover any song that's been previously released, but you need to make arrangements to pay mechanical royalties for every copy sold (physical or digital), either directly with the song's publisher/owner or through the Harry Fox Agency.

The downside is that doesn't get your music into the download stores, it's only for sales from a musician's own website. It seems like CD Baby and TuneCore, which distribute to iTunes, eMusic, etc., could (should?) partner with Harry Fox and offer direct deductions of mechanical royalties for cover songs. While both companies will handle digital distribution of non-original material for self-released musicians, you're on your own when it comes to paying mechanical royalties. The process seems daunting enough that I wouldn't want to touch it, at least for digital sales.


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May 23, 2007

Unequal iTunes Premiums
by David Harrell
Economist Joshua Gans links to this PC World story, which reports that the premium for the DRM-free EMI that iTunes will soon be selling varies from country to country. Gans, who has written about international iTunes pricing before, notes in his Core Economics blog:
We know its baseline pricing differs from country-to-country. Its DRM-free pricing will differ too but, in theory, the ratio of DRM and DRM-free song prices should be the same.

Well, apparently not. In the US and Europe there is a 30% premium for DRM-free tracks, 25% for the UK and in New Zealand the premium is 39%. No word on the Australian price yet. Why this should be so remains a puzzle.
related: Variable iTunes Pricing, Varying iTunes Prices for Different Markets, The European Premium for eMusic


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May 18, 2007

The Amazon Announcement
by David Harrell

Some thoughts on Wednesday's news:

Although the press release didn't mention pricing, it seems inevitable that's music download service will challenge Apple's iTunes store on price. Given that Amazon seems to be selling more and more CDs for $9.99 (12 out of the current top 25 are selling for $9.99 or less), I'd be amazed if Amazon didn't offer full-album downloads for $8.99 or less.

According to Hypebot's sources, that might be the upper end of the price range, with full albums starting at just $4.99 and individual tracks selling for 89 or 99 cents.

Whatever the prices, though, I'm certain that for self-released musicians, selling album downloads via Amazon will pay better than selling physical CDs. Last year, I broke down the math for what we net for selling a CD for $9.99 through the Amazon Advantage program. Because of a "just in time" inventory policy that results in re-orders of a single disc, postage costs are maximized, leading to a per-disc net that's not much better than that which results from a full album download from eMusic. (Which "costs" an eMusic subscriber less than a third of that $9.99 price!) CD Baby's catalog, which supposedly accounts for about a third of the iTunes catalog, was delivered to Amazon in 2006 and will no doubt make up a large percentage of the initial Amazon inventory.

I'm curious about what -- if any -- role there will be for free music from Amazon. Until last year, featured a robust free download area, with the option to download free mp3 tracks from both self-released albums and releases from the larger indie labels (Matador, etc.). But much of that functionality was removed last year -- you can still search for and download free tracks, but album pages no longer provide direct links to the free downloads and it doesn't look like any new ones have been added since early 2006. Perhaps Amazon thought it would be odd to offer free tracks on the same page where downloads are sold.

Most analysts and industry commentators seem to think Amazon has the best shot at competing for the market share that Apple so thoroughly dominates. Though Ethan's Smith's take on the announcement in Thursday's Wall Street Journal was somewhat muted:
Amazon, one the biggest and best-known retailers in the world, already has deep knowledge of its customers' music tastes that comes from years selling compact discs to them. It's the latest in a growing line of retailers attempting to challenge iTunes. But Amazon's track record and its approach to digital music may not give it much advantage, at least early on.
I'm firmly in the camp of those who think Amazon has some huge advantages in this market. Pricing will matter, as will Amazon's potential ability to bundle downloads with either physical CDs or even with all of the iPods and other music players it sells.

Yet more than anything, I think it comes down to comfort level. Assuming that Amazon can eventually get the other three major labels on board with mp3 downloads, here's the reason it has a good chance to succeed in (or maybe even dominate) the download market:

The biggest potential for growth in the download market is among consumers who don't currently purchase music downloads. And is in a better position to sell to those customers than iTunes, the Zune Marketplace, eMusic, etc.

Why? Because a large number of those potential new download customers are ALREADY customers. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but as the world's largest online retailer, it's safe to assume that Amazon's current base of music purchasers exceeds iTunes' customer base.

And if you haven't purchased music downloads before, it'll be easier to do so from an online retailer that you already shop from, that already has your credit card information, and that you already know and trust.

That's not to say customers don't trust Apple, etc., but the barrier to purchase is higher -- for iTunes or Zune you need to install rather large pieces of software to your computer. For eMusic (which Amazon is unlikely to compete with on a per-track price), you need to set up a subscription. While I'm assuming there will be some sort of download management system necessary for the purchase of downloads, it will probably seem less onerous to current Amazon customers than the installation of software from other online music retailers or entering into a subscription agreement.

Finally, for all of the talk of the elegance and simplicity of the closed-platform iTunes/iPod system, I don't think consumers have the same loyalty to the iTunes store as they have to their iPods. They may LOVE their iPods, but they're not necessarily in love with purchasing music from iTunes.


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May 17, 2007

Music Price and Demand
by David Harrell
I'm working on a longer piece about the price elasticity of demand for music, but just had to share the following e-mail from a friend.

Last week, Wilco e-mailed its fans, basically asking them to do the right thing and buy their new disc that came out on Tuesday. My friend tried to do so yesterday at a local record store, but just couldn't pull the trigger:
I went into Rock Records, fully intending on buying the album. And there it was. $16 on sale.

So that's, what, close to $18 after taxes. Are they kidding? I couldn't do it. Maybe I'll get the high bit-rate version (if that exists) on iTunes.

It's the same old thing. Amazon's got it for $13 I think; Best Buy's probably selling it at a loss for $10 this week, and then will bump it to $13 for a while after that. And independents like Rock can't compete. It's just stupid -- everybody's got their own idea of what a fair price for a CD should be, but who in their right mind thinks an $18 list price is even close to correct?
BTW -- this is coming from someone who supports the music industry in a big way (tons of live shows, CDs, and a 75-downloads-a-month eMusic subscriber). He can certainly afford an $18 CD, he's just not buying them.


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May 14, 2007

Digital Downloads: Cheaper Every Day?
by David Harrell
For more than 70 years, Coke maintained a nickel price for a single-serving bottle. Tim Hartford explains this concept of "nominal price rigidity" in Slate and notes that on an inflation-adjusted basis, customers paid about a dollar per serving of Coke in 1886. While the nominal price remained constant until 1959, consumers were actually paying less in real terms each year, as the value of a nickel declined considerably during that time.

That example (and some data on inflation and CD prices in the 1980s from Mark Coleman's book Playback) makes me wonder if we'll see the same thing for digital downloads. While long-term contracts with bottlers (and vending machines that only accepted nickels) contributed to Coke's price rigidity, you don't have the same restrictions for selling digital music files.

However, what you do have is Steve Jobs and his insistence on maintaining a 99-cent price for individual song downloads. And even though inflation has been relatively muted in the four years since the launch of the iTunes store in April 2003, it compounds out to nearly 12% -- around 2.86% each year.

Which means that in today's dollar, you paid about $1.11 for an iTunes track when the store first launched. Or, you can turn it around and say that you're now paying just 88 cents a track in 2003 dollars.

Assuming that consumers don't drift to the new $1.29 price for higher quality (and DRM free) single song downloads -- and an ongoing positive inflation rate -- that single-song price gets a little cheaper every day.


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May 11, 2007

Friday Odds and Ends
by David Harrell
From the Atlantic's archives -- a music copyright loophole in 1962:
Alarmed by this injustice to composers and lyricists, a group of citizens headed by Carl Sandburg has formed the Creative Arts Committee for Better Copyright Laws. Its chief purpose is to spread the word about the iniquity of the current laws, particularly with reference to the jukebox amendment, and to urge Congress to enact laws that would be more equitable.

The New Yorker profiles Walter Mossberg.


And eMusic subscribers make the case for liner notes with downloads:
I'll second everybody - I really miss the liner notes with downloaded albums, and I sometimes will opt to pay more and get the CD if I know it has good notes. Some labels here I won't touch as downloads, as they ALWAYS have great liner booklets.

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May 08, 2007

Hyping eMusic
by David Harrell
Hypebot has been, uh, hyping its upcoming series on eMusic. I'm looking forward to seeing it. I've written a lot here about eMusic payouts to labels/artists and have been trying to get a handle on its revenue-sharing model (the way it pays labels for each download) for the past year.

One thing I've been trying to figure out is whether or not eMusic is working off of a "health club" business model, where infrequent users subsidize the "gym rats" who make the most of their subscription allotments.

My original assumption was that its revenue sharing model meant that eMusic was indifferent to subscriber usage. But in this recent Forbes piece, eMusic CEO David Pakman talked about the health club model, even while providing more details about the revenue share. The information seemed counterintuitive: If eMusic simply gives 50% of its subscription revenue to labels, why does it matter to eMusic if subscribers use all of their downloads or not?

But all the recent news about indie labels grumbling about eMusic payouts made me realize that eMusic probably does benefit from the health club model, but indirectly. That is, while eMusic's total dollar payout to labels appears to be independent of subscriber usage, the per-track amount labels receive is dependent on average subscriber usage, as that 50% of subscriber revenue is divided by the total number of subscriber downloads to arrive at the per-track payout. When subscribers max out their monthly allotment of downloads, the per-song payment to labels decreases. Hence, the health club component is essential to keeping the participating labels happy, which is necessary for eMusic's long-term bottom line. Anyway, that's my current take, I'm hoping the upcoming Hypebot pieces confirm it...

Of course, you could also argue that labels should be indifferent to the per-song amount they receive, that it's the total revenue they receive from eMusic that matters. (Frank at Swindleeeee makes that argument here.) But there are fixed costs such as mechanical royalities that eat up a larger portion of that revenue as the per-song amount decreases. And as that number gets smaller, it looks like some labels are finding it unpalatable, relative to the per-song rates obtained from iTunes.


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May 04, 2007

Digital NARM, Part III: Subscribe Today!
by David Harrell
On Tuesday afternoon, Napster president Chris Gorog succinctly diagnosed what ails the music industry and prescribed a cure.

His basic argument: CD sales are plummeting. Digital sales aren't growing fast enough to replace lost physical revenue. The solution: Subscriptions to Napster (or Rhapsody, Yahoo Unlimited, or Zune Pass, etc.). Gorog pointed out that music subscriptions mimic everything that made the original Napster so popular with music fans, with the exception -- of course -- of the free part.

And in my conversation with Zune's marketing director Jason Reindorp (look for a Zune-related post in the next few days), he said that Microsoft sees a huge upside in subscription-type services.

Finally, while Wired's Leander Kahney doesn't think much of the subscription model, he writes that the major labels are reportedly pressing for a subscription service as part of their renegotiation with Apple for iTunes downloads because they covet "the steady, predictable revenue stream." (More here on the labels' supposed push for Apple subscriptions.)

The basic math seems to point to subscriptions, as a monthly fee of $12.99 equals $155.88 per year for each customer, a number that exceeds the annual per-capita amount spent on recorded music.

Yet on Wednesday, when the four major labels outlined their digital strategies, no one talked much about subscriptions, except in passing. Sony BMG's Thomas Hesse was jazzed about selling 71 distinct pieces of content from Justin Timberlake's latest album, while Warner Music Group's Michael Nash announced the launch of the new MVI discs.

If subscriptions are truly the cure, then why aren't the major labels more enthusiastic about them?

continue reading "Digital NARM, Part III: Subscribe Today!"

One problem, of course, is that the above math only works if EVERYONE does it. If you could flip a switch and have every music fan subscribe to one of the plans tomorrow, then subscriptions conceivably increase the total dollars spend on music.

Also, I'm not sure about how truly enamored the labels are about that "steady, predictable revenue stream." The revenue stream may be steady and predictable, but it's flowing to the subscription companies, not directly to the labels. As I understand it, a label only shares in that revenue when subscribers stream that label's content and it's only a penny or so per stream. (The subscription companies are truly based on the health club model -- an active subscriber can cost them more than the monthly subscription fee in payments to labels, but they get to keep all of the revenue received from an inactive subscriber.) I suspect the labels' current push with Apple for subscriptions is part of their overall negotiation strategy, not a huge sticking point.

In the short term, there's obviously more upside to labels by selling an expanded digital product directly to consumers, hence the greater enthusiasm for downloads, ring tones, wallpaper, etc. Any income from subscription services is welcome, but there's much less of an incentive for labels to push them directly.

On the consumer side, what will it take for music fans to embrace subscriptions on the scale necessary to make them a major part of the equation? I'm guessing it will require a truly seamless listening experience -- the ability to immediately hear what you want to hear on your computer, portable device, in the car, etc., with minimal buffering and at a reasonable sound quality. We're not quite there yet with the technology, though we are getting closer. Until that happens, music fans are unlikely to give up the idea of ownership even if what they "own" isn't appreciably different from the streaming sound file of a subscription.

Then again, music subscriptions don't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Consider how consumers obtain video -- the typical viewer might watch cable or satellite TV, subscribe to Netflix, and still buy the occasional DVD. There's no reason to assume that music fans will gravitate toward a single source of content. I subscribe to Yahoo's Unlimited service but still buy CDs (and pay for 40 downloads a month at eMusic) and suspect that many subscribers are using their plans to supplement their traditional music consumption, not replace it. Which sounds a whole lot like how many music fans treat P2P...


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May 03, 2007

Digital NARM, Part II: Indie Stores and Digital
by David Harrell
Note: Sorry for the non-chronological updates on Digital NARM. I'm working my through my notes and posting as I finish things up. In the meantime, if you're looking for news coverage of each panel or presentation, check out's NARM updates.

The last panel I attended at the Digital NARM conference was a discussion about how indie stores can participate in digital sales, moderated by Don Van Cleave of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores. Participants included Kevin Arnold of IODA, Mitchell Koulouris of DMGI, Michael Kurtz of Music Monitor Network, Matt Laszuk of IRIS Distribution, Jim Logrando of Redeye, and Brad Nevin of the Orchard.

It was an interesting discussion with a few good tidbits, but clearly no one has ANY handle yet on a digital business model that will succeed (and be economically feasible) for indie stores.

Some highlights:

Sound quality/mp3 bitrate -- Van Cleave said that the lower fidelity of downloads "drives me nuts," but the consensus opinion was that it really only mattered to a small minority of the audience (10% or so). And that it might actually get worse before it gets better, if music consumers embrace over-the-air downloads to mobile devices. The assumption was that anyone truly concerned with quality was more likely to buy a physical CD.

Offering "exclusive digital content" as a bonus to CD sales didn't seem to get much of a response from the indie store audience. Van Cleave said customers basically shrugged their shoulders when he told them they could download an exclusive Pearl Jam track, that they just didn't want it. On the other hand, Redeye's Logrando said they've had a great response rate to an offer for a free ringtone and downloads included with the latest Apples in Stereo disc. (He didn't have a firm number, but guessed at a 40% response rate.) The issue was also raised that an artist would basically have to record a second album in order to offer digital exclusives to all the players -- iTunes, eMusic, Yahoo, etc. Someone else suggested the need for indie stores to create their own digital content by recording in-store performances, etc.

Windows Media just won't cut it for selling downloads: Kurtz got a laugh when he described finally "breaking the 800 barrier...dollars" for sales of protected Windows Media files. They're now switching to mp3s.

Vinyl with digital: Logrando mentioned one Redeye distributed label that only does vinyl and downloads. Van Cleave reported that vinyl (new and used) averages 15% of sales for indie stores, with some stores doing 20% vinyl. He said there's a real market for USB turntables. Everyone like the idea of offering free downloads with vinyl purchases.

Pricing: Kurtz wondered if 99 cents/$9.99 is too cheap for some records -- "It costs money to record music, to put bands on the road..."

Nevin encouraged indie stores to establish their own download stores and target the local audience.

Finally, while there was lots of talk at the conference about music subscriptions and how retailers can participate by selling them (a good chunk of it coming from Napster!), the topic didn't come up here.


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May 02, 2007

Digital NARM, Part I: Major Labels and DRM
by David Harrell
Don't hold your breath waiting for DRM-free downloads from Sony BMG or Warner Music Group.

The bulk of the morning at the Digital NARM conference was devoted to a presentation/panel from the heads of digital strategy for the four major labels. In his prepared presentation, Michael Nash of Warner Music Group made a fairly passionate defense of DRM and copyright, citing the U.S. constitution (and European law before that). Sony BMG's Thomas Hesse didn't address DRM in his prepared remarks, but in the Q and A portion of the panel said that Sony hadn't yet given up on interoperable DRM and that dropping DRM to achieve interoperability was a mistake. As he put it, "we don't want the whole world to be a college dorm."

Universal's Amanda Marks, however, is basically taking a wait-and-see approach. (Waiting to see what happens with EMI's new downloads?) According to Marks, it's something under consideration, but she worries that piracy/file sharing would increase if the admittedly small speed bump of DRM were removed.

And EMI's Barney Wragg walked through the firm's decision-making process regarding its recent announcement, and refuted the logic of his counterparts, saying "Anyone who thinks that DRM is a major speed bump isn't paying attention to what the consumer is doing. DRM just serves to frustrate and disengage the consumer."

More Digital NARM updates to follow.


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

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

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

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