Friday, February 24, 2006

Amazon vs. iTunes - Battling On The Frontlines Of The Long Tail

Erick Schonfeld at Business 2.0 posted last week re: Amazon's plans to tackle iTunes.

He likes Amazon's suggested strategy of offering users discounted, Amazon-branded MP3 players in return for year-long subscriptions (a la the cellphone companies' subsidization of handsets), but in the end Erick doubts this will be enough to poach Apple's 55M-strong leadership position.

I agree that iTunes will be tough to beat. But my own doubts stem from Amazon's DRM approach. It sounds similar to the re-launched Napster, which, last time I checked, is willing to cut off access to your songlist if & when your subscription lapses.

I admit it might be nice to own a sweet new MP3 player bundled with virtually unlimited access to a vast music library, all for a low-cost yearly subscription. And I also admit that Amazon is the world's best examplar of Long Tail Marketing ("if you like this, give this a go"). It also seems clear that Long Tail Marketing, Amazon-style, is superbly suited to a subscription model, i.e., there is little risk to try something new, since there's no additional cost to download an untried song track.

The thing is: music is personal. Songs become the soundtracks to our lives. If you build up a library of hundreds (or thousands!) of songs, it is a distinctly uncomfortable feeling to know that you're just "borrowing" these songs from Amazon. Lose your job? You might lose your music!

One of the rarely heralded beauties of the Long Tail is the passion of the audiences at the narrow end. Everyone likes to discover a hidden gem. I remember being one of the first to appreciate James Blunt's "You're Beautiful" ballad. I must have listened to it 50 times during my commute. And last week, several months after I'd "discovered" the song (and tired of it - it is kind of sappy), I was alternately pleased - and bizarrely saddened - to see that Blunt's ditty had become the #1 iTunes download.

When Blunt was a beloved bit of undiscovered country along the Long Tail, I was a devotee. And devotees want to OWN their music.

It's an interesting conundrum: Amazon's unprecedented ability to expose consumers to new music all along the Long Tail is perfect for a subscription model, but at the same time a subscription model yanks away the "pride of ownership" that a fan needs to feel as part of that Long Tail discovery.

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