New York Times: Two and a half years after the music business lined up behind the chief executive of Apple, Steven P. Jobs, and hailed him and his iTunes music service for breathing life into music sales, the industry’s allegiance to Mr. Jobs has eroded sharply.
Mr. Jobs is now girding for a showdown with at least two of the four major record companies over the price of songs on the iTunes service.
If he loses, the one-price model that iTunes has adopted – 99 cents to download any song – could be replaced with a more complex structure that prices songs by popularity. A hot new single, for example, could sell for $1.49, while a golden oldie could go for substantially less than 99 cents.
Music executives who support Mr. Jobs say the higher prices could backfire, sending iTunes’ customers in search of songs on free, unauthorized file-swapping networks.
At the price of 99 cents a song, the share of the major labels is about 70 cents.
The Times piece makes no mention of Chris Anderson’s brilliant analysis of this issue.
99 cents violates our innate sense of economic justice: If it clearly costs less for a record label to deliver a song online, with no packaging, manufacturing, distribution, or shelf space overheads, why shouldn’t the price be less, too?
Surprisingly enough, there’s been little good economic analysis on what the right price for online music should be. The main reason for this is that pricing isn’t set by the market today but by the record label demi-cartel.
That wholesale price is set to roughly match the price of CDs, to avoid dreaded “channel conflict.” The labels fear that if they price online music lower, their CD retailers (still the vast majority of the business) will revolt or, more likely, go out of business even more quickly than they already are. In either case, it would be a serious disruption of the status quo, which terrifies the already spooked record companies. No wonder they’re doing price calculations with an eye on the downsides in their traditional CD business rather than the upside in their new online business.
Take away the unnecessary costs of the retail channel – CD manufacturing, distribution, and retail overheads. That leaves the costs of finding, making, and marketing music. Keep them as they are, to ensure that the people on the creative and label side of the business make as much as they currently do. For a popular album that sells 300,000 copies, the creative costs work out to about $7.50 per disc, or around 60 cents a track. Add to that the actual cost of delivering music online, which is mostly the cost of building and maintaining the online service rather than the negligible storage and bandwidth costs. Current price tag: around 17 cents a track. By this calculation, hit music is overpriced by 25 percent online – it should cost just 79 cents a track, reflecting the savings of digital delivery.