Total Disaster: Universal’s Never-Ending War Against Apple.


BusinessWeek published a story about yet another move Universal is taking against Apple. Before we get to their latest, let’s review the recent shots Universal has fired:

  • Pulled out of negotiations for iTunes contract extension.
  • Supplied DRM-free tracks to Wal-Mart’s PC-only music store as a “test”. Not for Mac.
  • Threw a boatload of DRM-free titles at Amazon in support of their AmazonMP3 store.
  • The Amazon and Wal-Mart tracks were not offered DRM-free to Apple’s iTunes store.
  • Teamed with SpiralFrog to offer “free” subscription music. You know, the exploding media that renders itself inoperable if you don’t visit the site often enough. Not for Mac. Not for iPod.

I wrote about the last item here, and the Amazon deal here. It’s amazing Universal changed their DRM views (for now) on selected titles — still a small percentage of their catalog — to spite Apple and hinder an online store that’s working, is popular, and making them lots of money! How greedy/stupid/arrogant do you have to be to potentially harm your sales in the belief that you’ll get back to the “good old days” of controlling all music distribution with an iron fist? And how pathetic do you have to be to do this while complaining about the very sales you’re hindering?

OK, enough review, let’s see what BusinessWeek says is next up Universal’s sleeve:

“Now, [Universal CEO Doug] Morris is going on the offensive. The world’s most powerful music executive aims to join forces with other record companies to launch an industry-owned subscription service. BusinessWeek has learned that Morris has already enlisted Sony BMG Music Entertainment as a potential partner and is talking to Warner Music Group… The service… will be called Total Music.”

Total Music? Total Disaster is more like it.

I can see why Sony would buy into this. After all, these are the guys who invented the CD root-kit and ATRAC, both disasters. They also spawned the ridiculous “ringle”, which will be a disaster when they bring it to market (I blasted it here).

As for Time Warner, they were the relatively “quiet” label until a week ago when they formally announced they can be as stupid as Universal. They’ve shown nothing in the way of original thinking and I’m sure would follow Universal down one of its many meandering paths.

“This isn’t only about Jobs; Morris badly needs to boost his business, and Apple is the one to beat.”

Dear Morris, APPLE IS SELLING YOUR PRODUCT! They’ve sold over three billion tracks, and statistically most of those were yours. When Apple sells one of your titles, you make money. And you spent zip for that profit; all you did was supply a source file. Do you understand any of this?

You should be helping Apple and iTunes, not wasting profits on building something inferior. You should attempt to leverage Apple’s success, not treat it as an enemy to turn your back on. That makes zero sense. Do you really think another subscription model and/or jacking up prices are your only options?

“And let’s not forget that existing subscription services have signed up only a few million people, vs. hundreds of millions of iTunes software downloads.”

The music labels have already forgotten this. This is why most of their initiatives revolve around very restrictive DRM and a subscription system. They keep chasing that dream.

“While the details are in flux, insiders say Morris & Co. have an intriguing business model: get hardware makers or cell carriers to absorb the cost of a roughly $5-per-month subscription fee so consumers get a device with all-you-can-eat music that’s essentially free.”

Oh, gee, another subscription service with another twist on “free”. While the SpiralFrog service is funded via ads, this new initiative will be funded by the consumer, having to pay for it in the initial price of the device. How the heck does this make it free?

“And though Morris hasn’t publicly blasted Jobs, his boss at Universal parent Vivendi is not nearly so hesitant. The split with record labels–Apple takes 29 cents of the 99 cents–“is indecent,” Vivendi CEO Jean-Bernard Levy told reporters in September. “Our contracts give too good a share to Apple.””

Dear Levy, you don’t create the music, you don’t promote it, you don’t host it, you don’t distribute it, you don’t support it, and you built no infrastructure for it. In essence, you spend nothing yet rake in 70% of the price. It’s indecent alright, but not in the way your twisted view sees it.

Apple gets 30%, and from that must fund the infrastructure to make this happen. What’s that leave them? Half? Not bad, but nowhere near 70. Are you begrudging them any profit at all? The service they provide isn’t worth ~15% to you? You get nearly five times their profit, do none of the work, and it’s not enough? You’re even more out of touch than Morris. The truth is, you are indecent.

“With the Total Music service, Morris and his allies are trying to hit reset on how digital music is consumed. In essence, Morris & Co. are telling consumers that music is a utility to which they are entitled, like water or gas.”

Aren’t water and gas more like, you know, necessities? And don’t you usually have just one source? It’s not like I went online, shopped around, and then picked the best gas and water companies to service my home. It’s a dumb analogy, and shows that BusinessWeek should maybe mind another business.

To me, this is just another BS maneuver by the labels in a bid to get people to rent music. They want what the video guys have, but the difference in the two is pretty fundamental. People listen to their favorite music over and over. While there may be a few movies or TV shows watched numerous times, the majority are watched once or twice. This is why DVRs or renting flicks work so well. Video and music are different animals, with different experiences and totally different expectations.

“The big question is whether the makers of music players and phones can charge enough to cover the cost of baking in the subscription. Under one scenario industry insiders figure the cost per player would amount to about $90.”

So, right now an incredible music player with 4GB memory and video/podcast/game capability sells for $149. But they’ll sell an inferior one (no one’s made one better) with a price 60% higher, and justify it by saying the user can load it with DRM-infested music for “free”? Wow. Can you show me the dictionary being used to define “free”?

Oh, and let’s talk about the DRM they’ll be using. Can the user put this music on an unlimited number of mobile players? Of course not. Can they play it on up to five PCs? Don’t bet on it. Can they effortlessly burn it on CD? Hell no. Remember, folks, this DRM won’t be FairPlay. It’s going to be a subscription DRM. You do not own these songs; they must be locked tightly to the device or the subscription model is useless.

“Of course, Morris still needs Jobs. It’s noteworthy that Universal has not pulled its music from iTunes–Morris simply can’t afford to do that.”

But apparently he can afford to thumb his nose at Apple and their iTunes customers. I’d love to hear why Universal didn’t cut Apple the same deal they cut Amazon for DRM-free tracks. There’s little reason except a certain disdain for iTunes and those who use it. The labels have decided that iPod consumers (most of them are pirates, remember?) and their overwhelmingly favorite online music store must be the cause of their declining sales.

Personally, I think the cause of the music labels failure is a lot more simple. It’s the morons in charge. I’ve asked this before but it bears repeating: Where are the labels’ stockholders? Why aren’t they calling for these guys’ heads?

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