Analysis: Have music download stores had their day?

Digital Music

itunes-store.jpgIt’s the best of times, the worst of times to be a digital music retailer. It’s the worst of times if you’re one of the less popular download stores, even if you’re owned by a big company.

In the last few weeks alone, Sony has announced plans to close its Connect service, Virgin has announced that its Virgin Digital service is for the chopper, and Yahoo is reportedly deciding whether its Yahoo Music service is worth continued support. Meanwhile, independent service AnywhereCD announced yesterday that it too is closing.

Yet other new services are hoping it’s the best of times. Amazon launched its AmazonMP3 store today, while Nokia has announced plans for its own Nokia Music Store. Meanwhile, a plethora of Web 2.0 startups like Snocap and Lala are working with artists and record labels to sell music from their own websites, blogs and social networking profiles, while ad-funded service SpiralFrog finally launched last week.

All this, and I haven’t mentioned iTunes yet, with Apple planning to put the iTunes Wi-Fi Store live for iPhones and iPod Touches in the near future. It all adds up to a fascinating time for digital music, where unsuccessful services are bowing out, to be replaced by fresh startups with pots of cash and brave ambitions.

Amazon and Nokia look set to commence a mighty three-way battle with Apple in the area of pure download stores, so it’s no surprise to see some of their lesser rivals deciding now’s a good time to exit the market.

With these big stores slugging it out, it might be perverse to say that the interesting stuff is actually happening elsewhere. But I think it is, particularly on the widget side of things. Whatever you think of James Blunt, the news that he’s selling his new album direct from his MySpace profile in a downloads’n’CD bundle is a genuinely innovative thing to do on the part of his label.

MySpace widgets, Facebook applications and Bebo promotions could be a huge source of growth for the music industry in the coming years, especially if they’re opened up to fans too, allowing me to effectively sell songs by my favourite bands via a widget on my social networking profile, and take a cut of the proceeds.

Download stores can re-engineer themselves to take advantage of this, of course. UK store 7digital has a widget that you can post on your blog, and recently signed up Radiohead – a band who still refuse to have their music sold through iTunes. That’s the Radiohead widget below:

Even iTunes has widgets now, albeit not ones you can sell songs through. That’s bound to come in the not-too-distant future, and it’s hard to resist the idea that in not too long, many music fans won’t be logging into music download stores to buy new music.

They’ll be buying it through widgets like the one above or James Blunt’s, or they’ll be having it pushed down to their computer by recommendation services, or they’ll be buying it from their phones, or clicking a button on their DAB radios to cue songs for download, or… they’ll just be streaming it. Basically, I’m wondering whether the notion of the ‘store’ as a place for buying music is, if not dead, at least facing a stern challenge that’ll force the store owners to change the way they do business.

Whether ad-funded services fall into that too is something I’m still trying to figure out (as are they, probably). SpiralFrog has at least launched now, while here in the UK, We7 is tackling the same idea (ad-funded music) with a different approach (ads tacked onto the tunes, rather than shown as you download). But particularly with the latter model, surely a store will become less necessary as more ways to let people share the ad-enhanced music files pop up.

When the web first got going, the idea of stores made sense, in that they connected us with familiar offline shopping models. But particularly in the digital music world, where we’re talking digital products, being tied to a non-digital shopping metaphor is starting to feel distinctly restrictive.

Stuart Dredge
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