Over at All Things Digital, Peter Kafka is saying that Amazon.com’s DRM-free MP3 download store is a “miserable failure” as an iTunes Store rival at the end of its first year of operation. Judged in terms of market share, dollars, and cents, it’s hard to argue that it’s anything else: Kafka says that Amazon appears to have around seven or eight percent of the music download business, compared to Apple’s seventy-plus. If it’s possible to put a serious dent in Apple’s supremacy, Amazon hasn’t figured out how to do it…and neither have other DRM-free music merchants such as eMusic, Rhapsody, Wal-Mart, and Lala. iTunes is to digital music what Windows was for years to operating systems: A player so utterly dominant that it’s hard to figure out a scenario in which its share shrinks, let alone make it happen.
Which is a shame–and, ultimately, a downer for consumers. iTunes still provides an outstanding experience, assuming you own an iPod and want to use iTunes. But it’s still rife with copy-protected music: Something like fifty percent of all music on iTunes is now in iTunes Plus DRM-free form, but if you’re talking about the best-selling stuff, the percentage is far lower: Of iTunes’ top ten songs and top ten albums as I write this, only Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” is free of copy protection. Amazon’s MP3 store has everything in those two iTunes top tens without DRM, usually for a lower price. (Footnote: You can buy Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” a la carte at iTunes; Amazon makes you buy the entire album.)
Well, wait a minute, you might be saying: Maybe Apple’s trademark integration of software, hardware, and service makes its experience so slick that Amazon is weak in comparison, despite its lack of copy protection and lower price. Maybe what we have here, in other words, is a musical equivalent of the computer wars, in which Apple manages to sell plenty of computers at a high price because they’re so much nicer than cheapo Windows competitors. (The comparison doesn’t work exactly, since Apple is an underdog in the computer market, not the overwhelming leader…but you get the idea.)
Apple doesn’t deserve to dominate music downloads based on the elegance of its experience. Yes, the iTunes Store is extremely well done. And Apple has a huge advantage in being the only music purveyor who’s right inside iTunes: Everybody else, Amazon included, feels a little afar from the iPod experience. It’s as if Apple was the anchor tenant in your favorite shopping center, and Amazon and others were off at some distant strip mall.
Except…the Amazon music shopping and buying experience isn’t bad either, especially if you’re an Amazon addict anyhow. And it provides a piece of software for both Windows and Macs which puts your purchases into your iTunes library, so they sync onto your iPod just as they would if you’d bought ’em from Apple. And on the Web, all sellers are only a few clicks away. (Forget I used that distant-strip-mall metaphor, please.)
Really, Amazon’s MP3 store should be thriving: It offers a shopping experience which isn’t radically less pleasant than Apple’s, it’ll save you money, and it never shackles you with DRM. And I’d like to see Amazon and other online music stores chip away at Apple simply because consumers will get more music options at lower prices if there are multiple viable companies competing for their business. (I think it’s a given that Apple will go DRM-free at some point, and that it’s more likely to happen if it has strong competitors–even if the problem has less to do with Apple’s desires and more to do with restrictions imposed on it by music owners.)
So why is Apple still such an 800-pound gorilla when it comes to music, and why does Amazon remain a 98-pound weakling? I can think of multiple, possibly overlapping explanations:
–Consumers are uninformed. They’re oblivious to it and therefore Amazon’s lack of it isn’t a meaningful plus.
–Consumers do think about DRM, but don’t care about it. If you only use Apple products and don’t intend to switch, Apple’s FairPlay works just fine.
–Consumers are lazy. They’re not willing to venture outside of iTunes at all to get their music, even if it’s better and cheaper.
–Consumers are discriminating. They think that the iTunes Store offers the best music-buying experience, and are willing to pay a bit more and put up with FairPlay’s limitations to get it.
–Consumers are slow to change. They’re happy with iTunes and used to it; even if Amazon offers a better deal overall, it’s going to be a while before it gains critical mass.
Me, I’d never buy a FairPlay-restricted album from Apple when I could buy an unprotected one from Amazon or somebody else. Then again, I still buy much of my music on CD, since it gets me DRM-free music and a handy backup that preserves my music even if all my hard drives were to die simultaneously.
Your thoughts? What could Amazon do to make its MP3 store irresistible to even the most stubborn music fan?