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Science, Maths & Technology

Will mobile music sound the blues for the music industry?

Updated Thursday 18th May 2006

The music industry has struggled to keep up with the technological changes of recent years. Will they get it right with mobile music?

Bob Dylan’s The times they are a-changin'  may feel like an appropriate refrain for anyone observing or working in the music industry over the last decade. First it was the launch of online retailers selling CDs at reduced prices.

Then came the rapid growth in file sharing sites such as Napster, that allowed the copying and downloading of music onto PCs, often without royalties being paid. And just as the music industry has come to terms with new bands launching themselves on the internet without a record deal, the next big challenge seems to be bubbling under: mobile music.

What is mobile music? 
Although mobile music has been with us since the Walkman, the current use of the term is to describe the downloading and listening to music on mobile devices such as iPods and mobile phones. Whilst Apple’s iPod is currently the dominant device in the mobile music market – with their iTunes site selling 600 million downloads in 2005 – the iPod is expected by many to lose its dominance to mobile phones.

The power of the mobile phone in the music industry was demonstrated recently by Madonna. Some have put the success of her recent single Hung Up down to the fact that a ringtone was available one month before the record was released.

Mobile phone ownership is higher than that for most types of music players, so if the music industry can get mobile right, the returns could be significant. Indeed they may even be enough to reverse the downturn in music industry revenues witnessed in recent years.

Understanding Adoption
However, to ensure they are not left behind by the growth in mobile music, the music industry must be sure that they have a clear understanding about what consumers want on their phones and how they want it served up. To help them with this understanding they should consider how new products and services are adopted by consumers.

The definitive work in this area undertaken by Everett Rogers more than forty years ago is still relevant today. Rogers identified five factors that influence both the level and rate of adoption of innovations. Understanding these factors, how they interact, and how to influence them, will help the music industry find its place in the mobile music future.

The five generic factors identified by Rogers are:

  • Relative advantage – how much the new idea or service is perceived to be better than existing alternatives.
  • Compatibility – how the new idea fits with the way users currently do things. This not only includes compatibility with existing hardware or networks, but also how users live or work.
  • Complexity – how difficult the new product or service is to use or understand.
  • Trialability – the ability to test the idea out on a limited basis.
  • Observability – how visible adoption or use of the new idea is to others.

Increasing or improving any of these aspects of a new product or idea – except for complexity which obviously needs to be reduced – will increase both the level and rate of adoption.

Mobile Music Adoption
So, what does this mean for the adoption of mobile music? Relative advantage rests on the ability to be able to access and to listen to music whilst on the go. In contrast to music downloads or CDs, there is no need to pre-download music or take a selection of CDs out with you.

"a great opportunity for the music industry"

You can access and buy music whilst out and about, allowing you to match listening to your changing moods and keep up to date with new releases. Such instant gratification is seen as a big attraction for many users and a great opportunity for the music industry.

With the ability to access one track at a time, and on a mobile handset that you are already used to carrying around, the trialability of mobile music is excellent. Provided interfaces can be kept simple and appropriate for small screens, then the complexity can also be addressed.

The power of observability to drive adoption was demonstrated powerfully by the iPod. Being seen with characteristic white ear pieces became a very visible sign of using an iPod. After a number of celebrities were seen with them, they became the thing to be seen with – a fact that was leveraged in the iPod ad campaigns.

"compatibility may prove to be the Achilles heel"

But it is compatibility that may prove to be the Achilles heel. Users are increasingly using the mobile phones for various activities – which will help the transition to them being thought of as a music player. However, with regard to systems and formats, there are a number of proprietary approaches that prevent sharing music between devices and networks.

For example, iTunes will only download to iPods and not to the majority of mobile phones. Observers of the industry are keen to remind those trying to protect their own systems that, as the growth of the internet has shown, open standards can grow usage and demand to a greater extent than competing standards.

If the music industry do not take the opportunity to understand and shape this next wave of change, then Dylan may have got it right... "you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin'".

Further Reading
The Impact of Electronic Commerce on Market Structure: An Evaluation of the Electronic Market Hypothesis
E M Daniel and G M Klimis in European Management Journal, Vol 17, No 3, p.318-325


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