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After iTunes saves market, music companies chafe at pricing

LOS ANGELES -- Three years ago, Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple Computer Inc., persuaded major recording companies to buy into his vision of a simple, one-price-fits-all online music store.

As Apple's iTunes grew into the undisputed king of digital music sales, recording companies welcomed the revenues to cushion a five-year decline in CD sales.

Now, however, some labels feel hamstrung by Jobs's insistence on pricing all tracks at 99 cents. With the labels expected to enter into music licensing discussions with Apple this year, any moves by Apple to abandon uniform pricing will test whether music fans are willing to pay more to download music that many acquired for free only a few years ago.

''The labels really want to be able to boost up the price for downloads on new releases," said Matt Kleinschmit, a digital music analyst with the Ipsos Insight market research firm. ''The question is: Are we at a time now that we want to experiment with variable pricing?"

Recording labels make about 70 cents per download, but could pocket significantly more by increasing retail prices by just a few cents.

Apple and the major recording companies declined to comment on their licensing deals or the possibility of price changes.

The dispute has percolated for months, making Apple's relationship with the labels seem acrimonious at times. The issue is complicated by several consumer lawsuits and ongoing government investigations into possible price-fixing by the labels.

Last fall, Edgar Bronfman Jr., chief executive of Warner Music Group Corp., suggested that Apple should allow different download prices for songs and even give the labels a cut of iPod sales.

Alain Levy, chief executive of EMI Group PLC, agreed that songs by top-selling bands should be priced higher, while tracks by lesser-known artists should be discounted, essentially the same approach to wholesale pricing in place for CDs and most consumer goods of varying quality.

Jobs has argued that recording companies already make more profit by selling a song through iTunes than on a CD, which carries extra marketing and manufacturing costs. ''So if they want to raise the prices, it just means they're getting a little greedy," he said at Apple Expo in Paris in September.

The push by labels reflects an industrywide scramble to reap the most from a business model that only three years ago seemed unlikely to survive amid overwhelming online piracy.

Last year, 353 million digital tracks were sold in the United States, about one and a half times more than 2004, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Before the launch of iTunes in April 2003, recording labels had licensed content to music subscription services that let customers listen to music as streams on their Internet-connected computers. They charged extra for a limited number of downloads, the type that can be played while offline or transferred to a portable player.

But legitimate music services didn't fully take off until Jobs persuaded the labels to sell individual songs for download on iTunes for unlimited use.

Today, according to Apple, iTunes has roughly 80 percent of the US music download market, running well ahead of rivals like Napster Inc. and RealNetworks Inc.'s Rhapsody, both of which remain focused on subscriptions.

Apple does sell albums at different prices. And some online music retailers offer song downloads as low as 79 cents.

The price of music has already become an issue for some music fans. At least two lawsuits have been filed in federal courts in New York and San Francisco arguing that the labels have conspired to fix prices of online music and CDs.

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