We mentioned back in March the Harvard-UNC study by Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf which seemed to indicate that Internet music file sharing has no negative effect on legitimate music sales.
Oberholzer-Gee discusses what the industry should do next with Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge:
- Sean Silverthorne: The draft of your paper with Koleman Strumpf came out almost three months ago, and caused quite a stir both inside the entertainment industry and out. What are your impressions of the reactions so far?
Felix Oberholzer-Gee: Two recent developments are important. Our study provides the first serious evidence that file sharing cannot explain the decline in music sales in the last couple of years. In addition, in the last two quarters, music sales increased while file sharing has become even more popular. BigChampagne.com, an Internet monitoring firm, estimates that there are now up to 9 million simultaneous file sharers, up from about 4 million in early 2003.
In view of our evidence and these new trends, even the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) now states that file sharing is only “one factor, along with economic conditions and competing forms of entertainment that is displacing legitimate sales.” The industry is rethinking its position, although change occurs slowly.
Q: Let’s talk strategy. What have been the recording companies’ strategies to date for combating their loss of property rights via illegal downloading? And how effective has that strategy been? For example, is it a good thing to sue potential customers?
A: Suing potential customers is not exactly a standard entry in the book of good CRM. More importantly, the RIAA’s legal strategy is hopeless and smacks of short-sighted panic.
Our research shows that only 45 percent of music files downloaded in the United States come from computers in the U.S. More than 100 countries supply files to the U.S. file-sharing community, and many of these countries do not have strong records of protecting copyrighted materials. The RIAA does not stand a chance to implement an effective legal strategy in all these countries.
Those who dream of legal solutions do not recognize the truly global nature of the peer-to-peer (P2P) phenomenon. Even worse, the RIAA’s legal strategy does not even seem to work here in the United States. Despite the lawsuits – the RIAA has sued about 2,000 individuals to date – file sharing is more popular than ever.
Q: Assuming your conclusion is right – that there is no evidence that illegal music downloads erode CD sales – and in fact might help top-selling record sales – what are the implications for the recording industry in terms of strategy?
A: Our research shows that people do not download entire CDs. They download a few songs, typically the hits that one would also hear on a Top 40 station. This suggests that P2P is much like the radio, a great tool to promote new music. The music industry has of course long recognized that giving away samples of music for free over the airwaves can stimulate sales. The same seems to hold for P2P.
The problem with radio as a promotional tool is that it can be quite expensive for labels to get radio stations to play their music. P2P networks are promising because they make the market for music promotion more competitive. From the perspective of the music industry, the more competition among P2P services, the less costly it will be to promote music.
Q: Apple’s iTunes has seemingly validated the concept that people will purchase music online. But it seems the recording companies themselves have done little on their own to experiment with models here, such as tiered pricing (hits cost more) and bundling.
A: The classic business model was a teaser model: The music labels provided one or two hit songs for free by promoting them on the radio and on MTV. If consumers liked the samples, they purchased a dozen songs at a price of $15. We now have gone from one extreme to the other. While inflexible bundling was the rule, services such as iTunes now completely unbundle CDs and offer all music by the song. The difficulty with this approach is that the economics of producing music are characterized by significant fixed costs. It is not much more expensive to promote an entire album than to promote an individual song. With complete unbundling, the revenue streams generated by a new album are likely to be much lower. How many consumers will pay a dollar for song number thirteen?
Clearly, there is a profit-enhancing role for some type of bundling even with digital distribution. For example, consumers might be willing to pay full price for the core songs on an album if they get the rest at a discount. We need systematic experiments to find out which types of bundling are economically most attractive.
I wonder if the music industry – which is not filled with stupid people, believe it or not – is quietly taking these truths into account and planning for a future of some kind of cooperation with P2P, which, as Oberholzer-Gee says, functions much like traditional radio as a marketing tool, while publicly they continue to bristle and sue. I hope so.