Mobile phones are poised to become the dominant source of music discovery and consumption. Why now? Why this particular iteration of music-to-go? Wasn’t this going to be the next big thing in 2002? To answer these questions, it is necessary to understand the factors that have historically limited music discovery and consumption on mobile phones.
The introduction of the CD was not without its challenges: Users needed to repurchase content that they had in other forms (records, tapes, etc.), and had to purchase dedicated CD players. However, the form factor, convenience, and ultimately, portability of the CD won the day. When digital music was first offered for sale over the Internet, it was encumbered with Digital Rights Management (DRM), in order to prevent unfettered copying and thus to preserve sales. DRM, while solving one issue, had several negative implications, some of which acted to reduce the widespread adoption of digital music. DRM made the copying of purchased music to multiple listening locations impossible for many (and merely difficult for some). Users typically continued to purchase CDs and rip their own DRM-free versions.
DRM has not been the only factor limiting adoption. Until recently, mobile phones were very limited in memory, processing power and battery life. Battery life is perhaps the most important of these constraints, as users need their phones to handle voice calls and e-mails long enough to get them from one charge to the next. In this context, mobile music is deemed non-essential and interferes with the core needs of the mobile device user.
Not surprisingly, the downloading, managing, and playing of music on mobile phones was difficult, and dedicated music players predominated. In fact, in a study by the Nielsen Company, 11 percent of respondents listened to music via MP3 players while fewer than 2 percent of people listened to music on their mobile phones. Users who carry multiple portable devices (a “Personal Digital Calamity”) are in evidence on any crowded plane or passenger train.
CHANGE IS IN THE AIR
So, DRM and mobile phone limitations have conspired to limit the widespread adoption of music purchase, management and playback on the phone. Why is this changing?
The industry is quickly moving toward DRM-free music, which will have many benefits to the consumer. Most important, however, is that it will have a profound psychological impact: DRM-free music helps create the impression of permanent ownership. With CDs, consumers had a tangible perception of the permanence of their music. They were able to pick up a CD, hold it, look at an extensive library on a shelf, and know that even though they might change cars, change PCs or purchase new CD players, they’d always have access to that music.
The introduction of DRM-encumbered digital music, which created rules around when and where the user could listen to his or her music, was a step back. Not only could a user not freely listen to his or her music on multiple devices, the music now lacked a sense of permanence, as it could easily be lost during the failure of a single device. Investing in a digital music library with thousands of titles seemed risky. The introduction of DRM-free music has meant that buyers can have multiple active copies, on multiple devices, which encourages mobile purchase, management and playback. Furthermore, current trends towards “digital lockers” (cloud-based storage with persistent re-download rights) and streaming models virtually eliminate the psychological reluctance to buy digital music.
Some mobile music applications rely on streaming for music discovery, which does present some challenges. While streaming is a great discovery tool (witness the growth of Pandora, for instance), there will always be a need for consumers to own their own music, due to the psychological need for permanence. Streaming draws heavily on battery life (due to increased processor use for decrypting the music) and works best with an uncapped data usage plan, which, as we’ve recently seen at AT&T, will not necessarily be available or will present monetary obstacles. The ultimate mobile music platform might be a DRM-free music library stored on a mobile device with the safety of backup in the cloud. This would allow music lovers to minimally tax their batteries (some digital music players see up to 120 hours of battery life between charges), while still enjoying the freedoms of portability and permanence.
With on-the-go lifestyles prevalent throughout the world, mobile devices are with us every step and in many ways present an extension of our personalities. By eliminating the perceived complexities of mobile music through device sophistication and technology, which satisfies the needs of this new mobile lifestyle, music adoption on the mobile device is possible and more important, enjoyable.
Matthew Stecker is president and CEO of Livewire Mobile.