#5 - Amazon didn't launch a music store.   - Early in 2006 the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon was getting ready to open a digital music store to compete with the almighty iTunes.  According to the WSJ, Amazon would offer an all-you-can-eat subscription service and a branded Amazon player from Samsung, with a scheduled store launch in the summer of 2006.  Well, Summer came and went - with no sign of the music store. Jeff Bezos - head of the Amazon empire was heard remarking that Amazon would not get into the music business until they could figure out what they could do that would be different than all of the other offerings out there.  Now rumors are that Amazon is planning on launching the store as early as March 2007.  I'm excited about this - really excited. Here's why:

  • MP3s -  Rumor is that the Amazon store will sell music that is not DRM laden -meaning that the songs will play in any device without restriction.  The Amazon store may be the first big step toward the death of DRM. This is also good news for anyone trying to do content-based recommendation - systems like those used by MusicIP that analyze the content of the music don't work when the music is protected by DRM.  Likewise researchers in the Music Information Retrieval community working on problems such as automatic music classification, beat detection,  thumbnailing, summarization, etc. will be able to work with Amazon supplied MP3s - something that they can't do with the billions of tracks that have been purchased from iTunes.
  • Subscription model -  It is hard to square an all-you-can-eat subscription model with DRM-free MP3s -  so I am a bit skeptical that Amazon would offer this - but still, it is interesting to think about an Amazon-branded music player coupled with such a music subscription service.  The mobile phone model would seem to work well here - Amazon could offer a free Amazon music player with a 2-year music subscription.  The music player could be one of the nano-esque Samsung players that look very nice.

  • Discovery -  Amazon's focus on discovery makes Amazon a much better online bookstore than any other bookstore.  They use all sorts of ways to connect a reader with a book.  Collaborative filtering, book reviews, customer lists,  content search,  best seller lists , special deals.  These techniques help get their readers deep into the long tail of books.  Discovery is in Amazon's genes.  When they start selling digital music, you can bet that they will have the same focus on discovery and give the listener new and interesting ways to find music in the long tail.  A listener may come to Amazon to pick up the latest U2 track, but may find themselves happily downloading a track by an obscure artist.  This is good for the listener - they will will be exposed to a larger variety of music and this is good for the long tail artists.
  • Metadata - Amazon has a great set of web services built around their data.  Using Amazon's web services, one can get access to book descriptions, book cover images, reviews, pricing information - just about  any piece of data  in Amazon's database is exposed via their web services.  Exposing their data in this fashion places Amazon at the center of the online literary ecosystem.   Any startup company that wants to be in a business related to books will  use Amazon's API  because it is easy, the data is of high quality and it is free.  This is good for the startup, and even better for Amazon since all of those startups end up sending their customers to Amazon.  Amazon is already a big part of the music ecosystem.  They already have lots of data for music CDs that is available via their web APIs.  They are probably the largest supplier of album art on the web.  The Amazon part number - the ASIN - is used throughout the web as an unambiguous identifier for an album. Once Amazon starts to sell individual tracks, I would expect that Amazon will create an ASIN or an equivalent for each track in their database.  This track-level identifier may become the primary way of identifying tracks in the music world since Amazon makes it so easy to get all of the information about an item once you have the ASIN.  This could be a key enabler in the next generation of music - a  ubiquitous song ID tied to deep metadata.
  • Variable pricing - Instead of $0.99 per track Amazon will set the price of a song related to its popularity and freshness.  There's no reason that a track that sells only a few copies a year should sell for the same price as the latest chart topper.  Sites like Amie Street are already demonstrating that variable pricing models can be a really interesting part of the discovery process and an important business model.
  • Brand -  The Amazon brand is well known and liked (at least in the U.S) - this gives them a big step up over companies like Microsoft (that has a less than stellar reputation in some circles) and eMusic (which is not well known outside of the music geek world). 

So Amazon has a lot going for it.  Now let me offer a few suggestions to the folks building the Amazon music store that will make a big difference to the digital music world:

  •  ASIN <--> MBID - provide a web service that will map between ASINs and MusicBrainz IDs.  MusicBrainz is a community music metadatabase that provides all sorts of interesting music metadata for artists, albums and songs.  An MBID is the MusicBrainz ID that is associated with a track, album or artist.  If there's an easy bridge between the Amazon metadata and the MusicBrainz data, the value of both databases will be enhanced.
  • Use XSPF - XSPF is an emerging xml-based playlist format that is designed to encourage playlist sharing and portability.  XSPF is simple, portable and open. By adopting the XSPF format Amazon would  increase the visibility and use of this format leading to its wide adoption as the way of representing playlists.
  • Don't DRM the 30 second clips - There are lots of  people in the research and in the commercial world that are doing interesting things with audio - things like content-based recommendation, mood classification, beat tracking, music visualization.  A common problem for these folks is getting access to the audio - especially for new music. It is expensive to build a research collection around new music - and after a couple of years the research collection is no longer new.  If Amazon provided a way to turn an ASIN into a 30 second snippet of a song (even a low quality excerpt), they would enable a whole new generation of content-based music research - that would ultimately lead to a much more interesting set of tools for exploring and interacting with music.
So .. yes, I'm bullish on Amazon in the music space.  Amazon's emphasis on discovery, their willingness to provide access to their metadata and their rejection of DRM give them the ability to compete with the all-mighty iTunes.    Of course a year from now, I may be writing once again about Amazon in the "Top things that didn't happen in 2007" blog entry - but I think that  in 2007 we may see the tipping point for digital music and Amazon may be at the center of it all.


They didn't close down AllofMP3.com (not that they didn't try hard). The solution is apparently different from prosecuting and closing down, someone is yet to come up with a solution that would be as widely acceptable as buying vinyl was in the period 1920-1970 or buying CDs was between 1985 - 1995. In those periods this was respectively the way to get and keep music and, although alternatives existed, they were marginal and didn't cause conflicts in the value chain. Note the keywords 'get' and 'keep'. I believe there are only (very) few fundamental things that people ever do with music: - make (compose, play,produce) - get (buy or obtain free, in any form from sheet music and live listening to audio downloads) - keep (store for subsequent use in any analog/digital form) - enjoy (experience, listen to - but also view, read about) - share (during any of the previous - when making, keeping or enjoying) Historically the chain between these was linear with clearly defined roles and one-to-one relationships between those roles (or one-to-many, e.g. between make - experience). Today's connected world, however is essentially many-to-many and all roles hugely overlap. The maker of music is a sharer as is the recipient (listener), who is also often a maker etc. This causes the economic conflicts and a good workable model is yet to be found. I can predict it won't happen in 2007...

Posted by VGD on January 09, 2007 at 08:13 AM EST #

nice list! I enjoyed reading it.

Posted by elias on January 11, 2007 at 01:11 AM EST #

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