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Who will win the Online Music wars?

June 28th, 2011
Apple iTunes icon

Online music is a fascinating space with a lot of creativity and competitors, there are many heavyweights but plenty of nimble startups as well. In the olden days, online music meant pirated music. I have too much respect for musicians to be a pirate. Of course I’m in the minority and musicians have had to rethink how they will earn an income. Record labels of course hated the Internet, but along came the iPod, Apple, and iTunes. Steve Jobs and the world’s best portable music player brought the record labels to the bargaining table and allowed artists more direct control over the availability of their music. Radiohead famously released an album over the Internet with no set price.

The Apple Ecosystem

After the success of the iPod & iTunes, Apple released the iPhone and the iPad, pretty much dominating those markets the way the iPod dominated the market for MP3 players. My original iPod had a hard drive in it, it could hold 20 GB of music. I’ve never had that much music stored on it. I use smart playlists to rotate my music intelligently. You really only need a little over 8 hours of music on your iPod as that is a full workday’s worth of tunes. As a result portable music players are offering less storage but more features, to the point where the iPod Touch is basically an iPhone without the phone. Games, messaging, social networking, email, and 10,000s ther apps are available through the iTunes Store.

What does all this have to with online music?

How you store and access your music is changing; from storing gigs of music on your desktop, to gigs of music on your portable music player, to gigs of music on your smart phone, to storing all your music in the cloud and streaming it to your desktop, your laptop, your phone, even your car.

  • How does the music get to the cloud? 
  • Who owns the copyright to the music in the cloud? 
  • What devices can easily access the cloud? 
  • How do you share music in cloud?

Music in the Cloud

I’m not the only one thinking about this, I’ve been sharing, especially on LinkedIn, a lot of stories on cloud music storage, social networks, and startups in this space. Google and Amazon both offer cloud storage which can be used to share music, but I was curious to see what Apple would do. Apple released Ping to fanfare and groans. Ping was supposed to be integrated with Facebook, but the two tech titans couldn’t come to terms so Ping was neutered. iOS 5 is going to support iCloud and online music sharing, Apple also chose to integrate Twitter deeply with their latest mobile operating system, not Facebook. This is a huge win for Twitter because of the sales numbers and customer base of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Apple probably sees Facebook as a major competitor just like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.

FAANG will dominate

I read some thought leader (Eric Schmidt) who stated there was going to be four platform companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google. Apparently he wasn’t as big of a believer in Netflix which is the “N” in “FAANG”. Developers are basing their product on services and APIs from these platform companies. Microsoft was also left off Eric’s list and the acronym, despite the huge install base of the various Windows operating systems. The problem facing Microsoft is the most innovative developers are flocking to the other companies, abandoning Windows both on the desktop and the increasingly more important mobile app space.

Google is another company that feuds heavily with Facebook and Microsoft. Their lead in search in the English language Internet isn’t going to disappear, but their efforts to become more social have been less than successful. They have Android, cloud storage, and lots of tools developers can use to create apps, however the iTunes store has proven a better market for selling mobile apps at least initially. iPhone users have a higher willingness to pay than Android users.

Many companies have been built on top of Amazons Web Services while Facebook is the world’s largest social network complete with the Open Graph API. Facebook is the biggest direct threat to Google’s cash cow, online advertising, which is why Google now has it’s own +1 button and “me on the web” page.

So how does music fit in?

Well one place where all these companies are directly in competition is in the selling, playing, and sharing music. Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer. Facebook has 750 million users (in 2011). Google is the default site to search for anything online. Apple makes the world’s most popular mobile devices and has convinced all the major record companies that they can make money together, selling music online. Which will dominate online music?

What about Microsoft?

Making fun of Microsoft has long been a hobby of many, especially among Mac fans. Unfortunately for them, ever since Bill stepped down they seem to be losing ground in all their major markets, the exception being console gaming. Microsoft runs a lot of TV ads, but more and more people I know have opted for Apple for their mobile devices, even if they still have a Windows machine on their desk. Windows market share is shrinking on the desktop and no one but Nokia seems to be backing Microsoft on mobile devices.

What about the startups?

Besides the big boys in the platform/cloud space, there are lots of startups with a creative take on music online. There have always been startups in this space, a lot of older ones have been bought up. was bought by CBS, iLike was bought by MySpace, Pandora went public but their service was previously neutered or blocked completely in Canada. Spotify is popular in Europe, but again Canadian copyright laws keep them from gaining many (if any) Canadian users. is the latest buzz band of the online music space, but they too had to kick out all users outside the US for fear of copyright violations. Even after that action there are still questions to the legality of their service. So far only Apple has been able to sign agreements with all the major record labels. This along with the 1000s of songs I’ve ranked, classified, and sorted in my iTunes library is why I’ll wait for Apple’s iCloud offering. I do like to try new services and after my mashup making spree, I’m very interested in APIs to manipulate and share my music collection with web surfers.

Other companies I’ve seen people touting on Twitter:

Some of these niche sites can exist alongside the behemoths, however people only have so much time and energy to spend on social networks.  Facebook and LinkedIn seem to be the big winners with Twitter straddling the divide between online social network and SMS. Twitter is used in many ways, not just as an online social network, companies use it for support, PR, to advertise, even for employee recognition.

More thoughts on the Online Music Wars

Remember AOL?

Shortly after pushing the publish button, I checked my Twitter feeds and low and behold, AOL launched a new online music service. This is surprising on a number of levels. One does AOL still have subscribers and relevance in today’s Internet? Two AOL has been repeatedly outmaneuvered by newer more nimble companies, so what makes their management think they can defeat the hottest startups and the biggest tech titans in the war over the online music space?

Have you been to Hitlantis?

Another competitor in the social music discovery space is Hitlantis. They are straight outta Finland and recently received fresh VC funding. They are going after indie bands mainly to cut down on royalty fees. They have a unique take on UI design, which seems to echo some of my concentric circles of coolness theory.

More Combatants

Blackberry manufacturer, Research In Motion has entered the online music wars, but like a lot of their offerings of late, it may be too little too late. RIM has been the reigning tech titan in Canada, but as more consumer oriented companies like Apple have entered the mobile computing space, their product offerings have become boring or uninspired. They seem to be playing catchup to Apple when they originally had a huge lead in the marketplace over the makers of the Macintosh. RIM like Apple has control over the hardware and software side of the equation, but I’ve heard it said that it is a lot more difficult to develop for the Blackberry platform and despite repeated attempts, no one has successfully duplicated the iTunes Store experience, especially not with regards to ROI for developers.

I keep sticking with Apple

I’m still waiting for Apple’s music locker offering and I’m still betting on them, even with Steve Jobs stepping down from day to day operational decisions. The company has been bigger than just him for a long time, there are many other smart and creative people working at Apple, I don’t think they’ll be relinquishing their mobile computing crown anytime soon.

Where is iTunes Match?

The iPhone 4S has come out along with iOS 5 and iTunes 10.5 but still no iTunes Match. I’m still waiting and still looking for a full time job. I keep reading what the pundits have to say, at least those that have their stories posted to my Twitter stream. Some see it as Facebook + Spotify VS Apple + Twitter now, a tag team title match for domination of online music sales.  Weren’t these the same pundits talking about how great the online DJ rooms like were?

Who is winning?

There still is no clear winner, however Grooveshark which is now being sued by all the major record labels or publishing arms/subsidiaries of all major labels seems to be a clear looser. It is never good when your suppliers bring lawsuits against you, even worse when all your major suppliers bring lawsuits against you.


Twitter became more active in the online music war releasing an iPhone app called #music. It doesn’t have streaming capabilities itself, it relies on other Internet Radio services and iTunes for previews and entire tracks. It has underwhelmed most people who have used it and I personally don’t use Twitter to follow many musicians or even people who I care which songs they like. I do occasionally tweet which song I’m listening to and I modified an AppleScript to tag it with #NowPlaying so my tweets will be counted by Twitter. Apple eventually added a similar feature to their ecosystem.

Twitter’s app is more an aggregation of data, they identify the most popular 140 bands/artists/songs but also try to uncover “upcoming” acts. Not a lot of what I listen to is consider popular or hip, and I don’t have the money or time to follow new music trends. I subscribe to a few music blogs and I do listen and even buy new albums and songs through iTunes but often I buy old music that I remember from the past but was unavailable to find for a long time. It is sad what passes for popular music nowadays.

Apple and Google plan Internet Radio offerings

As an iTunes Match customer I’m supposed to get Apple’s Internet Radio service for free, so you know who I’m still betting on to win the online music war, but the Financial Post profiles some of the other combatants, some are even available in Canada, which as I explained to my boss is a lot more problematic than it sounds due to different broadcasting standards, license deals, CANCON, and of course the size of our market.

Apple finally released a streaming service and increased the number of songs you can store in the cloud with iTunes Match to 100,000. I am in China now so using all these services is difficult with or without a VPN. I am downloading more music from the iCloud back to my computer and iPhone so I can listen to it when the Chinese Internet is being unreliable. In the gym is where I listen to most of my music these days, but I still make mix CDs when I can find empty CD-ROMs. Mix CDs apparently are being replaced by sharing custom playlists. Every one of my mix CDs matches to a playlist on iTunes, but I’m not interested in sharing my decade plus of work with the world. I’ve shared too much for too little ROI online, plus some of my playlists are very personal and I continue to fine-tune my latest ‘smart gym’ playlist.

Is iTunes too bloated?

iTunes has become so bloated and Apple Music may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for some. I have not turned it on and am unlikely to do so because the Internet in China is atrocious.

More recent thoughts on the online music war:

What about China?

Having lived and worked in China I can tell you what app and thus company dominates their online music: WeChat and Tencent. There are of course competitors. China has its own acronym which is BAT: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. Piracy of course is a huge issue in China as is trust and privacy so it will be difficult for a Chinese company to dominate the world as Huawei is currently learning, but when you have a protected market of a billion consumers and you can get almost infinite capital at zero interest it can be pretty damn profitable just being a Chinese national Champion.

If you have thoughts on who will live in the online music war you can leave a comment below. I use iTunes and but not Apple Radio currently but I’m willing to try it one of these days. I keep track of my listening habits carefully.

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