ping.jpgWhen Apple purchased LaLa, we briefly examined the history of digital music prior to their announcement. In an effort to really understand iTunes’ new Ping, I turn once again to history; this time my own.

When iTunes was born, the music industry was experiencing its first depressing years in the red. I was just a girl with rock & roll hair, working at a mid-size indie record label, running our internet show, trying to keep our sales in the black using the internet, simultaneously spending at least 20 hours/week communicating with fans of bands on our label.

Online bulletin boards (ah yes, phpbb), list-servs, and creative street team promotions for our superfans – I spent my nights conjuring up the most bizarre online marketing plans i could muster. And…making animated buddy icons for bands. Yeah, that jerk was me.

The job title on my What Are Records? business card ranged from “internet girl” and “online all the time” to “Director Online Marketing & A&R.” Eventually I participated in negotiating one of the first-ever direct deals between iTunes and an independent record label.

Over the last ten years I’ve had the opportunity to pour over numerous digital retail licensing contracts including the deals iTunes offered to big indies, individual artists and distributors as well as promotional efforts and sales charts centered around the iTunes store. I’ve seen the checks that go to labels & artists from iTunes, and they are handsome.

The reaction to new music products in San Francisco is somewhat odd; it generally lasts 24 hours, and by the end of the day a few tech blogs have purported to solve all music industry problems with just one tech adjustment, not realizing it probably doesn’t make any sense in the realm of actual music industry.

Venture based publications have to render an opinion immediately, and without any music background, they don’t ask music-centric questions, but instead spend time figuring out: is it twitter-like? blogger-like? facebook-like?

None of that matters to me. But also, Ping’s not twitter-like, so stop saying that.

iTunes and I…we’ve got history. And so does my work with artists, fans and the social context of music. What used to be the highly personal activity of sending packages of posters w/ personal notes to street teamers morphed into logical digital activities like sending newsletters, pdfs of posters for fans to print and post on lamposts & Electronic Press Kits with share buttons.

Now we can create entire online community networks designed just for street teams or fans alone and publish label samplers as podcasts instead of CDs. And, of course, labels artists and bands are communicating with fans and with each other using various forms of socialized media and real-time technology.

While socio-digital networks grow, iTunes remains the biggest source of digital sales to artists & labels. Digital music alone has kept multiple independent record labels in business based solely on sales from iTunes. Infinite retail space and the elimination of returns is the single greatest accomplishment in the early Age Of Digital Music, and iTunes did it. Like a regular record store, to promote the music for sale in iTunes, labels, artists and marketers are fighting for features within the iTunes store and they all have the same great reason to fight: iTunes is not a music discovery platform, but it generates 85% of all digital music sales.

How does anyone find anything in the iTunes store when most people receive music recommendations from their friends? To paraphrase Ted Cohen, iTunes is a lot like a 7-11. You have to know what you want when you are there. And then, most likely, you leave.

Other on demand streaming platforms (rdio, for example) were conceived with core music sharing behaviors in mind prior to launch. Ping definitely resembles Rdio, but right now iTunes is not a place for listening, it is a store where consumers buy mp3s.

Apple has successfully trained over 150 million human beings to use iTunes for one purpose – purchasing files. Now, they are giving real consumers an opportunity to have conversations and share extraneous media or buy concert tickets in the store around the music they are purchasing.

Imagine going to Amoeba, seeing your friend and saying “hey what are you buying, I’m buying this.” Or maybe you’re a superfan so you also add “by the way I have a lock of Bret Michaels’ hair, wanna see a pic of it?”

Sounds fun, and let’s face it: The internet is fun. Whether you get sucked in to playing You Don’t Know Jack , or can’t give up your foursquare habit because you love being mayor of Lost Weekend Video, the greatest internet moments derive from the pleasure principal.

iTunes is a smooth experience but it’s never really been fun. iMixes take a long time to publish and you can only share :30 second clips. And as much as I love my iPhone (we cuddle) what about media consumers with Androids and Blackberries? They can’t play.

After enhancing the digital purchasing power of individuals within iTunes, Apple is embracing their attention.

Ping transforms iTunes from a simple digital store, into a multimedia consumer browser with privacy settings. Your purchasing power generates social context. Your purchasing habits around iTunes media are now social, so if you click the little ping button, you will see what your friends are purchasing, and any conversation generated around those items. You will not be able to listen to any of the music or media on demand. You will have to buy the mp3. But you can type your thoughts, and upload pictures and basically take all your social habits into your iTunes browser, which is a hub for purchasing digital content. And that’s if you click the ping button, and choose to participate.

Trippin

So let’s future trip. Think about the hard devices in your home and the 3 major smartphones. With the announcement of Ping, we could be seeing the first clue of what is to come: 3 or 4 major media & consumer companies. Yes, it will all roll up into 3 or 4. You, the consumer, will eventually have to choose one. You’re an Apple, a Google and a (Microsoft? Amazon? Clear Channel?).

The carrier/ hub/ media group you choose will provide you with wifi and house your digital media – all of it. They will know you well. They will provide you with all of the same entertainment you receive today, but with added features you can only get by choosing your media company, from whom you will also purchase the hardware. On demand streams will be collected by the hardware’s preferred cloud. It will almost be like choosing between cable companies, but you will not only be choosing your cable provider, you will also be choosing your media provider.

Personally, I’m not a PC, never really was. Windows wasn’t my idea. I’ve been a Mac since having fun with hypercard in college. Right now, I’m a Mac who loves Rdio and only buys stuff in iTunes using my lala credits.

What Does This Mean For Music Promotion?

With the announcement of Ping, my inner music geek just listened to something on Rdio, but my marketing brain is already throwing a dance party. Since 85% of all digital music purchases take place within the iTunes browser, the customized charts and opportunity to capitalize on a social economy enables artists and consumers to act as tastemakers in unison and draw attention to music in iTunes – an opportunity that previous to now has only been available to about 4 indie artists per month.

Adding social context creates new opportunities for creative marketing. iTunes is going from a regular old 7-11 to the biggest digital version of Amoeba we’ve seen to date, creating more opportunity for music exposure. I’d say what those opportunities are, but then I’d have no job, and I do so love living in San Francisco. So…sorry.

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  • dd

    What about the fact that Ping is by invite only and indie artists are left out? Even artists who have substantial sales on iTunes (see Zoe Keating’s tweets about this). This is just big labels once again getting a stronghold on the industry.

  • Corey Denis

    dd – when iTunes first launched it launched with major labels only. Now CD Baby can get music into the store within 1 week. I suspect this is the simiilar path for ping and that we are seeing an early version of Ping, just as we do with most apple products. in other words, i have no doubt Zoe will get an artist page, but if she doesn’t I’ll be sure to write about it 🙂