Feature: Buying Music Over the Air (Part I)

SamsungSync.jpgYou can buy, download, and listen to music right from your cellphone. So why isn’t everyone doing it?

by Jamie Lendino

Since the launch of the original iTunes Music Store in 2003, people have been buying music online and downloading it to their computers. But new services from Verizon and Sprint now let you purchase music from your phone, and download it directly to your handset for listening on the go – without having to touch your PC in the process.

Sounds like a dream, right? It does, particularly for the record labels. Everyone knows the CD and recording industries are in deep trouble, posting double-digit drops over the past several years as more customers download music from the Internet in lieu of buying CDs in stores. But since Apple recently sold its two and a half billionth song over iTunes, it’s become apparent to even the staunchest critics that digital distribution has its merits. With many phones now serving double duty as music players, will consumers want to buy music directly from their phones, ala the Sprint and Verizon music stores?

“The last few years, the phone has been evolving to a wireless device,” said independent telecom analyst Jeff Kagan. “It does things it could never do before, such as taking pictures, television, movies, recording videos, and music. Music is playing a very big role. It’s going to drive a lot of attention to playing music and the different ways of accessing music [on mobile],” he said.

The stars may be lining up, but the subscribers aren’t
To date, consumers haven’t taken to buying music from their cellphones. There are numerous possible reasons, but chief among them has been the pricing. Verizon charges $1.99 per song – double what most PC-based services charge – to do an over-the-air purchase, though they also offer a 99 cent option to download it onto your computer instead. Sprint stunned the industry back in 2005 when they introduced the Sprint Music Store by charging a whopping $2.50 per song. But Sprint’s recent price reduction to just 99 cents per track, even for over-the-air purchases, could be viewed as a declaration of war.

So the pricing is more competitive these days. There’s also the undeniable convenience factor: let’s say you have a few minutes to kill and want to listen to the new Radiohead album. Or you just left a club, and – presuming you’re not deaf from the volume inside – you can look up the artist and download her music onto your handset, while her name is still fresh in your mind.

These are just two possible scenarios for buying music from a cellphone. But it’s not always easy to use these services. It’s the usual 2-inch screen problem – do consumers want to drill down multiple levels of a menu in order to find what they want to buy? You also need a special set of stereo ear buds with a built-in mic; this way they can double as your hands-free set. They require a different size connector, since most cell phones only accept the smaller 2.5mm connectors, not the industry standard 3.5mm jacks you’ll find on an iPod. (Many newer cellphones come with the correct ear buds in the box.)

While none of the cellphone carriers have as large a catalog as Apple or Yahoo! yet, they do sell music from all four major labels. The recent Apple/EMI deal to remove digital rights management (DRM) protection from songs could also jolt the industry. The lack of DRM means that you can buy a song from the iTunes Store and then listen to it on any cellphone, though even here there’s an obstacle: the iTunes Store only sells music in AAC format, not MP3. Apple shrewdly went with an open standard that’s common to Apple devices, but not-so-common to everyone else. Handsets that support AAC files are currently few and far between, though that’s likely to change soon now that the DRM restriction is lifting.

Read part II of our feature story here.