Eddy Cue, Apple’s head of Internet Software and Services, and chief of iTunes and iTunes Radio, indicated in a recent interview that streaming Justin Timberlake’s new album a week before its release won’t be the last promotion of its kind. Without revealing any numbers, Cue said it was a perfect application of iTunes Radio. The iTunes Music Store has streamed preview albums in the past, but (as noted by Cue), the Radio environment is a more natural setting for long-form listening than a store.
Using radio to preview not-yet-released music is not new. Singles have received weeks of broadcast airplay to build demand. But mp3 eroded the efficacy of that, as P2P file-sharing, then the iTunes store (which opened in 2003) blurred the line between unreleased and released. Building demand started to feel like artificial friction in a marketplace where instant availability crossed back and forth between legal and illegal realms. Copyright infringement is a nuance that escapes many consumers, but digital availability has become an obvious and compelling fact of life.
David Joseph, CEO of Universal Music U.K. and Ireland, noted in 2011 an interesting observation: “What we were finding under the old system was the searches for songs on Google or iTunes were peaking two weeks before they actually became available to buy, meaning that the public was bored of – or had already pirated – new singles.”
When the radio station is owned by the record store (as in Apple’s case), and both pay royalties to the labels, synchronizing release windows to consumer demand is solved. Release is a wave, not a particle. To many users, especially those invested in access-as-ownership, Justin Timberlake’s album was “released” on the first day of the preview stream. The download side of Apple’s merchandising benefited not only from preview build-up, but also from providing universal review access, which resulted in pre-sale reviews published in MTV, L.A. Times, New York Daily News, Washington Post, Variety, SPIN, Vulture, and dozens of other outlets. (Some of those skewering diatribes probably hurt iTunes download sales.)
Whole-album Internet radio promotion is an intriguing experiment for all stakeholders. It solves piracy to some extent, and also hints at reviving albums from the fragmenting single-song marketplace. When you spend a week luxuriously accustoming listeners to a packaged collection, with no revenue damage, you encourage packaged buying down the funnel. At this writing, Timberlake’s album sits at #1 in the iTunes Store Albums chart, while the Songs chart doesn’t show his name until #31. Darn right Eddie Cue is going to repeat this experiment.