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Amazon Prime Music's top challenge? Getting Prime members to notice it (Q&A)

You already have to pay to belong to Prime. Amazon's head of digital music says the streaming service is after customers who don't necessarily want to spend a ton of money on music.

Could Prime Music become one of the biggest names in streaming services? Amazon thinks so.

Amazon

When it comes to downloads and sales of music, Amazon is the big kid on the block. The e-commerce titan will need to use its elbows, though, if it hopes to succeed in the increasingly competitive niche of music streaming.

Amazon Prime Music debuted in the US more than a year ago, came to the UK over the summer and landed in Germany this month. The ad-free streaming service, included in the $99 Prime annual subscription best known for two-day, free shipping, is certainly cheaper than its rivals. Apple Music, Spotify and Google Play Music offer ad-free streaming for $10 a month.

Like Apple, Amazon was late to streaming for a company with so much know-how in music sales. But don't tell that to Steve Boom.

"We got in at the right time," said Boom, vice president of digital music at Seattle-based Amazon. "Obviously we've been in the business for over 15 years. We have a first-row seat at exactly what people's music purchasing behaviors had been."

That's just one of many factors that Boom lists as helpful for Amazon in the scrum of music streaming.

Here is an edited excerpt of CNET's conversation with Amazon's music chief earlier this month in London:

Q: You've said every streaming service has a very focused rationale. What is Prime Music's?
Boom: When we decided to go into streaming, we spent a lot of time doing research with customers on what it is that they want. And not surprisingly, the first thing everybody wants is access to a lot of great music. But we also found that while they want access to a lot of great music, a substantial majority of people are not willing to pay £10 per month, £120 a year [in the UK, or $10 per month, $120 per year in the US].

The problem with free services, as we talked to customers, is that there are a lot of things that get in your way of listening to music.

There are a lot of ads. Maybe more importantly than the ads, the mobile phone is the No. 1 listening device for digital music, and the free streaming services do not give you full access on your phone and do not even let you take it offline, which is super important because the plans are expensive.

With Prime Music we wanted to address the customer who loves music, wants access to a lot of music, and probably not the customer who used to spend [hundreds of pounds or dollars] a year on music and needs access to every single thing. But they want to enjoy music without all the interruptions. And so that's what Prime Music is.

Many streaming services offer a free trial as a gateway to premium membership. Is that something you'd consider?
Boom: We never rule anything out from the start. As a company we're very focused on listening to our customers. People had been asking us to put music into Amazon Prime for quite some time. There were a number of people who said "finally" or "I've been waiting for this. Thank you, Amazon." And it's still really early days.

It has already established itself in three months here in the UK, in 16, 17 months now in the US, as one of the top premium streaming services. Right now we are really comfortable with that strategy.

Why did it take you so long to enter the streaming market, when selling music gave you a head start?
Boom: You're right, we've been in digital music and we've been on a kind of a path of evolution for Amazon from being a retailer of music to being a music service.

We can quibble about whether it was early, late or the perfect time.

We came in with a service that's different, and that's probably the most important thing. The rapid adoption by our Prime members says it was the right move...and yet we're still just scratching the surface. People ask me, what's your biggest challenge? Sometimes it's actually letting Prime members know that this exists.

So how do you do that?
Boom: We have this amazing marketing channel called Amazon, and you know, there is actually a quite good symbiotic relationship between video and music in this regard. What we have found is that, as people realize that they have digital-media benefits in addition to their e-commerce benefits -- once they get over that hurdle -- they're much more likely to then consume the other service. If they try music first, they're more likely to try video, and vice versa. So it's actually super helpful for us to have multiple services that allow us to cross-market.

Apple is really the only company that rivals you in terms of offering streaming and downloads as part of the same service. Is Apple Music your biggest foe?
Boom: We're just very different. One of the really interesting things about all of the other services is when they market a new release, it looks like how we used to market a new release. They market it to people using their music service, which is great, because it gets people that listen to their music. But Amazon has a much broader platform.

We have ... globally over 200 million customers coming to Amazon sites. Many of them are not using music from Amazon. And so what we're doing is actually marketing that release to everybody on Amazon, and that's way different.

You come to the home page, Amazon, it's an e-commerce site. You might be going to shop for a new tablet, you might be going to shop for laundry detergent, garden furniture or a new record, videos, and you're going to see this promotion. That's pretty powerful.

Has Prime Music strengthened the Prime package to the extent that people are joining Prime just because of it?
Boom: Our primary focus with Prime Music right now is not becoming a Prime member, but more on staying a Prime member. Like I said, we're going after the type of customer that wants access to lots of music and great functionality, but doesn't necessarily want to spend a ton of money on music every year.

What we're really focused on is getting them to say wow, Prime just got more valuable. When it comes time for my renewal, I'm that much more likely to. That's been our primary focus, and it's working. Every time we add a new benefit to Prime we do see that jump in our members where they tend to stay more engaged in our service.

Is there any chance Prime's annual fee, which is $99 in the US and £79 in the UK, will change?
Boom: There's always a possibility of that someday. Sometimes shipping costs go up, and we have seen that in the past. I think we've raised prices once in the history of buying. That really is not a lot.

Even when we did raise the price, the rate of growth of Prime really didn't slow and the retention rate stayed pretty much at the same level. ... If the price goes up, it's for good reason, not because we just whimsically want to raise the price. We wouldn't be adding these types of services if people weren't using them and loving them.