Jobs is now girding for a showdown with at least two of the four major record companies over the price of songs on the iTunes service.
If he loses, the one-price model that iTunes has adopted--99 cents to download any song--could be replaced with a more complex structure that prices songs by popularity. A hot new single, for example, could sell for $1.49, while a golden oldie could go for substantially less than 99 cents.
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Music executives who support Jobs say the higher prices could backfire, sending iTunes customers in search of songs on free, unauthorized file-swapping networks.
Signs of conflict over pricing issues are increasingly apparent. This month, Apple started its iTunes service in Japan without songs from the two major companies --Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group--leaving artists like Avril Lavigne, Beyonc? and Rob Thomas out of the catalog because the companies refused to license their music to iTunes, executives involved in the talks said.
That gap in the Japanese music market, the world's second biggest, is considered a harbinger of what may await American consumers as the contracts that record companies have with Apple in the United States come up for renewal early next year.
Jobs in the past has cast himself as an innovator battling established media giants like Disney and Microsoft. But these days, allies and adversaries both agree, he has more power online than Wal-Mart has in the bricks-and-mortar world.
Apple commands an estimated 75 percent of digital music sales, and roughly 80 percent of sales of MP3 players, with its market-leading iPod. While many still admire Jobs' touch--iTunes quickly established a market for paid downloads after the industry wasted years on misfires--he also inspires enmity or jealousy from others in the industry, which is back in a slump after a modest rebound last year.
Jobs' vision of simple, uniform pricing for songs and a policy of limiting Apple's music to Apple's devices are increasingly under attack.
"He'd like to continue to define the rules of the game," said Paul Vidich, a special adviser to America Online and former executive vice president of the Warner Music Group. Vidich said the digital music market, while growing, was still a fraction of the music business, but added, "I just think the music companies are now at a point where there's too much money on the table not to insist" that Apple accept variable prices.
"The question is," Vidich said, "what do they want the profile of the business to look like going forward?"
A sore point for some music executives is the fact that Apple generates much more money selling iPod players than it does as a digital music retailer, leading to complaints that Jobs is profiting more from tracks downloaded to fill the 21 million iPods sold so far than are the labels that produced the recordings.
Andrew Lack, the chief executive of Sony BMG, discussed the state of the overall digital market at a media and technology conference three months ago and said that Jobs "has got two revenue streams: one from our music and one from the sale of his iPods."
"I've got one revenue stream," Lack said, joking that it would require a medical professional to locate. "It's not pretty."
In a more conciliatory statement yesterday, Lack said: "I look forward to sitting down with Steve in the fall when we are scheduled to discuss Apple and Sony BMG's relations going forward. I think Steve has done a great job on behalf of the industry and in the months ahead we have lots of challenges to conquer together."
Apple has long allowed different prices for full albums sold on the service, though it believes that maintaining the 99-cent price for each song on an album acts as a natural cap. The service, which is available to consumers who download iTunes software to their computers, allows users to choose from roughly 1.5 million songs from major and independent labels. The songs, once paid for and downloaded, can be transferred to an iPod device, burned to blank discs, or played on the computer. At the price of 99 cents a song, the share of the major labels is about 70 cents.
Some analysts suggest that the willingness of the music companies to gamble on a new pricing structure reflects a short memory.
"As I recall, three years ago these guys were wandering around with their hands out looking for someone to save them," said Mike McGuire, an analyst at Gartner G2. "It'd be rather silly to try to destabilize him because iTunes is one of the few bright spots in the industry right now. He's got something that's working."
The push for variable pricing is not uniform across the business. The Universal Music Group, a unit of Vivendi Universal and the industry's biggest company, appears to support Jobs' desire to maintain the price of 99 cents a track for the time being. The EMI Group, the British music giant, has expressed a desire for more variation in prices but does not appear interested in a protracted fight.
The divide among the four record companies reflects a broader philosophical argument about whether the fast-expanding digital market is stable enough to bear a mix of prices, particularly a higher top end, while millions of consumers still trade music free on unauthorized file-swapping networks.
"I don't think it's time yet," said Jimmy Iovine, the chairman of Interscope Records, Universal's biggest division. "We need to convert a lot more people to the habit of buying music online. I don't think a way to convert more people is to raise the price. "I believe that he really feels that everybody isn't hooked yet into the whole concept," Iovine said, referring to Jobs. "You make it affordable, at a reasonable price, so they can learn about it. It's not an unreasonable position."
The other main battleground in Apple's coming confrontation with the industry has to do with "interoperability" of services and devices. Jobs has so far refused to make the iTunes software compatible with music players from other manufacturers, and he has prevented the iPod from accepting music sold from competing services that use a Microsoft-designed music format. As a result, songs purchased from Napster, for example, will not play on an iPod.
Apple's critics say the strategy echoes the company's decision, in the early years of personal computers, not to license its Mac operating system software. Many computer industry analysts say that approach allowed the rival Windows system to establish itself, and consigned Apple to a far smaller share of the computer market.
Apple has said that it will benefit more from improving iTunes than from devoting resources to make it compatible with other, smaller systems.
Still, to some executives, that practice makes Jobs appear more concerned with maintaining market dominance for his high-margin iPods than with allowing a more open digital market. All of the music companies, to one degree or another, have been urging Jobs to abandon the strategy, according to executives involved in the talks.
Hilary Rosen, the former chairwoman of the Recording Industry Association of America, agrees on that point. "If Apple opened up their standards, they would sell more, not less," she said. "If they open it up to having more flexibility with the iPod, I think they'd sell more iPods. On the other hand, I don't think it's their fault that nobody else has come up with something great" to compete.
Sony BMG in particular has taken steps that may apply pressure to Jobs to make Apple's software compatible with that of other companies. The company has issued dozens of new titles--including high-profile CD's from the Dave Matthews Band and the Foo Fighters--with software to limit the number of copies that can be made from the disc.
The software is compatible with Microsoft's music software, but not Apple's, and as a result music from those Sony BMG albums cannot be transferred to iPods that are hooked up to Windows-based PC's. EMI has been test-marketing similar software with a handful of titles.
Even some music executives who favor altering the iTunes service doubt that they will be able to force Jobs' hand by withholding their music. Instead, they are counting the months until the major wireless phone carriers enter the business of selling songs to mobile phone customers. Since there are many more mobile phones in use than there are iPods, the industry thinking goes, the arrival of a broad mobile music market will erode the leverage Jobs now holds.
But Apple has also been working with Motorola to develop a phone that can import songs from an iTunes-equipped computer.
McGuire said Apple was not likely to quietly surrender its position in the market.
"I think if they're throwing down for a street fight," he said, "they may have picked somebody who's as good or better at it than they are."
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