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Plenty of proof that ads don't support Web music

A profitable company has yet to rise out of the sector, and SpiralFrog's collapse is a powerful illustration that online advertising can't yet support music. There might be hope.

Three years ago this month, the Financial Times and The New York Times chronicled the emergence of an untried but promising new digital-music service: SpiralFrog.

Some of the hurdles that contributed to SpiralFrog's spiral out of the sector are the same confronting former rivals.

The start-up would offer music free of charge to consumers and attempt to hand the bill to advertisers. Since then, we've seen a dozen companies make names for themselves by offering their own twist on the ad-supported music model, including MySpace Music, Imeem, and Pandora. But regardless of how anyone has tweaked it, not a single service in the still-nascent sector has proven that it knows how to offer consumers a compelling free-music service while providing advertisers an effective way to deliver their messages.

Music fans generally refuse to pay to listen online and resent on-site advertising. The hard truth is that to this point, ad-supported music as a standalone business has failed.

Ruckus and SpiralFrog have closed their doors. Imeem faced a financial crisis earlier this year, until receiving new funding from investors and price concessions from the music labels. A year after Qtrax obtained licenses from all four of the top recording companies, the company appears to be struggling to pay its bills and has yet to launch.

In May, CNET News reported that MySpace Music's performance has underperformed. Several music sites have overhauled their business models (Lala) or are trying to do so (iLike).

Pandora's popular iPhone app, meanwhile, has helped spur user growth, but the company has also opted out of ad-supported music for the site's heaviest users. The company said last month that those tuning in for more than 40 hours a month must pay 99 cents to continue listening.

And if you're waiting for the Swedes, in the form of white-hot music service Spotify, to come charging over the hill to show us how to make the model work, you needn't bother. Three industry sources told CNET News last week that the service--expected to debut in the United States next year--is struggling to convert users into paying customers. Just like others on this side of the Atlantic, Spotify hasn't figured out how to make money.

CNET News has recently completed a two-month examination of SpiralFrog, the now-defunct download service that was among the pioneers of the ad-supported model. The review provides an unprecedented view of the many challenges facing companies in this sector. SpiralFrog's tale sheds light on the kind of rates advertisers are willing to pay and the licensing fees the top music labels charge. None of it is very promising.

There's no doubt now that the much-hyped SpiralFrog was never among the front-runners. The service offered music from only two of the four top recording companies. Users couldn't download SpiralFrog's tunes to their iPods. And documents show that the start-up spent millions of dollars on marketing but never attracted a loyal following of significant size.

There may be a temptation to dismiss SpiralFrog's problems as unique to the company. That would be a mistake. There's no question that some of the same factors that stymied SpiralFrog are bearing down on many of the company's former rivals. "This version of ad-supported model is certainly on life support," said Mike McGuire, an analyst at research firm Gartner. "I think we can say this round didn't quite work."

Migration to downloads
One sign that some players in digital music are losing faith in the ad-supported model is the rise in companies looking to sell downloads, according to one music industry executive. "That's become the fallback position," the source said.

A copy of a $1.8 million bounced check written by Qtrax to Oracle, which filed a breach of contract and copyright lawsuit last month against the yet-to-be-launched music service. Screenshot by Greg Sandoval/CNET

All four of the major music labels declined to comment for this story.

Imeem, which has mostly focused on streaming ad-supported music to users' PCs, has recently begun testing a download store. Music industry sources told CNET News last month that iLike, which powers Facebook's most popular music service, was in talks with the major record companies over licensing downloads.

For two years, Imeem has posted links to Apple's iTunes and's MP3 service on its site to enable visitors a means to buy songs. MySpace Music, YouTube, Pandora, and Spotify do the same. But Imeem is testing how effectively it can sell a limited number of tracks from Warner Music Group and several independent labels directly to consumers.

Selling downloads directly, rather than linking to another retailer, is more lucrative. A music site that sells downloads can make 30 cents from direct sales rather than the 5 cents that the so-called affiliate partners pay, according to an industry source. The trick for any upstart download store is to convince customers of Apple's iTunes and Amazon's MP3 service--by far the leading download stores--to try a new outlet.

Nonetheless, the behemoth record labels are willing to work to help ad-supported sites survive. Imeem is the poster child for how the labels have changed their approach to these services. Founded in 2004, Imeem came very close to running out of money until it found new funding and also negotiated better licensing deals with the labels earlier this year. Some of Imeem's rivals asked and received similar concessions, industry sources said.

That hasn't stopped the complaining, however. The people who run digital-music stores continue to quietly argue that licensing fees charged by big record companies are still too high for stores to eke out a profit. Music industry insiders say it's not their fault that the start-ups have failed to win over advertisers. What are they supposed to do--give their content away? That won't happen, executives say.

Overpaying for music
CNET News' review of SpiralFrog showed that in 2006, SpiralFrog agreed to pay $3.2 million to Universal Music Group, the largest of the top four recording companies, in up-front fees. Documents indicate that in 2008, SpiralFrog set aside $3.5 million to license music from EMI, the smallest of the major labels. That deal triggered a "most favored nation" clause in Universal's contract, and SpiralFrog ended up paying an additional $1 million to Universal.

From a SpiralFrog June 2008 expenditure list. Note: SpiralFrog had no licenses with Warner or Sony. Figures represent amounts the start-up expected labels to charge.

Although SpiralFrog managers never secured deals with Sony Music Entertainment or Warner Music Group, the music service budgeted $5 million and $3.3 million, respectively, to acquire licenses from those services, records show. Those figures were all minimums. Under the agreements reached with Universal and EMI, had SpiralFrog made revenue above those minimums, the company would have been required to split that revenue 50-50 with the labels.

By the time SpiralFrog compensated the labels and music publishers, the company's managers figured that 66 percent of their revenue went to the music industry, records show. SpiralFrog's deal with the major labels was different from those negotiated by most music-streaming Web services, which pay penny-per-play rates. Their agreements are to pay a cent, or some fraction of a cent, each time a song is played.

It appears that it made little difference whether the record companies got their money before or after a sale. The rates they charged forced ad-supported companies to generate big ad revenue in order to cover costs.

SpiralFrog, for its part, never came close to covering costs, documents show. The start-up lost more than $26 million in 2008.

Advertisers are simply unwilling to pay the music sites a premium rate. In order to charge advertisers $10 for 1,000 impressions, ad-supported sites must operate their own sales teams, which is expensive. In SpiralFrog's case, the company's salespeople were successful at signing a few marquee advertisers, including McDonald's and Microsoft, but much too often, the company found itself selling excess ad inventory through remnant ad networks, which typically pay 50 cents or less for 1,000 impressions.

Advertisers aren't willing to give the ad-supported sites top dollar because they know that people aren't necessarily staring at a computer while listening to songs online. Instead, they tend to check e-mail or Facebook, do homework, eat dinner, or browse the Web in other browser tabs. In contrast with radio, Web listeners have become accustomed to music without audible ads embedded into the streams--and they don't want those ads, according to Gartner's McGuire.

Another gripe that advertisers have is that many ad-supported sites don't reach big enough audiences. Mel Schrieberg, SpiralFrog's former CEO, said SpiralFrog couldn't get in the "tier 1" advertising door with fewer than 5 million users. To generate this kind of traffic, SpiralFrog spent $11 million in 2008 on search engine and affiliate marketing, which gobbled up the little revenue the company was able to generate.

But Susan Kevorkian, a digital-music and mobile-entertainment analyst at IDC, points out that a large audience doesn't mean instant success. Although MySpace Music has access to the social network's shrinking but still large audience, she said the service still "hasn't performed to industry expectations."

Is there any hope?
One bright spot is that some investors are sticking with the sector.

In addition to Imeem, Spotify and Pandora found new funding. Investors including British venture capital firm Wellington Partners were part of a $50 million round of financing for Spotify, according to the Financial Times. And Pandora last month announced that it had raised $35 million of additional funding.

Ali Partovi, iLike's CEO, argues that the ad-supported model works for music, but not when you're giving songs away.

"We've built a self-sustaining ad-supported business--positive cash flow over the past eight-month period," Partovi said. "That's with only one full-time ad salesperson. What's our secret? It's simple: we're not trying to help consumers get unlimited music without paying for it. Instead, we're focused on music discovery. We deliver all the other things that music consumers love without risking a lawsuit or paying high royalties."

That may be true, but iLike is among the companies discussing downloads with the music labels.

Click the image above to read the lead story of our series on SpiralFrog. Stories on SpiralFrog's internal strife and customers' private information will appear Tuesday.

Matt Graves, Imeem's spokesman, said his company is trying to be innovative and not solely rely on traditional online advertising, such as on banners and display ads. The company is trying to mix things up with in-stream audio ads and custom-tailored campaigns. The music service recently promoted a download giveaway from Wal-Mart Stores and offered users a chance to remix songs from artists such as rapper Flo Rida.

"If it's all about displays, then users will get ad-blind," Graves said. "We're enabling advertisers to do a deep integration."

IDC's Kevorkian agrees that until now, ad-supported music has failed, but she sees some possibilities.

"This model has some flaws that need to be addressed before it works as a standalone model," Kevorkian said. "That said, there's a possibility that it could be deployed in conjunction with a hybrid paid model to help generate revenue so that the music provider isn't solely dependent on ads."