Bollywood Digital Music and the Galapagos Effect

Today was Mother’s Day. My gift for my wife was a compilation of Bollywood songs on a CD that she can play during her commute. I spent a good bit of time on Saavn and iTunes to put the compilation together. It got me thinking about the Indian digital music scene once again.

Saavn is a new and upcoming internet music streaming service for Indian music. You can stream any song in their very comprehensive library on demand. The quality of streaming is pretty good, at least out here in the US. The website is simple to use, though some minor UX issues could do with some attention. (btw, why don’t songs have composers as a field?)

You can make your own playlists, or just play playlists that other people have saved. I used their Weekly Top Songs as a jumping off point for my compilation.

Raaga is a competing website that has been around longer. Both these websites have the same ad supported business model. Currently, it is mostly display ads. Eventually, I expect audio ads. Both websites have Android and iPhone apps.

Overall, this ad-supported on-demand streaming model seems the most interesting thing happening in Indian digital music. They have completely handed over control of the download business to Apple, which is a shame. But that’s a different subject.

Funny thing is, this model doesn’t exist for digital music in the US. Here, on demand streaming is like owning the song. With wireless broadband now, for all practical purposes, one is never cut off from the cloud. If I can stream any song at-will, with high quality streaming it’s not very different from owning it.

In the US therefore, there is no ad-supported on-demand streaming model. You can subscribe to a whole library for a period of time which means more $$ (Rhapsody). Or you can buy and download all the songs you want for much more $$ (iTunes). [In Europe, Spotify is a little like Saavn, which is why they are having trouble entering the US].

Then there is the ad-supported model called internet radio. The differentiating characteristic of internet radio is that the user has no control over what song is played next. Pandora, the leader in this model, is expected to have an IPO soon. In India Bombay Production follows this model.

How is it that Indian digital music seems to be evolving very differently from western digital music? The answer is what I will call the Galapagos effect. The way unique species developed on the Galapagos island (or Madagascar) because it was cut off from the mainland, the same way, Indian digital music is insulated enough from the western industry that it can and will mould itself differently.

Copyright law is very tricky. It differs from country to country. Which is why you can’t get Pandora outside the US. Or Netflix. Or many books on the Kindle. It also works the other way, as in the case of Spotify.

Indian copyright law is different enough that Pandora or Rhapsody is going to avoid the hassle and instead focus on its US business.

But that’s not all. Broadband infrastructure is a key enabler for digital music. In India, that infrastructure so far has been well behind developed countries’. In fact, it might be argued that so far, the target listener for Saavn like companies has been mainly the NRI. This might change soon as broadband and 3G penetration increase.

So, while Pandora, Spotify and Rhapsody pass on the Indian market, it leaves white spaces for startups to exploit. That is, until Apple decides to go after the Indian market. They already have almost the entire market for Indian digital music. And they are rumored to be planning a cloud service for streaming your music. Which will be easy to extend since Indian copyright laws allow it.

In the meanwhile, I’m not complaining. I get to listen to any song I want on Saavn for free. If I’m feeling lazy I go to Bombay Production. It’s free and uninterrupted. Pretty good deal.

But I worry about the future. I want Saavn to survive. This morning I spent 2 hours on pulling together my compilation. Most of that was on Saavn which was incredibly useful. But then I went and spent $20 on iTunes. Doesn’t seem fair.

Bottom of the Pyramid of Digital Media

PyramidIf you read this blog regularly you should be used to my constant carping about the lack of imagination in the music industry due to which the price per song is stuck at about $1.

While the music industry in the West and in Bollywood is doing its best ostrich imitation, in another product category we are seeing some amazing new developments – books.

From Novelr

Amanda Hocking is 26* years old. She has 9 self-published books to her name, and sells 100,000+ copies of those ebooks per month. She has never been traditionally published. This is her blog. And it’s no stretch to say – at $3 per book1/70% per sale for the Kindle store – that she makes a lot of money from her monthly book sales. (Perhaps more importantly: a publisher on the private Reading2.0 mailing list has said, to effect: there is no traditional publisher in the world right now that can offer Amanda Hocking terms that are better than what she’s currently getting, right now on the Kindle store, all on her own.)

If Hocking had gone to a publisher to do a paperback that retailed for $10, she would have made $1 per book. For the Kindle version, she would have made $3. But by self-publishing on the Kindle she gets to keep 70% or $2.10 per book and keep the low, low price of $3.

Yes, she has to figure out how to market the book. But as any good VC will tell you, when you are starting out, focus on the product. If it’s good, they’ll keep coming back and bring their friends with them.

I don’t know how good Amanda Hocking is. I actually don’t think she needs to be a Michael Crichton. This is the magic of low prices at work.

Now, can we get songs for a quarter any time soon?

The Marginal Cost of Software

Fellow Enterprise Irregular, Bob Warfield calls me out on my claim that software has no marginal cost in my blog post App Stores Galore.

I write about the economics of Information Products often and have used the term marginal costs several times over the years in connection with digital music, e-books and of course the technology industry. So perhaps it is important for readers to understand what I mean when I say marginal costs are zero. In the process, I’ll also examine Bob’s claims to the contrary about the software on an App Store.

Wikipedia’s definition of marginal costs is

…marginal cost is the change in total cost that arises when the quantity produced changes by one unit.

Effectively, when I say that apps on the Mac App Store have a marginal cost of zero, what I am saying is that the next user of Angry Birds or Evernote or Omnigraffle, incrementally costs these companies nothing.

Compare this with Gap jeans. The next pair of Gap jeans sold will cost Gap a pretty sizable portion (maybe 50%?) of the sale price of the jeans.These costs are the material, manufacturing and shipping costs. And maybe a few others as well.

Bob’s rebuttal rests on three types of costs that he says prove that the marginal costs are not zero.

Engineering costs related to updates

Engineering costs are fixed costs. They have no relationship to the units of software sold. Sure, if you sell more units you have more money to spend on engineering, but that is conflating cause with effect. Think of the Gap jeans analogy. Is the next unit of Angry Birds sold going to need any extra cost in engineering? Nope.


Support is a little trickier. If the app you are buying includes support over email or the phone, yes, there is a marginal cost here. But apps, and indeed, most consumer SaaS applications now direct users to their forums. On the forums, they either find the solution to their problem themselves or they post a question and a super user answers it for them. Often, someone from the company’s support team will have to answer the question. And so you might say that as the number of users goes up, the queries on the forum go up and the size of the support team must also go up. 

But, there is another dynamic at play here. As users grow in number, the knowledge base on the forum also gets richer. The number of super users also increases. Problems with the software that lead to support queries are ironed out. Does all this compensate for the upward pressure on support costs? I don’t know. Probably not. But for these kinds of apps, after a certain user base has been achieved, incremental costs are not material, in my opinion.

Server side costs of processing, storage and bandwidth

Even if the software downloaded is simple desktop software with no SaaS component, there is the matter of the first download and subsequent updates. And presumably, the traffic created by polling to see if an update is required.

I understand that these costs, for an additional user, are not zero. But there is something called materiality. Is this particular cost material compared to the revenue from the next user? I doubt that Angry Bird or Omnigraffle worry about it. Evernote perhaps does, but how many apps do you know that users regularly use to scan and upload documents to? 

Two endnotes

In software, there is always more that can be done. More products, more features, better performance, better customer service. The only thing holding it back is the money available to do all this. As a company grows in customers and revenue, it expands its engineering and customer service teams. Because it can. But this is not because of marginal costs. The causation is the other way.

Marginal costs is a construct used in Economics. In real life, you can never really parse out marginal costs from fixed costs with any certitude. Nor should you waste your time doing it. Managerial decision making, most of the time, doesn’t need numbers to be precise. So when I say, marginal costs are zero, but they turn out to be 2% of the unit price, it is not going to result in a different decision on whether one should be on the App Store or not.

What to do About Falling Music Sales

David Goldman at writes about the decline in the music industry business

Apple’s (AAPL, Fortune 500) iTunes is credited with finally getting people to pay for digital music, but it wasn’t unveiled until 2003.

In the time between Napster’s shuttering and iTunes’ debut, many of Napster’s 60 million users found other online file sharing techniques to get music for free. Even after iTunes got people buying music tracks for just 99 cents, it wasn’t as attractive as free.


Now just 44% of U.S. Internet users and 64% of Americans who buy digital music think that that music is worth paying for, according to Forrester. The volume of unauthorized downloads continues to represent about 90% of the market, according to online download tracker BigChampagne Media Measurement.

Matt Yglesias responds

Music industry executives can tell themselves that as long as they want. But under conditions of perfect competition, the price of a song ought to be equal to the marginal cost of distributing a new copy of a song. Which is to say that the marginal cost ought to be $0. That’s not a question of habit, you can look it up in all the leading textbooks. Of course real businesses rarely operate in circumstances of perfect competition, and record companies have a variety of political and legal tools they can deploy to try to protect monopoly rents. But this is hard to do. I think the real story with the iTunes store is that over time competitive pressure has impelled it to largely drop DRM and over time I expect we’ll see that the CPI-adjusted price of songs declines.

If you are a music industry executive, you can wait for CD sales to bottom out at somewhere close to nothing. Or you can take the initiative

I don’t know if any research has been done on this or not. But it seems to me that $1 is just too high a price for a song. At that price, a high school or college student faces the choice of transferring music from his friend for free or paying $40 to get a few albums of a new band that he got interested in. There’s no contest.

You might say that by this logic you can never win against free. You can, if you make it really easy to access and download cheap music from legal sites. If iTunes had song downloads for 10 cents you would convert a large majority of “pirates” to legal downloads.

Piracy Pulling Down Music Sales

The FT reports that 95% of digital music downloads are illegal. The RIAA has tried many things, including taking college kids to court. Nothing works.

To my mind, piracy of music:

1. Is inversely related to the chances of getting caught, which is very low.
2. Is inversely related to the punishment if caught, which is mild.
3. Is inversely related to the disapproval from friends and family who might know that you are using illegal music. This is almost non-existent.

All of these factors might indicate that piracy can’t be vanquished. But there is something that the music labels could do to start beating it back – reduce the cost of digital music dramatically.

Today the price of a song averages around $1. The marginal cost of delivering the next song is close to zero. So if you were to somehow know what the price to downloads curve might look like, all you would do is to set a price where the product of price and downloads was maximum. But of course, you don’t. Which is why the price of a song is stuck at $1.

I don’t know if any research has been done on this or not. But it seems to me that $1 is just too high a price for a song. At that price, a high school or college student faces the choice of transferring music from his friend for free or paying $40 to get a few albums of a new band that he got interested in. There’s no contest.

You might say that by this logic you can never win against free. You can, if you make it really easy to access and download cheap music from legal sites. If iTunes had song downloads for 10 cents you would convert a large majority of “pirates” to legal downloads.

Obviously, executives in the music industry have a pretty tough choice. First, they may not be able to convince all parties – Apple, artistes – to agree to a dramatically lower price. Doing it for one song doesn’t really work – it won’t change habits. They need to go the Full Monty. That’s a tough sell. Even if they managed to get that far, it is likely that revenue would plummet in the short term before it started rising again. On the other hand, it takes one bad quarter to get you fired.

The leap of faith is that reducing the price per song to a tenth of what it is today can take the share of legal downloads from 5% to 50%. Isn’t it time someone took that chance? After all, things can’t get much worse can they?

Digital Book Economics

kindle_2_-_frontI got a Kindle recently and have so far enjoyed it. In almost every respect it beats the experience of reading the dead tree version. It is light and portable. I read non-fiction more than fiction and I hate lugging around the heavy hard cover. Turning pages (no paper cuts!) and bookmarking are both better. It seems to be perfectly designed to be read while working out on an elliptical. Font size control is a boon for those of us over 40. If you want a new book, buying it and downloading it wirelessly is dangerously simple and quick. I foresee bigger contributions to the empire from the Pradhan family.

There are a few disadvantages of course. The biggest one is the price. At $360 or so you don’t want to leave it on the airplane! You can’t loan a book to someone else. Books with illustrations won’t offer the same experience for a while (no DC comics on the Kindle so far). You are forever tied to as your supplier of books. Much like the lock-in that music downloads from iTunes created for the iPod until Apple also moved to mp3 downloads. Funnily, the DRM that the publishers insist on creates a lock-in that benefits the device manufacturer the most.

Kindle, and hopefully other e-books, will change the economics of the book publishing industry. I can’t say if it will be for better or for worse for the publishers (probably worse) or authors (probably better). But the readers will certainly have more choice. And this can be very, very good for Amazon’s shareholders.


Zoho and the Bottom of the Software Pyramid

Last week Sridhar Vembu the CEO of Adventnet, makers of the Zoho suite of software, was featured on the Economist’s Face Value. This may seem like a big deal for the CEO of $60 M company (The Indian CEO featured before Sridhar was TCS’s Ramadorai). But you have to hand it to the Economist. For a magazine that covers politics, economics and business, it has the pulse of the software industry. What Zoho is attempting to do can be game-changing for business software.


The Nature of Switching – Implications

In my last post I described a framework to understand how individuals make switching decisions. Using this framework, let’s examine its implications for marketers of technology.

At the most basic level the framework says that to maximize the chances of switching you should maximize Switching Benefits, minimize Switching Costs and make Research and Trial really easy.

Maximize Switching Benefits

If there isn’t a compelling feature or two in your product that will get a large percentage of your target user base to check out your product, it won’t work. When you introduce a product, it is more important to focus on the Switching Benefits than on lowering the Sacrifice. If the Switching Benefits aren’t there, you won’t get enough people into Research & Trial. If the Switching Benefits are there but the Sacrifice is somewhat high, at least you’ll get the trials and perhaps some early adopters to switch. You might also get some parallel runs, where users use both products for a while. But most importantly, you will get feedback.


The Perfect Notebook

Rubberband NotebookOne of the few old world habits that I stubbornly stick with is writing with a fountain pen. I don’t write nearly as much as I type, but when I do, l like the feel of a good ink nib against paper. It helps me think better, or so it seems.


Big Pharma vs Nature

I read an article about something interesting that I now can’t seem to find on the internet. The article was about a study conducted by some Indian doctors that indicated that wheat grass juice can reduce transfusion requirements in Thalassemia patients. A paper on the subject in Indian Pediatrics from 2004 is what I was able to google.

One of the (many) problems with modern day drug discovery system is that it is driven completely by a template that provides no incentives to discover naturally found active ingredients with therapeutic properties. Discovering new drugs is an expensive process requiring tens of millions as investment before the drug can be commercially exploited. Most drug candidates don’t make it. If you amortize the cost of these failed drugs over the few successful ones, the costs multiply rapidly. The entire edifice of the pharma industry rests upon the ability of companies to successfully exploit a successful drug through patent protected pharmaceuticals. The problem with naturally found active ingredients is that a patient can get the cure without buying the pill.