Universal Wants To Unite Labels To Destroy iTunes

With the ingenious idea it has that might be no bad thing...

Universal has recently become something of a pain in Apple’s behind, but could this discomfort be about to transform into searing agony?

According to an intriguing report today from Business Week, Universal chief Doug Morris is trying to unite all the major music labels to create a massive industry owned music subscription service. Unlike other subscription services however Morris wants the monthly cost to be absorbed by the hardware manufacturer and users to then effectively get their music ‘free’ as a basic component of the product.

In terms of costs Universal predicts a $5 monthly charge is required for access to the service which means hardware manufacturers would need to find ways to cover an extra $90 – a figure which is based on the typical 18 month lifecycle of the average device. Some may be absorbed, the rest probably passed onto the customer.

Interestingly, Business Week claims Sony BMG has already been enlisted as a potential partner and negotiations are ongoing with Warner. The proposal even has a name: ‘Total Music’ and aims to wrestle control away from Apple and Steve Jobs’ notoriously hardball terms.

Even more worrying for Apple, should Total Music be formed – and that’s a big if since getting the entertainment industry to agree on anything can prove virtually impossible – the result would be a body which controls a staggering 75 per cent of the whole US music industry. This would completely turn the tables on iTunes, which currently enjoys a near 90 per cent share of the legal US music download market.

Of course the counter spin paints an entirely different picture: Universal, like EMI, isn’t having the best of times and with Universal currently in dispute with Apple (it only licences its music to iTunes on a month-to-month basis and doesn’t offer Apple its DRM free tracks) it has gone on the offensive.

Personally however – as wary of multinationals and conglomerates as I am – I find the business model of Total Music highly appealing. It makes music, all music, a basic human right for those willing to stump up the cash to buy a device capable of playing it. It would also be immensely convenient. Sure, the cost of devices may go up but with the price of hardware spiralling ever downwards this shouldn’t be prohibitive.

So are we suddenly sick of iTunes and in favour of the often vilified music labels? I’d need to hear a lot more official detail before making a decision, but on initial reports… ”maybe”.

Business Week Report