Facebook and iTunes to treat students like children

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College oriented social network Facebook announced a Back to School partnership with iTunes today that could have been an interesting teachable moment about buying music online through legal means. Instead the deal will offer millions of “samplers,” preselected playlists of 25 songs per genre, given to Facebook users for free. What’s the lesson here? That the iTunes music store is a highly controlled environment that provides an inferior user experience compared to P2P networks. Twenty five free songs of your choice would have made a much cooler promotion. Even that would have been pretty unimaginative.

Here’s a link to launch the Alternative sampler in the iTunes music store.

Ten million “samplers” will be given away over the next ten weeks, so that’s the equivalent of $247,500,000 worth of downloads at full price. But of course music downloads are in reality almost free, so they aren’t spending much money on it. Facebook and iTunes have had a long running relationship prior to this promotion and few new customers are likely to be introduced to the iTunes Music Store for the first time as a result of it. The theory may be that students will discover new bands through the promotion and will then buy more songs from those artists. It seems more likely to me that a large number of those students will take their free songs from iTunes and then download entire albums via the P2P networks they learn about from their school mates.

The problem is that “free and legal” is not a sufficient value add when it comes to a youth demographic. Imagine if the promotion did something like this instead: instead of an anonymously compiled mix tape of random songs, each week Facebook users could download for free 25 songs compiled by a notable expert in that week’s genre. Perhaps that expert could even do a live streaming conversation midweek talking about why they chose the songs they did and answering listener questions moderated by an interviewer. Now that would be interesting. I’m sure there are a world of possibilities here and the promotion as it stands just seems lazy and boring.

Facebook has a huge userbase – 8.3 million users, the company says, with half logging in daily. I talked to an online video service exec last week who told me that the MPAA people know that everyone laughs at their anti-piracy messages at the movies. Apparently the same can’t be said about the big boys in the music world. What a lost opportunity. I’m all for online music services making money, but they are going to have to come up with something other than scarcity as their business model and patronizing moves like this are just stupid. Even cola company promotions at the convenience store let you choose what to spend your free downloads on, how much less cool could a partnership get than this?

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