Rumors surfaced again yesterday on Billboard and today in other media outlets that Facebook is in talks with the record labels to launch a music service that will include either free ad-supported music streams or paid downloads. Talk of such a service started last October, but what Facebook ended up launching was simply artist fan pages. MySpace is also preparing its own music service to be called MySpace Music. And other competitors from imeem to iLike to Last.fm are putting pressure on Facebook to respond with its own music offering. Music drives many social interactions, so you can see why Facebook would want to own that area even at the risk of alienating key partners (such as iLike).
But Facebook should really stay out of the music business. If it tries to enter in a big way it risks alienating not just its partners, but musicians as well. Its fan pages for musicians have not really done that well. Look at 50 Cent’s official Facebook page. He’s only gathered 8,213 fans there, compared to his 1,918,372 fans on his iLike page on Facebook (which includes fans across other social networks as well). I noted a similar disparity shortly after Facebook first launched its music fan pages.
In fact, 50 Cent already dissed Facebook once. He took down his official Facebook page for at least a couple months. It just recently went up again. His online efforts are geared towards driving as much traffic to his own fan site that he controls, This is 50. That is why fan widgets like iLike or Kyte.tv appeal to him more than tying himself to any one destination. As iLike CEO Ali Partovi likes to say, “The new opportunity for growth is beyond Facebook.” Partovi just announced this morning that iLike has 23 million users keeping track of 200,000 artists across Facebook, Hi5, Bebo, iLike .com, Ask, and even iTunes.
What is happening with 50 Cent is indicative of a bigger battle brewing in the music industry between artists and record labels over who will get to control future online revenues. Both record labels and artists did not like the fact that MySpace was making money off of their artist pages with ads, so they started negotiating deals to get a cut of the action. The prospect of Facebook becoming a competitor was welcomed because Facebook treats artist pages like any brand or canvas page. The ads on that page belong to the brand or artist or application developer, whatever the case may be.
But with music, Facebook may now be putting itself in between artists and record labels, who both have claims to that page. It is easier for Facebook to negotiate directly with record labels, but in most contracts it is the artists themselves who control their Websites and pages on social networks. Of course, if they want to stream or sell music from those pages, that is where the record labels come in. Facebook is negotiating with the record labels, but the artists may be going elsewhere, as we are seeing with 50 Cent.
As traditional music revenues are drying up, the labels want to transition to online revenues as fast as they can. But if those revenues are associated with advertising on fan sites, the artists themselves may have a greater claim to them. Of course, any fan site would be pretty lame without the music. But who gets what cut is all up in the air right now and the artists are in the driver’s seat because nobody fans a record label. We might be seeing a shift in power between artists and labels. Of course, it helps if you are 50 Cent and you own your own record label.