Variable price fixing?

by on September 30, 2005

Everybody seems to be freaking out about Warner Music chief Edgar Bronfman saying earlier this week that he would like to see variable pricing on iTunes. Rather than a flat 99-cent rate for all songs, Bronfman would like to charge more for popular songs and less for songs that are older or not in demand.

Some have suggested that this would amount to price fixing. They’re thinking of resale price maintenance, where a firm requires resellers of its product to sell at a certain price. If all the resellers are locked in to the same price, they won’t compete on price, price won’t come down, and the producing firm might get a supra-competive return. But to make this work Warner would have to not only set the prices on iTunes, but everywhere else. You would also have to assume that songs aren’t substitutable, so that consumers wouldn’t just move over to non-Warner songs that are cheaper. You would have to assume that or a cartel of all the major labels, which would really be serious.

What Bronfman is really proposing isn’t that strange at all. As BusinessWeek notes,

Some books cost $25, others $15. There are magazines that sell for $4.95 a copy, while others go for $2.95. And who hasn’t secretly perused the bargain racks of CDs, looking for a $5 disc from that hair-metal band you loved so much in the ’80s? [I’m looking at you, Adam.] All Bronfman suggested was creating an environment where some songs would command a premium and others would do the equivalent of filling the bargain CD bin.

Still, some ask, what business does Bronfman have telling Apple what retail price to charge? He’s the wholesaler, they say. He can charge Apple more if he likes and let Apple decide whether it will raise its prices. The problem with this reasoning is that Apple does not license music from the labels for a flat per-song royalty. Proceeds from each download are reportedly split 35-65, Apple-label. Here’s an explanation of the agreement:

The deal is straightforward. Of the 99 cents of a download, Apple keeps a portion and the rest goes back to the label, which is then responsible for distributing back to the artists, songwriters, publishers, and so on according to the existing terms between the labels and their bands. This makes it really simple for Apple to acquire content because they don’t have to deal with stuff like licensing agreements or paying publishers–all that stuff is the labels’ responsibility.

Bronfman is just trying to make the portion kicked back to Warner variable depending on the song’s market value. And, oh yeah, Apple doesn’t have to take the deal.

Now, I agree with Steve Jobs when he says, “If the price goes up, [consumers] will go back to piracy and everybody loses.” But that just means that Bronfman’s variable pricing scheme would be a dumb business decision because I personally don’t think any song is worth more than 99 cents. Priced above this consumers will download illegally or buy other songs. But variable pricing by itself has nothing to do with illegal price fixing as some have suggested.

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