Zune betrayal (brands behaving badly)

Playsforsure Last week, I was in San Francisco.  I picked up a copy of the Guardian, and came upon my first "year end review."  To my horror, I recognized only a couple of songs in the top ten.  (This is a chronic problem for those of us trying to stay in touch with contemporary culture…or me, anyhow.)

Time to catch up.  In the old days, I would have had to buy 10 albums. But now, of course, I can buy 10 tracks (or albums) on line.  Or so I thought. 

I am not an iPod user.  Something about the "closed Apple universe" put me off.  I wanted music from many sources that I could play on several devices, not a "sole source" supplier that limited my options.

My iPod alternative was the music service from Microsoft’s MSN.  This is where I turned last week.  Bad luck. 

Beginning November 14th, 2006, MSN will no longer offer music downloads through the MSN Music store. The "Buy" buttons that you are used to seeing on the MSN Music album and artist pages will change to links that connect you to Zune        and Real Rhapsody. See below for information regarding how this change will impact your MSN Music account.

There are several things to say here, but here’s the one that strikes me most forcibly.  Microsoft has abandoned PlaysForSure.  PFS was designed to make it easy for consumers to buy digital music from several sources and play them on several devices.  In the place of Apple’s "closed universe," Microsoft was creating something breezier. It was admitting third party players. 

Well, with Zune, that’s over.  Now music from Microsoft is a closed shop too.  Music from Microsoft now plays only on Microsoft devices. And Microsoft devices will play only Zune tunes.   Now the Microsoft music universe is as closed as Apple’s. 

If I want to continue to buy music from Microsoft, I must:

1) rebuy all the songs I have bought from them already.

2) buy a Zune player

3) buy all future music from Zune

I think that we can divide the world of digital music into two camps. There are those who embrace the Apple iPod as a sole source supplier, but there is so much to like about it, and those who, like me, accept a little imperfect for the protection of an "open universe" approach. Most of the people who used the MSN music service did so, I am guessing, out of this motive.  (I mean, is there another plausible reason?)

And what does Microsoft do?  It breaks this connection, creates a closed universe, and forces me to join this closed universe.  Golly, if I were prepared to join a closed universe (and repurchase everything), why would I not just go over to Apple?  Microsoft just managed to remove my one  motive for connecting to Microsoft.  Nice work, fellas. 

This is a brand behaving very badly indeed.  Normally, we don’t treat consumers this way.  And God save us if we do. 

When I was doing research for the Canadian Recording Industry Association on the problem of illegal downloading, my respondents told em that they had several motives.  One was revenge.  Consumers understood that the transition from vinyl to digital, when prices did not drop, was a piece of pure profit taking on the part of the generation.  Also, and this surprised me, they were still pissed off with the "jewel case," that crappy piece of plastic that breaks virtually upon first contact.  I wonder if Zune doesn’t supply a new motive for illegality.

In the fall, BusinessWeek indicated that the the illegal download problem is still with this.  By the estimate of the International Federation of the Photographic Industry, 20 billion songs were illegally downloaded or swapped in 2005.  I think it’s fair to say, that when Microsoft pulls a stunt of the kind (and order) Zune represents, they damage not just their own brand, but the prospects of an industry that is struggling with a gigantic competitor.

Let’s review.  With the Zune universe, Microsoft has dispensed with their difference, broken their contract with consumer, forced him/her to repurchase the music, and with this they have supplied a new motive for the flight from legality that now torments the music industry. Really nice work, fellas.

A.G. Lafley, CEO of P&G, said recently that marketers

"must stop thinking of brands from [a] manufacturing point of view.  Consumers own brand equities [and] brand messages.  [Marketers] need to learn to let go."

Let go of the brand. What good advice. Oh, and Microsoft, while you’re at it, let go of my music.


Bahn, Christopher, Andy Battaglia, Aaron Burgess, Scott Gordon, Liam Gowing, Marc Hawthorne, Jason Heller, Steven Hyden, Josh Modell, Noel Murray, Sean O’Neal, Keith Phipps, Nathan Rabin, Kyle Ryan.  2006. Best music of 2006.  December 13, 2006.  AVclub.com.  here.

Bernoff, Josh.  2006. iTunes are NOT plummeting!  Forrester blogs. December 13, 2006. here.

Lehman, Paula.  2006.  Free Downloads — After this message.  BusinessWeek.  October 9, 2006, p. 95.

Melillo, Wendy and Joan Voight.  2006.  World on a string.  Adweek.  December 11, 2006, p. 10.  (source for the quote from A.G. Lafley) 

Slater, Derek.  Speculation – Why Did Microsoft Design.  A Copyfighter’s Musings.  here.

8 thoughts on “Zune betrayal (brands behaving badly)

  1. Ethan Decker


    I always enjoy reading your posts. I’ve got 2 questions:
    I agree with Lafley that as far as brands go, consumers own (or co-own) brand messages. But as far as the product goes, owning your music is different from owning your Tide detergent. So, would Lafley have the same stance about ‘letting go’ of the formula for Tide (which would let customers copy it once they got it)?
    And second: was PlaysForSure such a good brand and good customer experience that it should’ve been kept?


  2. DC1974

    Any MP3 or AIF file will play on an iPod — so you certainly would be able to buy something from another source — just not another proprietary source: like Real or Mircosoft — and play it on your iPod. Finding the generic MP3 file type may be more difficult — it does not allow the security protection that music marketers want. And so then you end up back in proprietary territory. Of course you can always buy the CD and then rip the tunes in MP3, MP4, AIF or Apple’s own AAC and put that on your iPod. Anyone (Apple or Microsoft) that sells a player and operates a music download service is going to have a proprietary system in order to appease the music producers.

  3. Jason Dunn

    I agree with much of your basic premise, but you seem to forget about players being made by Creative, iRiver, Sandisk and others…and online stores such as Urge, Napster, Yahoo! Music, etc. All of them still work, you can still buy digital singles. The sky didn’t fall in because Microsoft released the Zune.

    Jason Dunn

  4. Clay Parker Jones

    I suppose the issue is that you don’t really dig copy protection for music that you’ve purchased. And I suppose I’m in the same camp. I get pretty twisted-about inside when I think about the idea that my Apple-sourced tunes are only licensed for 5 CPUs. I wonder what will happen when my music outlasts my computers, which it inevitably will. And it does piss me off that I can only put my music into a few different CD-burned playlists. But it still doesn’t stop me from using, and loving, my iPod. Of course, there’s still plenty of ways to come across/legally buy music these days. So the well hasn’t dried up, as Jason mentions.

  5. Grant

    Ethan, I only wanted to pointed out that Microsoft was refusing the trend. When everyone is created value by “letting go,” the Microsoft idea of innovation is to demand that I buy all my music over again, a kind of grabfest on which Lafley would surely frown. Second, yes, what I liked about Playsforsure was that I could own in more or less outright and that I could move it around. Not that Zune is in place, this is no longer true. Thanks, Grant

    DC1974, the trouble with proprietary territory now is that the “open world” suppliers of music all now demand that I continue to remain subscribed and the moment I let this lapse, I loose my music. Call me old fashioned, but I like to guarantee access to the music I care about. And yes, I understand that all of this is to appease the record industry. Thanks, Grant

    Jason, I see what you are getting at, but here it is in a nut shell. Now that Zune has taken over Microsoft Music and other music suppliers have gone subscription, there is no one from whom I can buy digital music (more or less) outright. I would be thrilled to hear this is wrong. Best, Grant

  6. steve

    It is important to remember a few things…

    – most digital audio player buyers could care less about drm schemes as they don’t buy online music in significant volume. The surveys I’ve seen on these devices tend to place online music 4th or 5th in importance.

    – it is the record companies who are driving the drm, not Apple or Microsoft. The plays for sure content was largely the same stuff (from the same source) on most of the services and is mostly a subset of what is available on the iPod.

    – PlaysForSure was very broken from a user experience standpoint – much more so than Fair Play.

    – It was amazing that Jobs got as much as he did from the labels. Remember this was the era of SDMI with severe hardware lockdowns and extremely restrictive schemes. The iTunes experiment sort of worked and now the labels are pissed that they lost (in their minds) a bit of control. Expect to see any new schemes be more restrictive (the Zune scheme is more restrictive than iTunes)

    – As mentioned before iPods and the competitors will play a large variety of cleartext files. If the consumer really wants choice they should only buy cleartext and send a message. (buying CDs is buying cleartext)

    – Sony showed the world something much more evil than the Apple and MS schemes when it put Windows rootkit attacking software on a large number of music CDs.

  7. Vinay Rao

    Hi Grant

    Excellent Post. It was because of Apple’s forced closed ecosystem that I’ve stayed away so far from iPods. Apple also forces you to buy accessories for in-room music reproduction (for the so-called music geeks, I can swear that a moto-rokr gives better earpiece sound reproduction than an iPod). I guess both MS and Apple were looking at the online music service more as a way of selling more expensive hardware, by supporting them with an easy purchase and transfer, rather than making money on music sales themselves.

    When Apple did it, they were solving a problem by making iTunes a place to buy songs easily. There are so many such places now, especially in India for local music content.

    5 years later MS in doing the same thing, is not solving any problems, but is instead disincentivising people from buying the zune. An NXP MP3 player will reproduce any song with DRM , except those bought from iTunes. If MS instead positioned the Zune as a seamless integration device with a Windows PC, they would have had a much bigger market.

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