A storm sprang up this week around reports that, due to disagreements between Apple (s aapl) and Sony BMG (s sne), the upcoming Michael Jackson album “This Is It” — a tie-in to the movie of the same name and bound to be a sales success — would not be available on iTunes, the world’s biggest digital music provider.
When Michael Jackson tragically died in late June, sales of his music on iTunes sky-rocketed. A day after he died, eight of the 10 top-selling albums were from Michael Jackson. Eight of the 10 top-selling music videos, too. Five of the 10 top-selling singles were also from Jackson. It was a trend that would continue for weeks. With interest in (and thirst for) Michael Jackson music and video at an all-time high, online music vendors have a vested interest in the new album.
So it came as something of a surprise when, two days ago, news broke that iTunes was to be denied the chance to sell the upcoming album. Paul Reskinoff reported that, according to confidential information leaked to Digital Music News, Sony BMG and the Jackson Estate were insisting downloads could only occur within the constraints of a bundled, full album. So, if a customer wanted just one song from “This Is It,” they’d be forced to buy and download the entire album to get it. Apple’s policy, on the other hand, is well established in these matters; it insists on making individual tracks available for purchase and download. Hence the current standoff.
In his MediaMemo column on All Things Digital, Peter Kafka writes:
…the story is a familiar one, because it’s a longstanding dispute between Apple (AAPL) and the music business. The industry, for both financial and artistic reasons, has tried to keep music bundled together, while Apple insists on selling it a la carte.
Apple usually wins these disputes: Even the stubborn iconoclasts in Radiohead eventually bowed to Steve Jobs’s will and turned their precious albums into individual songs.
Lois Najarian, Sony’s Senior Vice President of Publicity yesterday told Wired.com:
I’m happy to report that… Michael Jackson’s This Is It album will indeed be for sale on iTunes Oct. 27. I don’t have much more information to impart other than that right now, but suffice [it] to say fans will be able to purchase it there.
It was always unlikely Apple would have been blocked from selling the new album — the contract Apple has with Sony BMG to distribute its catalogue of music would see to that. So the question now is not if the album will be sold on iTunes, but how? Najarian doesn’t say, adding only that Apple and Sony BMG are “working on that now.”
Will Sony acquiesce to Apple’s rules, or, controversially, could we see Apple agree to the album-bundling method? It’s not impossible, given how well this release is expected to sell; Apple might be prepared to make an exception to its own (usually immutable) rules in favor of meeting the guaranteed demand of its iTunes customers. Plus, I’m sure the sales revenue it generates will not be unwelcome, either.
Whether temporarily or otherwise, if Apple does indeed make an exception and bow to Sony’s wishes, it’s a decision sure to cause frustration and anger amongst iTunes customers. And you can bet your bottom dollar we’ll be hearing from some pretty miffed artists unhappy they weren’t afforded the same special treatment as the late, great, King of Pop.