There’s no doubt in my mind that iTunes will change the way we in India buy, sell and listen to music. Apple’s desktop software and mobile devices aren’t used by a huge number of people, and those who are used to pirating everything they want will probably see no reason to stop, but the real opportunity lies in bringing legal, hassle-free content to people who have never been able to enjoy the full potential of their media and gadgets. There are a few other options, most notably Flipkart’s Flyte digital MP3 store and a handful of smaller players, but let’s be honest here: the main competition for Apple in India is of course piracy.
It’s still early days for the Store in India, and to be fair, only the music section is developed well enough to have much of an impact. Apple claims there are 20 million tracks on offer, and I’ve found almost everything that I’ve checked for, including local indie bands, oldies, and extremely specific versions or mixes of certain songs. Sure, some stuff just isn’t there and there seem to be hundreds of karaoke backing tracks for each actual song, but it isn’t hard to find the kind of stuff that’s most popular and in demand today. There hasn’t ever been a single place to find such a breadth and variety of music, or such an easy way to download and manage it.
A mix of Indian and international music in the popularity charts.
Digital piracy really took hold in India because there never was a legal way to buy content, not because people deliberately conspired to circumvent legal options. For that reason, the benchmark is free. Apple simply cannot appeal to today’s young pirates on the basis of price, no matter how low prices are. Apple also can’t pitch iTunes as a surefire way to avoid getting in trouble with the law, since no laws criminalising piracy exist or apply here in any serious manner. Yet another factor is that piracy has allowed people to download, try and hoard a lot more content than they actually really want or need, which has become something of a lifestyle.
So what actually works in Apple’s favour? For one, convenience. You can just search for whatever you want, and you’ll find it. Piracy has become a bit more convoluted since programs such as KaZaa and Limewire were shut down. Torrents involve a bit of legwork and the process isn’t especially user-friendly. Dedicated pirates have no problem with this and will carry on the way they have been going, but iTunes is an alternative with none of the hassle and at a very reasonable cost. Worries about missing track names and mangled tags are nonexistent here. Album art makes things look so good that you’ll want to keep using it. Even payment is as simple as a few clicks. If I stop to consider the priorities and concerns of people like my parents and their friends, iTunes is the obvious winner. These are not people who would have used a P2P program or anything else before. They aren’t pirates who might go legit. They’re a brand new audience, and none of them would mind spending a few hundred rupees a month for singles and occasional albums. Albums that cost $12.99 (approx Rs 710) in the US store sell for Rs 60 onwards here, pretty much eliminating the mental block of high prices. A little bit of advertising and public education will help draw in even more customers.
Then there’s the discovery factor. iTunes invites you to browse through its catalogue and see what’s new and popular in each section. If you’re looking for music by a particular artist, you’ll see a lot more by them that you might want to try out. One click and anything you like is downloaded to your library. There’s also Genius, which recommends new music for you based on your tastes. Most other services only show you what you search for, with maybe some popularity charts or recommendations thrown in.
And as for the competition? There’s Flipkart, which actually has better prices on standalone tracks in a few instances. But iTunes eliminates a lot of the work involved, such as managing files, adding them to your music player, syncing them to portable devices, etc. Flipkart offers MP3 files, which are arguably more flexible, and you can choose your preferred download quality. Websites such as Bandcamp.com, Musicfellas and OKlisten cater mostly to indie local musicians and give them the flexibility to determine pricing and DRM. These are still great options for artist promotion, especially for those who manage their own Facebook pages and communities. If it’s easier and more profitable to be listed on these sites rather than iTunes, they’ll continue to thrive alongside, although I’ve already heard from a few musicians that they’re highly intrigued by the power of iTunes’ name and the potential to reach wider audiences.
Decent representation of regional Indian artists and tracks, with more to come for sure.
More serious competition comes from YouTube, Grooveshark, and streaming radio services. Not everyone today wants to download his or her music at all. Subscription-based services are becoming more popular abroad, allowing users to pick and choose anything they like from a massive catalogue for a flat monthly fee. YouTube has copies of most popular tracks and videos for free, and is more than enough if you only want to listen to a few tracks while they’re popular. Even with iTunes’ recent cloud-centric approach, you can stream only what you’ve specifically paid for.
Physical CDs are however definitely not the competition. iTunes deserves some serious credit for delivering such low prices in India—the same albums that cost Rs 60 or 80 on iTunes cost Rs 329 or Rs 359 in physical CD format in shops and at popular Indian websites, if they’re even in stock.
By the way, none of these factors apply to iTunes’ movie section. The selection is just too weak right now, and for better or worse, all titles have Indian Censor Board certificates, which means many will be unnecessarily edited and sanitised. Casual viewers and serious cinema afficionados alike will continue to pirate as long as the quality and selection of titles outside official channels remains superior.
iPhone and iPod users who choose to buy music from the iTunes store will have a smooth, satisfying experience. The number of users will only grow over time, and even if they continue to pirate some of their content alongside, record labels and artists are still making more money than they used to. iTunes is here to stay, and I expect it will become a major force in Indian commerce and entertainment in a few months’ time.
The movies section is quite bare, leaving much room for improvement.