News Analysis: Download industry's PR battles

The surge in popularity of downloading music has meant that, as of last weekend, the UK singles chart now includes tracks bought via the web. Ian Hall asks how digital music shops are using PR to win consumer loyalty.

Despite its controversial birth, downloading music - once confined to illegal copying - has entered the mainstream with a growing number of brands cashing in on the MP3 craze by offering a paid-for service.

The official UK singles chart included internet downloads for the first time last weekend and brands ranging from Tesco to Coca-Cola to Oxfam, none of which have any music pedigree, are seeking to capitalise on changing music consumption habits.

The UK record industry sold 5.7 million single-track downloads last year.

In 2003, it sold, according to trade body BPI, 'virtually none'. The first quarter of 2005 saw single-track download sales rocket by 1,800 per cent on the same period in 2004. Such is digital music's popularity, the market even has its own magazine, Rip & Burn, launched by PRWeek publisher Haymarket.

Market leaders

US-based players Napster (illegal in a previous incarnation but now legit) and iTunes, from Apple, are widely seen as the two leading digital music shops.

Napster is promoted by Nelson Bostock Communications, while iTunes is handled by Bite Communications.

Napster comms director Adam Howorth says the brand has been 'heavily focused on PR since before our launch'. Howorth has undertaken one-to-one meetings with journalists and asserts: 'We have established a reputation for answering any media requests and involving the media in our evolution wherever possible - in stark contrast with some of our competitors.'

OD2 handles the technology and licensing for retailers including MSN UK. Trimedia senior consultant director Simon Hill has promoted OD2 for five years, aiming to 'ally the group' with trade bodies, retailers and labels, and to 'convince them that digital downloading is an opportunity not a threat'.

OD2 also powers MyCokeMusic, which launched in January last year and uses Henry's House for PR. Buoyed by 'huge' on-pack promotion and advertorials on sites such as Q4music.com and NME.com, PR has included sending 'influential' journalists MP3 players, promotion at industry events and competitions.

But the agency admits that part of its brief was to 'tackle various negative associations that were prominent in the media, such as big-brand cynicism'.

Gennaro Castaldo, head of press and PR at HMV - which itself will launch a download service later this year - says: 'I am not surprised brands such as Coke want to use music initiatives to build brand loyalty among consumers. But they have to work extra hard to be seen as credible in this market as no one associates product authority (in music) with them.'

Castaldo says PR work for HMV's online shop, which will be promoted by The Outside Organisation, will aim to 'demystify' downloading and promote its music heritage to 'guide consumers through the downloading process'.

'Creating a point of differentiation, providing material and tracks that people can't find elsewhere' will become all-important as brands look to build consumer loyalty, he argues.

Hill feels brands have more work to do to flag up what makes their offer distinct: 'I don't think enough has been done PR-wise by some of the retailers to make their offer compelling.'

NME editor Conor McNicholas concurs and says 'there hasn't been a great deal done' in respect of brand PR in the market, adding: 'I feel that there could have been more.'

But what about the niche sites, dedicated to music genres such as dance?

McNicholas says: 'For them it's all about word of mouth. They rely on PR work on internet message boards and maybe online ads on other key sites.

The raison d'etre of the niche sites is promoting exclusivity of content.'

Warp Records and Ninja Tunes are among the labels operating specialist sites, while a further new store is DJDownload.com, backed by dance magazine DJ Magazine.

Emma Kettlewell, consultant at Cow PR, which promotes the site, says the agency has focused on 'direct to consumer' PR. Branded CD holders have been sent to DJs and journalists and DJDownload plans a one-off sponsorship of the cloakroom at London club The End - clubbers will be encouraged to 'save their pound and spend it on a track'.

Similarly focused activity is undertaken by IntoMusic, which promotes independent artists. Gavin Molton, who runs the site, has organised gigs to showcase acts whose tunes are available to buy on his site; gig-goers received tokens with a code that allowed them to download two free tracks.

Download demand

Demand for downloading will continue to grow but there is still all to play for in respect of the long-term positioning each brand will secure. With the market, in McNicholas's words, 'young and nebulous', 'everything' is, he says, 'up for grabs'.

The winners in the brand battle could actually be dictated by technological developments. As one market observer argues: 'Technology might encourage more specialist sites or consolidation - there is a new dynamic at play.'

With the extent to which consumers can switch between shops partly precluded by their own hardware, and music fans often tribal in their brand loyalty, shopping habits in this market are not entirely price-led.

But indicating the battle the shops face to gain - and also retain - brand loyalty, McNicholas concludes: 'As soon as someone comes up with better technology the movement (away from one brand to another) would be frightening.'

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