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Mandy quango says Apple, Amazon are too obscure

'Music biz should pay to tell them'

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A group sponsored by Lord Mandelson’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says more money should be spent telling Britons about iTunes and Amazon, because not enough people know about them. It says the music business should pick up the tab, though.

Last week Consumer Focus released the results of a poll that showed that only six out of 10 people could name a legitimate music service such as Spotify, iTunes or Amazon off the top of their heads. That's not a bad figure, when you consider the number of people on broadband, and the size of the subset that buys things online, and then the sub-subset that wants to buy music online. 33 per cent of all punters could name iTunes, and 24 per cent could name Amazon. The figures were higher with the AB social group, and brand recognition rose to 82 per cent in the 15-34 age bracket.

Problem solved, then? Can we all go home? Well, hang on a minute - you're not thinking like a government-sponsored consumer quango.

Consumer Focus concluded that this isn't enough, and more must be done to make consumers aware of the legal options to buy music online. It wants the music business to pay to promote these obscure companies like Apple and Amazon. However, there may be rational reasons people don’t shop at Amazon or iTunes.

The price is high for out-of-bundle tracks. Digital music comes with no artwork or sleeve notes. Shopping online isn't much fun, either - it provides instant gratification but it isn't a Saturday afternoon social activity, and so making a purchase doesn’t feel like an event. There may be other reasons, too. Many audiophile readers prefer to wait for the CD. In the US, the number of digital music downloads fell last year, and the music business saw 25 million purchasers become ex-purchasers.

Recommending more of the same, as Consumer Focus does here, may not be what the ailing patient needs. Perhaps something more radical is needed.

Indeed, in another place, the group itself suggests what this may be. In Consumer Focus' submission to the European Commission's Creative Content reflection document in January, it recommends unlimited downloads (as originally envisioned by Virgin Music and Universal) and/or legal file sharing (which would have been another Virgin first). In fact, your humble reporter is cited - inaccurately, it turns out - for this story. (Consumer Focus says the Virgin P2P launch was scuppered by "music publishers"; in fact the publishers were behind it, two major labels got cold feet late in the day.)

Two years ago 80 per cent of Britons said they'd consider paying for a legal P2P service.

We asked Consumer Focus why it was pushing an option that much of the market didn't really want - and why it wasn't promoting more radical consumer options. We haven't got a reply yet.

Established only two years ago, Consumer Focus received £35m in taxpayer money in the most recent year for which accounts are available (ending March 2009), and employs over 100 staff. It came in for criticism for spending £120,000 for bonding sessions for employees, or over £1,000 per head.

Maybe the unwritten code of government-sponsored 'consumer' groups is to ensure they never bite the hand that feeds them. ®

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