It was inevitable that Research In Motion would create a music product for its BlackBerry smartphones. Its primary competitors, Android and the iPhone, offer music services in some form or another. Apple has long used the iTunes store on its mobile platforms, and Google recently introduced Google Music, which allows users to upload their entire libraries to the cloud. Apple, too, will offer a similar service. Yet RIM has opted to take a different route.
BBM Music, announced in August, comes with far more limits than typical music programs. While services such as Napster, Spotify, and Rhapsody offer unlimited music for $10 per month, BBM Music offers just 50 songs to its users. The price is right, at $5 per month, but that’s essentially 10 cents per song, whereas each song on the three aforementioned services costs just a small fraction of a penny. How, then, can RIM even compete with existing music services?
Their answer is to change the way we consume music on the mobile platform. Currently users have two primary options. They can choose one of the unlimited services and enjoy an enormous library of music, or they can pay per album or song and retain ownership of their music. But in both cases there is one lacking element: social interaction. That’s what BBM Music offers that few others do.
The premise of the offering is simple. You pay your $5 per month, and you get to choose 50 songs. Those represent your music library, though they can be played only on the user’s BlackBerry smartphone and, if applicable, BlackBerry PlayBook. Users also have the option of swapping up to 25 songs each month, thereby keeping the library fresh. What’s so special about 50 songs? That’s where the social angle comes into play. BBM Music works a bit like Facebook, wherein you can become friends with others. Friends can access each other’s music library, thereby increasing the base 50 songs. The more friends a user has, the more music she can access. And so a 50-song library can turn into a 1,000-song library pretty quickly.
(And, so its users retain some level of privacy, friending someone on BBM Music is separate from BBM contact requests. That is, not everyone you’re friends with ob BBM Music will appear on a user’s BBM contact list. It is an option, but it is not required. All BBM PINs stay confidential until the user grands others permission.)
This harkens back to the days when music was still a physical medium. In those days a CD was not only something kept on a shelf. It circulated among friends. Those friends would listen to the music and then make mix tapes for their own collections. Music would travel in this way, opening everyone in a circle of friends to a larger library. Record labels might not have liked it, but it was a natural cost of doing business. But once music went all digital, much of that social experience was lost.
BBM Music brings back that social aspect of music. Friends can again exchange songs and albums, thereby growing their own libraries. They’re doing it legally, too, rather than illegally copying music to cassettes or burning CDs. All that music is available to them wherever they go, too. That’s a nice upgrade over the previous mix tape and CD methods of sharing. Forgetting the CD meant missing out on that music. Few people forget their BlackBerry devices.
The only remaining issue, then, is the limited library size. Even if a user manages to friend 20 others, that’s still only 1,000 songs. Unlimited services can offer 10,000 times more music. Doesn’t that sound worth the extra $5 per month? For a few it might, but the average user simply doesn’t take full advantage of unlimited music plans. They listen to a handful of tracks on repeat, and those tracks change with time. Think of it like a Top 40 radio station. Users can create their own Top 50 stations, swapping out half the tracks month after month. That will be more than enough for most users, especially when combined with their existing music libraries.
The new BBM Music offering is by no means perfect. But no music service can be that. Instead of opting for another all-inclusive service, RIM has opted for a more limited, but cheaper, offering that adds an element that other music services lack. Users can still build out considerable music libraries through a large friends network, and can continue changing their libraries every month. It harkens back to the days of album swapping. RIM has to play up this nostalgia angle if BBM Music is going to work; failing to do so will leave users to question the 50-song limit. But if marketed correctly BBM Music has potential as something different in a marketplace full of the same old thing.
Joe Pawlikowski is the editor of BBGeeks.com, a site that provides BlackBerry users with practical tips and information that help them better use their devices.