iTunes ends double-pay, credits singles to boost album sales

New feature credits customers 99 cents for each track in an album that they purchase

Apple Inc. unveiled a new feature of its market-leading iTunes music store that credits buyers for tracks already purchased when they download a complete album, putting an end to double-payment for the same song.

Complete My Album credits the 99 cents customers paid for each track included on an album that they purchase, said Apple, with the caveat that the track must have been bought no more than 180 days before.

"Consumers have become very conscious of the risks of double or triple paying for the same song," said Aram Sinnreich, managing partner at Radar Research, a Los Angeles media consulting firm. "In the '90s, the growth in sales came from replacing music, from LPs to CDs. They've been encouraged to do that yet again with digital. But consumers, because of the Internet, have become much more conscious of this, and what the costs per track represents."

Single track purchases on iTunes now immediately trigger an addition to the buyer's personalized Complete My Album page, where the corresponding album's reduced price is listed. Buying the Joe Walsh track Ordinary Average Guy from the album of the same name, for instance, reduces the album's price from $10.89 to $9.90. The page also shows the 180-day deadline before the offer is null and void.

Apple is also making the offer retroactive for any iTunes tracks bought before today. It limits the credit period to 90 days, or June 26.

But the move will only slow, not stop, the decline of album sales, Sinnreich said. "It will have some kind of effect on purchasing albums, but long term, the album is simply not the most appropriate product format."

Album sales are definitely off. Nielsen SoundScan, the music industry's sales tracking service, recently reported that although digital single sales climbed 56% so far this year, album sales -- both physical and digital -- have dropped 16%.

"For the vast majority of recording artists, the album doesn't engage consumers. The labels put 10 junk tracks around three radio tracks and call it an album," Sinnreich said.

Yet even in an era where the playlist rules -- and remix and mash and shuffle are the norm -- there will be a place for albums. "People will still want to buy Coldplay albums, they'll still want to buy Jay-Z albums," said Sinnreich. "In 50 or even 100 years, music listeners will still conceive of Marvin Gaye's work as albums."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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