Face the Music

A few days ago I read that Sprint was partnering with Spotify to promote a few deals. Here they are.  If you're a new Sprint customer and get an HTC One phone, you get 6 months of Spotify free and then a discounted rate after that. If you're an existing customer you can get 3 months of Spotify free and then pay the usual 10 bucks a month.

AT&T has partnered with Beats on a similar offer. It includes a free trial and a discounted rate too.

I opined on Twitter the other day that these actions are the carriers dipping their toes into the so-called "fast lane" of the internet. These partnerships favor one store over another: if you use Google Play, rdio, Slacker, iTunes, or any other music service, the carriers will not give you any discount. Thus, both AT&T and Sprint are establishing these partners as their preferred music services.

If you're wondering where this could go, I could direct you to this corporate dystopian piece by T.C. Sottek, but instead I'll just point you to something that's already happening at Cricket.

Muve Music

Cricket, a regional carrier, offers Muve Music. This is not a new program, and Cricket's customer is a very different one (today) than AT&T or Sprint's. But there it is: unlimited talk, text, data, and music. Wait. Music? Yep. And while Cricket will happily cap your full-speed data each month, Muve Music is exempt:

...you can enjoy Muve Music, picture/video/audio messaging, and use of My Account without having to be concerned about your Full-Speed Data allowance.

While Cricket's Muve Music is nowhere near in the same league as Spotify or even Beats - though they want to be - you can see the pattern here. There's a carrier with a preferred service that just happens to be blessed with full-speed data outside of the "slow lane" internet. It's all perfectly legal, of course. And this is not a new offering; it's been available for a few years.

Choice

These combinations hurt people and they hurt competition. They hurt people in different ways. For instance, I can stick with rdio, which I really do love, and pay $10/month. Or I can switch to Spotify for three months and pay $0. The music libraries are likely similar enough for me so the cost to me is that my collection isn't portable (lock-in) and Spotify's UI isn't as pleasant as rdio's. Is that worth $30 to me? Not currently, but it might be to you.

On the Cricket side of the fence my scenario would be way worse. I could stream rdio all I want each month but my full-speed data - that is, everything I do online except Muve Music and account management - would be shot dead right away. I'd have to consciously plan out my data usage and load things up on wi-fi. That's a lot to ask for and, frankly, shifts network management from the carrier to the user.

Don't worry. Instead of that rigamarole, I can choose to pay nothing extra and so long as I have a Muve-compatible phone, not worry about any of it. (I'd worry about Muve's music collection, self-reported at 10 million tracks, instead.)

Competition-wise, Spotify, Beats, and Muve are all in favorable and dangerous positions. Favorable because they instantly have a competitive advantage over other streaming music services on their platforms. Dangerous (arguably) because it's only a hop, skip, and a jump to imagine Sprint granting preferred-speed status to Spotify ("rdio is slow? Too bad. Try Spotify, it's free with your plan!") and AT&T doing the same with Beats. Acquisitions then feel like foregone conclusions.

And then...

It makes business sense that AT&T wants to do its own video streaming service. It means an increasing amount of lock-in and loss of choice. It's something I expressed concern about at the scale of fitness trackers, but it goes all the way up to phones.

The carriers already have us locked to their networks. The carriers already have us locked to their phones (although this is starting to loosen). Add in the most popular services that people would want to use phones or tablets for and... well, we're back to this.