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Apple gives Depeche Mode fans the chance to part with more cash

February 24, 2009 |  1:34 pm

Apple, iTunes Pass, fan clubs, subscription music, MP3, Depeche Mode, EMI Apple introduced yet more pricing flexibility today at the iTunes Store, unveiling the "iTunes Pass." It's a cross between an enhanced album bundle and a pig in a poke: Pass purchasers are entitled to a bunch of items -- some known in advance, some not -- released by an artist over a period of time. If this all sounds a bit vague, that's because it is. The target market is the consumer who wants everything an artist releases, the sort of person who will pay an annual fee for the privilege of being in a band's fan club. As with the "deluxe editions" released by so many artists these days, the point is to extract more revenue from the most devoted subset of the audience. The crucial difference between an iTunes Pass and, say, the $75 version of Nine Inch Nail's "Ghosts I-IV" is consumers know what they're getting from the latter, but there's some mystery about the former.

The first version is from British New Wave graybeards Depeche Mode, whose musical career is nearing the end of its third decade. Dependable and sometimes remarkable, the band is offering a pass built around its forthcoming album, "Sounds of the Universe," which is due April 21. The 15-track album sells for $10; the iTunes Pass sells for $19. Nice margin! Here's the official release from the band's record company, EMI. So, what do you get for the extra $9? Right away, you get immediate access to the album's first single, "Wrong," and a bonus track on the LP, the Black Light Odyssey Dub version of "Oh Well." Over the next four months -- the pass extends until June 16 -- you'll receive "extended singles, remixes, videos and more." There is the possibility of exclusive content but no guarantee. Besides, nothing released in digital form stays exclusive for long.

My first impression was that Apple was dipping its toes into the subscription-music market that Steve Jobs had mocked so often. Forrester Research analyst Mark Mulligan had a similar thought. Granted, there's no ongoing payment, and buyers have the same ownership rights in the tracks they receive as they would in any other songs or videos bought on iTunes. So in its current form, the pass is just another type of bundle aimed at getting an artist's more devoted fans to open their wallets wider. But it's easy to imagine Depeche Mode offering buyers an inexpensive way to extend the pass every few months. Before long, they're collecting $30, $40 a year from people who might otherwise have spent only $10 buying a copy of "Sounds of the Universe." Now that's an interesting model. Of course, everything depends on how good the material is that the band includes in the pass....

Here's Apple's caveat emptor for anyone considering an iTunes Pass. Included is a warning that the purchase "does not guarantee delivery of any specific content" (note to EMI: Be sure to deliver the new Depeche Mode album; pass buyers would probably notice if it didn't show up):

Itunes_pass_rules


Photo: Depeche Mode. Credit: the band's website

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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