Australia's leading music retailer JB Hi-Fi has taken a leap into digital music with the beta launch of its Now streaming music service.
The month-long trial started this week and means JB has almost certainly beaten Spotify to the punch.
Monthly subscription starts at $6.67 Australian ($6.59) across a 12-month plan, giving users unlimited streaming access, according to the company, across PC, notebook and Mac.
Details regarding Now were first dropped in August, when JB told investors its service would go live with 6 to 8 million licensed tracks from some 100,000 artists. JB now boasts 10 million licensed tracks, of which some three million titles are currently loaded into the system. More repertoire will be signed and loaded in the coming year, according to the Melbourne-based company, and further down the track Now should evolve to offer digital downloads.
At an unspecified date early next year, a Now app for smartphone and tablet will be available for Apple iOS, Android and Windows devices, allowing listeners to store songs and playlists to their devices when not connected to the Internet.
In this hyper-accelerated digital age, it's taken JB a virtual lifetime to construct its digital strategy. Whether it's been worth the wait for Now, time will tell. Billboard.biz road-tested the service, and gives it a solid "B" for user experience. The strength is in the breadth of the available content.
Australia's biggest selling home-grown album of the year, Gotye's "Making Mirrors" is live, as is the ARIA album of the year, Boy & Bear's "Moonfire". On the international front, Mercury Prize-shortlisted British albums by James Blake and Elbow are online, as is this year's winner, PJ Harvey's "Let England Shake". Arcade Fire's Grammy-winning album of the year "The Suburbs" is available, as are recent titles from the NME-championed Horrors.
Coldplay's "Mylo Xyloto" and Adele's "21" are absent, mirroring those two albums' holdout elsewhere on Spotify.
Now is currently soft on its social features, which the company says will be rectified in the coming months. Its music discovery functions will need some tweaking, as well.
The Australian record business is optimistic Now will shape the digital landscape.
"It's a genuine contender, and I think it's going to be very successful," Universal Music Australasia president George Ash tells Billboard.biz. "They're great retailers. And they're very committed to it. They deal with pretty much every hardware manufacturer in the world so the opportunity to connect hardware with their customers and partner products is massive."
JB Hi-Fi CEO Terry Smart goes as far as describing the service as a "game-changer" for the Australian music industry.
The awaited launch of Now is seen as confirmation of JB's support for music, and it comes two years after the 200-odd store chain quietly began phasing-out singles from its inventory.
Australia's digital music market has enjoyed strong growth in recent years and the next 12 months would appear to be an exiting time for digital innovation Down Under. JB's soon-to-be rival in the subscription space, Spotify, has quietly been hiring staff for a 2012 launch here in Australia, while the local affiliates of Sony Music and Universal are teaming on a subscription platform.
According to industry sources, digital music sales in 2011 are more than 30% ahead of where they were in 2010. Down Under now accounts digital revenue for 40% of all sales, up from 27% in 2010. Soon, they predict the market will be evenly split between physical and digital sales.