Music-centric carrier ROK Mobile goes live today, but you can only sign up with an invite

ROK Mobile promised it would its launch new music subscription service/mobile carrier to the public on July 4, and according to the company, the service will in fact go live today. But ROK obviously holds a more restrictive definition of the word “public” than most of us.
ROK Mobile logoThe service, for now, is invite only, and ROK is offering those invites to VIPs close to the company as well as an undisclosed number of consumers who request one on its website. People who get an invite will be able to sign up for a free 14-day trial of its on-demand and streaming music app for iPhone or Android, or sign up for full mobile service plans, which includes unlimited data, SMS and voice for $50 a month, ROK COO Gabriel René told me in an interview on Thursday.
He added ROK will eventually open up to all consumers, but he wouldn’t provide a date.
René said the restricted launch isn’t a beta, but rather a marketing strategy. ROK is following in the footsteps of Google(s goog) and other big internet brands, he said, in limiting the availability of its service at launch (though Google always called its invitation-only Gmail rollout a beta program). In part, ROK wants to get feedback from early adopters, René said, but mainly the fledgling carrier wants to build the allure of exclusivity around its brand.
The founders of ROK are the same people behind Paul Mitchell shampoo and Patrón Tequila, both of which are marketed as premium products to discerning consumers. So you would expect them to create a similar aspirational mystique around their mobile product. But I’m not sure it’s going to work in the mobile market.

John Paul DeJoria, ROK's co-founder, is most famous for turning Paul Mitchell and Patron Tequila into aspirational brands (Source: ROK Mobile)

John Paul DeJoria, ROK’s co-founder, is most famous for turning Paul Mitchell and Patron Tequila into aspirational brands (Source: ROK Mobile)

ROK does seem to have a compelling product in the works: its planned music service supposedly combines the best aspects of programmable radio services like Pandora and on-demand streaming like Spotify. ROK is even partnering with Gracenote to use its song filtering technology to customize playlists based on users’ moods. It’s targeting smartphone and heavy data users with unlimited plans over Sprint(s s) and T-Mobile’s(s tmus) 3G and LTE networks.
But ROK isn’t charging premium prices. Like other mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), ROK is reselling other operators’ data, text and voice services at discount to consumers. In this case, its $50 core plan undercuts network partner T-Mobile’s all-inclusive unlimited plans by a full $30 a month, and that doesn’t even factor in the cost of ROK’s subscription music service.
It seems to me ROK shouldn’t be trying to promote the idea of false scarcity. It should be trying to get as many customers as quickly as possible. In all likelihood, it’s trying to do both. Using their mystical powers of self-promotion, ROK’s executive team is probably trying to build hype around their company and its core music service.
Perhaps it will work, but personally I’m not a fan of these kind of marketing tactics. If ROK wants to do a controlled launch for operational purposes, then by all means it should – just call it a beta. That could be what ROK really has in mind but won’t admit it.
Instead ROK is telling many potential customers they’re not important enough to register for its service at its public launch. How many ways could that strategy backfire?