07 May 2003

Lost in the Apple Music Store

Not for the first time am I saying this: anybody reading this not running Mac OS X is missing out. Apple's new Music Service is just incredible, a dream come true for ethical people everywhere, a gold mine for the record companies and artists if they will just take advantage of it, and the death knell for overpriced corporate CD stores (but not mom-and-pop CD stores -- read on to see why).

There's a lot to explain for those of you not using Macs, but let me try to boil it down as much as possible.

In a single application (iTunes, which Windows users may finally get by the end of this year), I can buy music legally, listen to music, create MP3s etc, burn CDs, stream radio, share music throughout my network and so much more. The way it's been created and laid out means that anybody with any level of computer skills (or none at all) can do this, and the advantages are stupendous. There is no PC program that even comes close to the iTunes experience -- just ask any PC magazine.

A lot of PC people out there scratch their heads and wonder why anybody would pay for music anymore. They've been thieves for so long now they can't imagine paying for something when it's not nailed down. These are the people who never pay to support PBS, who steal office supplies from work by the dolly-full, and who grow up to run companies like Enron and vote Republican.

I'll try to explain why buying your music for 99 cents a track is a better idea:

ï Better selection. Apple's music service already has over 200,000 songs, with more being added constantly. Those of us who have moved beyond boy bands and teeny-pop queens will find a lot of goodies in every genre, including jazz and classical (and religious and spoken-word and blues and new age and so on). There's still a lot to do in this area, but give it a little time (or better yet, browse). You'll be pleasantly surprised at what's already there, and the obscure and indie artists are coming.

ï Pristine encoding. Apple's AAC file format sounds better than MP3s, particularly those stolen off services like Kazaa. No blips, no drop-outs, no glitches, no low-bitrate, no half-completed songs, and no mis-labelled stuff.

ï Fast. Those of you who steal music, have you ever thought about how long it takes you to really do this? First you have to connect to a p2p network, then you have to pray for a connection, then you have to find the song you want, at a decent bitrate, from a provider that looks like it's actually going to complete the download sometime today. Then you wait. And wait. And wait. And if you're very lucky, the song you just downloaded will play without glitches all the way to the end, and actually be the song that the title of the file says it is (constant problem).

In addition to stealing money out of the artists' pocket, you are also stealing money out of your own pocket! Isn't your time worth something to you? I'll wager that most of you are "paying" yourself less than $5/hour (iow, you're getting at most five good songs per hour spent) to steal music. And that's with a broadband connection, you dialup users can just dream on.

With Apple's service, I can locate, purchase and download whole albums in less time than it takes you to find a single song, and yes I feel good knowing that some of that money it going to the artist (as opposed to music thieves, who claim to be "fans" but who do not pay the artist one red cent for all their work).

ï Previews. You're not sure if that catchy new song you heard was Avril Lavagnie or some other faux-punk corporate "grrl" rocker. Now you can find out before downloading. Instant, high-quality 30-second previews on every track in the store.

ï One click. You find a song you like, you press one button and it's yours. Done. Easier than buying a book off Amazon. Or, if you prefer not to have it be that easy, you can take the "shopping cart" approach.

ï Artwork. Album cover artwork is included in every file.

ï Exclusive tracks and videos. You can't buy the videos (yet), but featured artists have a great platform to promote their work, and the use of exclusive tracks means new customers coming in every week.

ï Levels the playing field. No longer will your favourite but uncommercial artist have to worry about shelf space. No more having to spend years tracking down a beloved old song just because it's no longer in print or in style. No longer will you forget to buy a record you've wanted but slipped your mind because you haven't seen it in stores. Eventually, artists may decide to offer recordings directly through the Apple Store, bypassing "evil" record companies all together. Indie labels are clamoring to get in. This is more than just a new revenue stream for the parties involved, it's a (sorry) paradigm shift in how consumers can buy music. It will change the nature of the business forever.

ï Buy what you want, leave the rest. No more buying a $15 or more CD just to get the two or three songs you really love. Just buy the good stuff for .99/each and skip the rest. I should mention, however, that there is a discount for buying albums through the Apple Store -- most are $9.90 even if there are more than 10 tracks. This is a heck of a lot less than you can buy it in the store, and everybody still makes money. Instantly. From the comfort of your desk (or lap).

ï Format freedom. There's a lot of older folks (by that I mean beyond the 10-30 age demographic) who love older music but haven't bought a CD in years. They get by on oldies radio stations and complaining that the stores never have anything they like anymore. Well take a look at what Apple already has in Jazz and Classical and New Age and World Music and Inspirational and Folk and on and on and on. Sure it's hardly everything, but I think you'll be impressed.

ï Good kharma. In your heart you know you are hurting the artists you admire when you steal music and don't pay for it, and please don't give me that bullshit about how you only use the p2p services for checking out new bands. Yeah, right. Talk to the hand. You steal music and you keep it and you don't pay the artists for it.

Well now's your chance to make amends. I mean, sheesh, what's 99 cents? Would it kill you to buy a few tracks, an album or two? No it wouldn't, and it's the right thing to do. If everyone just steals music, the record industry collapses (yay!) and all your favourite artists go away (boo!) because there's no incentive for them to make music to earn a living. It's your moral obligation to pay for the things you use and keep. Apple has made it as easy as falling off a log. If nothing else, they should be rewarded for being the first corporate music enterprise that doesn't treat you like a criminal.

Which brings us to the big bugaboo that's got all the PC nerds up in arms -- DRM, or Digital Rights Management. Yes, the files from the Apple Music Store are protected. There are a few (extremely minor) restrictions on what you can do with them. I hear you yelling that all DRM is evil and you want totally unrestricted content or death. Yeah, whatever, Patrick Henry. The problem is that unrestricted files cause people to steal music and not pay the artist. If there wasn't some DRM in the file, you'd just rip the artist off. So there has to be DRM. End of discussion. The question is, how much DRM? Too much and the consumer finds it incredibly restrictive (see Microsoft's Windows Media Player ideas for more on truly restrictive DRM). Too little, and the record companies will never go along with it. The trick is to strike a balance between protecting the right of the record company (and artist) to prevent widespread theft, and the right of the consumer to put a purchased song pretty much any damn place he wants to.

Apple has hit exactly the right balance.

So, what can you do with a purchased track? You can burn it to all the audio CDs you want, no limit. You can put it on all the iPods you want (and future music devices that will play the AAC format), no limit (if you don't know about iPods, you've been living in a cave, daddy-o). You can stream it (not copy it) to any machine on your network (or even the internet), no limit. Share your purchased music with a friend, no problem -- you have the record companies' blessing. You can make all the backups of your purchased music that you want, no limit.

What can't you do? Well you can't make more than 10 copies of the exact same playlist (a sensible precaution to prevent album bootlegging). You can't (easily) re-rip the AAC file into an MP3 (which actually makes sense, since the AAC is already a compressed file and you'd lose some sound quality re-ripping it -- but for those who really have to, you can certainly do it). You can't keep copies of your purchased music on more than three computers (done to prevent p2p filesharing).

That's pretty much it. There, that wasn't so bad now was it?

I've heard a few whiners complain that .99/song is too much. It should be half that, or a quarter a pop, they say. To them, I quote the sage philosopher Penn Gillette: "Bullshit."

It's not magic fairies that deliver this incredible selection and elegant storefront to your home, it's millions upon millions of dollars and years of development costs. It all costs money and Apple is being really generous with the bandwidth (high-quality previews you can listen to all day with no obligation to purchase a damn thing). There's people involved, licenses to clear, artist (and evil record companies) to pay, and of course Apple would like to make a buck or two on the thing if that's okay with you. Albums on the iTunes Music Store cost a bit more than half their full (brick & mortar) retail price, but that's still not good enough for these folks? Bullshit. They wouldn't buy this stuff if it were a dime. They want it all, and they want it for free. They don't care about the artists, and they lack even the most basic moral compass to spare a thought for the consequences. The Apple Store not only can't stop these morally-bankrupt losers, it actively doesn't want them. People who don't understand the importance of ethics have never been welcome at Apple.

But what, you cry, about the poor independent CD store? What about them, I reply. The mom-and-pop stores have little to fear from Apple, and a lot more to fear from Worst Buy and Wal-Mart. People don't buy their top-40 crap from Park Ave. CDs, they buy them from Borders and Target. Indendent CD stores offer things the Apple Store either doesn't presently offer or can't offer: tiny indie labels, cutting-edge stuff, experimental formats like "special package" CDs, SuperCD Audio format disks, audioDVDs, music-related video DVDs/tapes, accessories and supplies and of course used CDs. Those stores will be fine. Border's and Barnes and Noble, on the other hand, had better start to think about what they want to do with the floorspace they now dedicate to music.

If you're still scratching your head over why people would pay to download music, consider this: in the first week, Apple sold 1,000,000 tracks. A million. And keep in mind that this service is limited to only Mac users running OS X 10.1.5 or higher (a minority even among Mac users!), who know about it and who live in the US. You're talking about a total theoretical audience (at the moment) of about 5 million people. How many tracks do you think Apple will be able to sell when they:

a) double the size of their music library?
b) open the store to Mac users outside the US?
c) bring in Windows users, who outnumber Mac users 10 to 1?

It's conceivable that Apple could be selling 5 million tracks a week, maybe more, by this time next year. Meanwhile the RIAA is going to continue suing pirates who run servers and shutting down p2p networks everywhere they can. They recently forced four students to pay them between $12,000 and $17,000 each for sharing music to their dorm. Still feeling good about breaking copyright law?

Apple's DRM and 99 cents a song starts to sound pretty good, doesn't it? I encourage you to check it out. If that means buying a Mac and an iPod (and at least for now, the Mac part is mandatory), believe me you'll thank me later.

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