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29 April 2003 — The iTunes Music Store

Napster and its progeny launched a music revolution, a revolution that is changing the fundamental distribution models for the music industry. The days in which the record companies could foist the latest manufactured pop star upon the music-buying public are waning (though they certainly have not vanished altogether). On-line file-sharing networks have allowed music consumers to sample a broader array of music, to explore artists that, due to poor record-company promotion, they might never have heard before.

The major labels insist that downloading mp3s from the file-sharing services is piracy. Strictly speaking, they are correct. When a user downloads an mp3 for which he has never purchased the corresponding CD, it's theft. The major labels further claim, despite evidenced to the contrary, that this theft is driving their sales into a downward spiral.

While I believe the record companies are technically correct, they're myopic and suicidal when they ignore the profusion of on-line file-sharing, and when they condemn it as evil. Kris and I have downloaded close to 5000 songs during the past two years. Most of these downloads have been of tracks for which we own the CDs but which we do not want to take the time to rip to mp3s ourselves; we're taking advantage of the fact that somebody else has already done this work for us. Another large portion of these downloads have been exploratory: we'll read about a new artist in Time or Entertainment Weekly, or we'll hear a song in a movie, and one of us will go to the computer and download some samples to hear what all of the fuss is about.

This process has led us to some of our favorite new artists: Emiliana Torrini, Bebel Gilberto, Aimee Mann, Poe, Coldplay, and the A-Teens are all performers that we heard first via downloaded mp3 and then went out and bought the music.

Record-company executives feel that radio air play should serve as the vehicle whereby music consumers sample new songs and artists. (For some reason, the record companies don't throw fits about consumers taping songs from the radio, though it's essentially the same thing as downloading music. In high school, my friends and I exchanged mix tapes containing songs recorded from radio all of the time; how is this different from exchanging mixes made from downloaded music?) They ignore the fact that many of us hate listening to the radio, being bombarded by advertising and suffering through the inane chattering of the DJs.

While the rest of the world has been shifting toward an on-line distribution model for music, the record companies have done their best to thwart any progress in this direction. They killed Napster and then tried, unsuccessfully, to relaunch it as a for-pay service. Meanwhile, Aimee Mann and Natalie Merchant (and others) have struck out on their own, have decided to take advantage of the internet to distribute their music on their own.

Yesterday Apple Computer announced the iTunes Music Store, a legal on-line store for popular music. This venture, which has the support of the major record companies, is a first step toward an on-line distribution model for music. But how does it work? Since this is a Mac only service and most of you aren't using Macs, I thought I'd describe my initial experiences with the iTunes Music Store.

Every new Macintosh ships with iTunes, a multi-use piece of software that serves as an mp3 jukebox, an internet radio receiver, a CD-burning utility, and an mp3 organizer. Apple also sells a portable mp3 player called the iPod. This device is the same size as a smallish Walkman, and fully integrates with iTunes (for Mac users — there's also a PC-version of the iPod that integrates with a piece of similar PC software). This integration makes it easy for one to access a music collection consistently from iPod to iTunes and back again.

Then new iTunes Music Store integrates fully with both iTunes and iPod. In fact, the store is built into the latest version of iTunes. In the iTunes music source-list (where, typically, one finds play lists, etc.), there's a "Music Store" item. When this is selected, iTunes connects to Apple's iTunes Music Store servers.

There are two ways to view the contents of the iTunes Music Store. The available songs may be viewed via a web-style interface, filled with graphics and supplementary information about the songs and artists; or, the songs can be viewed via iTunes normal browse interface, which allows quick perusal of songs by breaking things down by genre, artist, album, and then song.

As you browse through the selection, you can preview any song at full-quality for thirty seconds. This is very similar to the Amazon music previews with which most of you are already familiar. This ability to preview tracks is vitally important to the success of this service, and it works well.

One of the first thing you notice about the music is that it's not in mp3 format. It's in the new AAC format, which produces smaller files but of similar quality. (I'm assuming that this file format also has built-in digital rights management features, too, but I could be wrong.) As I'll explain later, these files can be converted to mp3 format quite easily.

You can choose to purchase music from the iTunes Music Store in one of two ways: to purchase songs one-at-a-time (the default), or to accumulate songs in shopping cart for bulk purchasing. Both methods work well, but the shopping cart method has one huge flaw. The user should not be required to purchase every song in the shopping cart; he should be allowed to designate songs for later purchase. Last night I placed several songs in my shopping cart that I didn't care to purchase immediately, but which I wanted to remember for future consideration. However, I had to remove these songs when it came time to purchase the contents of the cart. This is poor design.

Each song costs ninety-nine cents. Albums can be purchased for $9.99 (though these may be only ten-track albums — I haven't checked yet). When a song is purchased, it downloads into a "Purchased Music" play list in iTunes. You don't have unlimited access to the songs you purchase, but you have reasonable access to them. According to Apple's PR-machine: "you can play your music on up to three computers, enjoy unlimited synching with your iPods, burn unlimited CDs of individual songs, and burn unchanged play lists up to 10 times each."

Once you burn the song to CD, it's just like any other song and can be ripped to mp3 format.

Initially, the iTunes Music Store has 200,000 songs available for download. This is an impressive number, but what does it really mean? It means that most popular music from the past few decades is available to be purchased and downloaded. There are gaps, sure, especially among the more esoteric music. All of Iris Dement's output is here, but there's nothing from Emiliana Torrini. I've never seen so many ABBA songs in one place, but where's the Helen Reddy? U2 have allowed their songs to be sold through the iTunes Music Store, but Madonna has not. There's an impressive array of music available here.

Last night I found nineteen songs to download. I paid my $18.81 and downloaded the following:

  • ABBA - Andante, Andante
  • ABBA - Angel Eyes
  • Rickie Lee Jones - Danny's All-Star Joint
  • The Alan Parsons Project - Old and Wise
  • Nanci Griffith (with Iris Dement) - Ten Degrees and Getting Colder
  • Cat Stevens - Morning Has Broken
  • Marianne Faithful - The Ballad of Lucy Jordan
  • The Beautiful South - Everybody's Talkin'
  • ABBA - On and On and on
  • Nanci Griffith (and friends) - Are You Tired of Me Darling
  • ABBA - Our Last Summer
  • Little River Band - Reminiscing
  • ABBA - The Piper
  • Little River Band - Cool Change
  • Billy Bragg and Wilco - Hesitating Beauty
  • Emmylou Harris - After the Gold Rush
  • Bob Dylan - Tangled Up in Blue
  • Basia - Time and Tide
  • The Innocence Mission - Bright as Yellow
It took twenty minutes to download these songs with my broadband connection. The sound-quality if outstanding.

One of the greatest things about this distribution method is that the songs have all been converted to a digital format using uniform settings and, presumably, quality-checked. These songs don't have digital artifacts, they all have the same normalized volume, they have a uniform naming structure. If you've ever worked with mp3s extensively, you'll realize how valuable these three points really are.

These songs all transferred to my iPod with no fuss. I burned a CD without a problem. And I ripped the songs from the CD to mp3 just as normal.

My initial verdict?

The Apple iTunes Music Store is an outstanding service. If you believe on-line file-sharing is piracy, then the iTunes Music Store is for you. The prices seem a little high, but as Dana noted, they're not so high that they'll prevent me from downloading (which probably means the prices are actually just about right). The selection is good, and sure to grow. The file quality is unsurpassed.

The biggest drawback, of course, is that this is a Mac-only service. Will PC-users ever be able to access it? I don't know. Will this service spur Macintosh sales? I don't know, but it's certainly possible. (I'm sure willing to demonstrate the iTunes Music Store to any of you who want to see it — just ask next time you're over here.)

What do you think of the iTunes Music Store? Is it doomed to failure? Is it enough to make you consider purchasing a Macintosh? Or do you not even care?

Comments
On 29 April 2003 (09:32 AM), Drew said:

You're spot on, buddy. This is the next wave. Gone are the days of buying a CD for a single track, only to discover that the rest of the album is crap. iTunes will show sufficient profit that MS and others will scramble to offer similar services asap, IMHO.


On 29 April 2003 (10:51 AM), Joelah said:

I think $.99 is too high. If you buy a CD's worth of tracks you're paying as much as if you schlepped down to Sam Goody. Shouldn't they lower the prices to reflect the lack of transport/infrastructure/storage... etc. that is required to get the song from artist's head to consumer's ear?


On 29 April 2003 (02:03 PM), Matt said:

$.99 per song is a good price to ask if 1) there were no dumb restrictions and 2) it was a high quality file with good documentation and no aural distortion. That's about the same amount the majors charges for singles before those got phased out. Your post makes me want to try this out.


On 29 April 2003 (04:26 PM), J.D. said:

I've been browsing the iTunes Music Store today, and I should note one very important thing. I mentioned that the service's music selection has some gaps, and it does, but these gaps exist primarily in the more recent pop music catalog.

The selection of back-catalog material, however, is actually better than that found on most music-sharing services, especially if you're looking for older jazz and blues recordings.

For example, I've been frustrated again and again when searching for old Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby songs on Kazaa. Everyone has the same dozen songs. Well. The iTunes Music Store has 230 Sinatra songs and 402 Crosby songs (though, admittedly, some of these are duplicates). Wow!

Other examples: Margaret Whiting, 42 songs; Peggy Lee, 202 songs; Mel Torme, 127 songs; Judy Garland, 73 songs; etc. Of course, this is only of interest if, like me, you're interested in collecting obscure tracks from pop vocalists of yesteryear...


On 30 April 2003 (07:28 AM), mac said:

Yesterday on Channel One News they had a story on the new Itunes store and music copyright infringement. It was bascially a warning to high school kids.


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