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November 20, 2003

What Online Music Means

glenn mcdonald has a cogent if typically long meditation on iTunes this week at The War Against Silence, which I encourage you to read. He touches on several topics including the long-term repercussions of selling music online, both for Apple and the world in general, and suspects it will change the way things get done and music is perceived (in the many sense of the term) by consumers. He finds the virtual and veritable Pandora's Box of iTunes to be worrisome in ways I do not (and oddly enough uses Mandy Moore to make the point), but of course that's his prerogative and ultimately he may be right.

Without specifically rebutting mcdonald's points, I'd like to do a few riffs on changes he sees coming down the pike for music and the music industry and provide my own thoughts about them.

1. iTunes itself: iTunes has a lot of competition and more is coming, but I don't see Apple losing the pole position in the online music race. Part of this is perception -- Apple has successfully positioned iTunes as artist-friendly, cool and (of course) the anti-Microsoft way of doing things. They have also, for the time being at least, won the "cool music hard drive" battle, since all the popular kids have got the iPod, and if you show up with a Dell jukebox or, God forbid, the Napster jukebox, you'll instantly be relegated to the loser table in the lunchroom. And we know we can't have that.

The flaw in the plan is the AAC format and Apple's DRM overlaid upon it, since if Apple for some reason gets out of the music retailing business (which I doubt), all those files aren't transferable to other music players. I assume however that if Apple were going to bail, it would have the grace to license out the DRM format so all the Macsters and everyone else wouldn't be totally hosed (and also update the iPod firmware to accept other formats aside from AAC and MP3, including the dreaded WMA).

As I've noted before, I've made iTunes my primary music downloading experience, augmented by Rhapsody for streaming music. I also downloaded Napster, which could provide both at the same time, but I don't much like the Napster experience; I find the interface unappealing and trying too hard to be too cool for school. Also, there's the issue of Napster downloads being WMA, which I don't like, not specifically because it's Microsoft but because songs encoded in WMA sound "hollow" to me -- there's something in the encoding that diminishes the middle and gives upper frequencies a warbling sibilance. It also doesn't offer a consistent encoding experience; some songs in WMA sounds fine, but others sound truly crappy at the same bit rate. AAC on the other hand sounds consistently solid and sonically full. For my money -- and it is my money -- it's the better proprietary encoding format. I suppose this locks me into an iPod if I want to get a jukebox, but I can live with that. Which is what Apple ultimately wants to hear.

2. Music Turning Back Into a "Singles" Game: I have really no problem with this at all. The "album" concept is entirely artificial to begin with and arrived, as we know it today, with the advent of a technology that supported its existence, namely the LP (which allowed for 23 minutes of music on each side of the record). Prior to this, popular music was largely served up in a "single" format, whether it was in sheet music or 78rpm form (if you wanted an "album," you had to go to the musical theatre or concert hall). CDs, with their 74 minute length, reinforced the album concept (although ironically also devalued the albums themselves -- bands that would have had trouble thematically linking 46 minutes of music were totally at sea trying to fill up an hour and change). Today's technology now means music is free of a certain physical and arbitrary time constraint/requirement, and that's good.

Let's be honest, now -- most "albums" these days are a couple of worthy tracks and then a bunch of crap. This is one of the reasons online music (the paid version) took off: People liked the idea of not having to pay for crap they wouldn't listen to again if they had a choice. One has to suspect that most musicians and bands are aware that much of their albums are filler, even if professional pride keeps them from saying so. If they were freed from having to add crap to their releases, and just release singles, what's not to say they wouldn't eventually make more money?

I also don't suspect that over time the electronic delivery will kill longer "album-like" music. Instead, I suspect some bands/musicians will continue to work in the format, and their fans will still buy their output. For example, I would imagine that bands like Radiohead and Wilco would have no problem convincing their fans to shell out for a suite of interrelated songs. One of the nice things about electronic delivery is that these suites can now be as long or as short as the bands want them to be: Two songs, six songs, twelve songs, whatever. The length of the work will be defined by the needs of the work, not the needs of physical object holding the work in question.

And of course, artists who begin as "singles" artists can evolve into artists who can create viable album length pieces. The Beatles and the Beach Boys (to name two obvious examples) are singles bands who graduated into album bands (not to mention the previously mentioned Radiohead, as well as, say, Nirvana). Meanwhile, artists naturally suited to singles -- your Elvises, Britneys and other artists not notably inspired to be songwriters or writers of extended musical thoughts -- can play to their strengths. It's hard to see a downside, except for:

3. The Music Industry Itself. And that's because the music industry, as mcdonald notes, is currently designed to sell albums and very little of anything else -- it needs its $12 to $18 per album or it starves. It's damn well convinced it can't survive on $1 a song. And of course they may be right. But ask me if that's my problem, or the problem of the consumer. Indeed the consumers -- or at least the significant and growing portion of the consumer base that gets the concept of downloading music -- has already made the decision that we want to buy our music this way, so the music industry can either get with the program or get out of the way.

There is a significant group out there who hopes that online music actually kills the "music industry," whereupon we'll enter a utopia in which the musicians themselves have direct control of their own music, but I say to you -- don't get your hopes up, yo. So long as there is money to be made, there's going to be someone acting as an intermediary between the artist and the consumer. And it's not necessarily and automatically a bad thing, if the middleman takes care of the publicity and ancillary issues that musicians don't have the brains and/or interest and/or financial wherewithal to handle.

Perhaps a side effect is that the "Music Industry" divorces itself from the huge multinational corporations who are only concerned with the generation of money for its own end, and we get labels which are actually interested in the music created rather than exclusively on how many units they can foist (or, if not divorced, created anew and parallel to the industry as it currently exists). But the industry will be there. It'll just be an industry that is down with the way people want to buy music these days.

Incidentally, as I was writing this, I was also listening to the Mandy Moore album mcdonald mentioned in his review ("Coverage," her album of singles) through Rhapsody and as a result bought a song off of it -- her cover version of Joan Armatrading's "Drop the Pilot." It's rather less than buying the entire album, but trust me, I guarantee you that the chances of me buying an entire Mandy Moore album are only slightly greater than me undergoing a spontaneous sex and age change that turns me into a 14-year-old girl. So you tell me: Has Mandy Moore, her label and the music industry in general suffered for me not shelling out for the entire album? Or have they benefited from me buying a track I otherwise would not have bought? It's a matter of perspective, I suppose. The only person entirely happy with the transaction, I imagine, is Ms. Armatrading, who gets her songwriting royalities no matter what. God bless you, Joan Armatrading.

Posted by john at November 20, 2003 10:28 AM

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