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iTunes: Easier than Stealing?

Philip Burrowes

Apple’s new music download service officially debuted Monday after weeks of rumor and red herrings (would Apple create a color iPod, purchase Universal Music Unit from Vivendi, cure SARS?). Still, the company’s so-called iTunes Music Store is essentially in beta testing with the very small, albeit vocal minority that uses OS X. Reviewing it at this early stage would be presumptuous and of little value to most people. It may nevertheless prove worthwhile to analyze the concept and its underlying tenents, now that they are public.

First of all, it’s not another MP3 subscription site. Building on its prior incorporation of MPEG-4 into Quicktime 6, the Music Store makes songs available as AACs (Advanced Audio Coding). Ostensibly this is to provide better data compression to allow consumers to hold more music, and to allow the store to provide files faster. It just happens to have the side benefit of increasing the incentives for users to download Quicktime, which was once the premier multimedia format but has since fallen behind RealAudio/Movies and Windows Media in market share. There’s also the matter of AAC-compatible digital audio players, like Apple’s simultaneously launched series of new iPods, but Apple has also provided a firmware update for old iPods to maintain their functionality. While there’s no doubting from the ad campaign Apple’s planning that it sees the Music Store as a tool to promote iPod sales, it’s of minimal cynicism; the iPod has long been a Trojan Horse of sorts to attract “Switchers.”

Even for the firmly ensconced OS X crowd, however, the AAC format has a series of drawbacks. For all the supposed superior quality of AAC over MP3, CDs are still of superior quality, and there is no option to change the bitrate of purchases. Once a song is bought, its use is limited to three computers through an authorization procedure. Conversion to other formats is disabled, and burning will probably remain possible only through iTunes (Apple is planning a Windows-y version thereof). Ripping thusly-burned CDs would provide MP3s of questionable quality, but by then you’ve defeated the ease-of-use and quality-preservation characteristics which made digital reproduction so popular in the first place. Until the day all CDs are copy-protected, these make for critical limitations.

Going on economics alone, the Music Store can be a boon or bane, depending on your outlook. All tracks are the same cost, no matter their size. For Thelonious Monk’s classic 11 and half minute “Straight, No Chaser”, that 99 cent price rate is a song (no pun intended). If you want to hear Stacie Orrico sing Kum-Ba-Ya for all of 8 seconds, however, that’s information superhighway robbery. Exceptionally long songs, like Rhapsody in Blue, may be available only through full album purchases, but there’s no denying that this is a store for a “single culture” tired of plunking down $15+ on an entire CD for the proverbial two or three good pieces. Whether or not such behavior should be encouraged is another story entirely.

Of course Apple didn’t design the Music Store to court the CD-purchasing crowd. They’re the music industry’s bread and butter, and even if record companies get 65% of the Music Store cut, their gross won’t compare to the take off another 50 Cent. Rather, it’s going after the P2P networks which made record companies so nervous in the first place (and, not coincidentally, tended to ignore the Macintosh market). What makes the music store appealing is not its legality, however, but that for the person who shares out of necessity -- not morality -- it may be easier to buy a song than find a quality file from a good connection.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you went to Dan Katz’s concert at The Thirsty Ear on Tuesday, and really liked the three songs he covered. You might find Pete Yorn’s “Black” on Kazaa, and Dan Bern’s “Tiger Woods” on Morpheus, but whenever you try and get the copy of Jump Little Children’s “Cathedrals” you found, the connection keeps getting dropped. Not only does the Music Store have all three, but once you’ve registered, like any One-Click service, it’s remarkably easy to waste a lot of money. At 99 cents (plus tax) you just might opt to buy “Cathedrals” rather than search more Stanford servers. On a broadband connection, the speed of the download will outstrip many if not most P2P ones.

Can that be maintained as many users jump on board, however? It’s in that future that we’ll really see the potential and limitations of the store. People won’t share if they won’t have to, and the P2P experience can be very frustrating. However, the wealth of media available in that Cal Tech kid’s directory can be very tempting. Will the Apple store be able to compensate for the relative absence of video or imported albums, for example? As of now, it seems to be countering depth with breadth, including such often ignored genres as Broadway, Gospel, and yes, a little a cappella (who doesn’t love the Swingle Singers?).

When Apple trumpets its cache of “exclusive” tracks from Top 40 stars, then, it may be going the wrong route; might as well download random acoustic mixes from MP3.com. Clearly Apple is in bed with the recording industry on this one, and as much as that will irk the self-righteous thief, that will provide nothing novel to the casual consumer(/thief) majority. The Music Store is in position to provide a venue for artists themselves and in the end subvert the old order, depending on the heretofore unknown cost of infrastructure. It can be a forum for self-publishing as well as a Mecca for college radio esoterica. Maybe it’s not just a Trojan Horse into the Wintel world, but one into the the music industry itself. No wonder Apple didn’t buy Universal; why buy the cow when you can steal its calves?