The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 40.0°F | Overcast

Battle of the Music Stores And the Record CompaniesThe Biggest Losers are the Consumers

W. Victoria Lee

The talented Mr. Steve Jobs has a problem. Major record companies now want to mess with the golden rule of Apple’s online music store, iTunes — 99 cents a song. With the renewal of the contract between Apple and record companies rapidly approaching, it is possible that starting next year, depending on its popularity, a song will cost more or less than 99 cents. This is mixed news. People whose iPod playlists imitate those of popular radio stations — beware. Your wallet will be lighter. To the more elderly generation (and those who appreciate oldies and the classics) — prepare to cheer; your choice to steer clear of current trends is about to pay off, literally.

Like it or not, the fight for variable price is a bomb that’s been ticking. Sooner or later, it’s going to explode. Will Mr. Jobs, chief executive of Apple, win this war? Or will the record companies prove victorious? Who are you rooting for? My answer is no one. No matter who prevails, both sides can stand improvements, as well as the digital music industry as a whole. For once, if these Mercedes-driving, billion-dollar-house dwelling moguls can put the customers before their profit, maybe the real profit they are looking for will come rolling in.

Despite the recent growth spurt of online music stores, P2P, or peer-to-peer file sharing (a.k.a. illegal downloading) is still the preferred method to acquire music. Yes, the lawsuits scare some people, but according to a report released in June by The NPD Group, for almost 10 songs shared so selflessly, only one song is downloaded legally via an online music store. This fact alone should tell the music stores and record companies that even the status quo of 99 cents per song is still too high. And they are talking about raising the price? It seems like they want to encourage more musical altruism.

Although they are numerous online music stores or digital music services like Napster, iTunes is the most popular. This is partially attributed to iTunes’ easy-to-use interface and extra features like movie trailers, music videos, and the newest addition, podcasts. The other reason (and perhaps the main reason) for iTunes’ wide acceptance is Apple’s monopolizing yet devilishly attractive little gadget, the iPod.

Here’s a syllogism for you. iPod only works with iTunes. Many people have iPods; therefore many people have iTunes. Sure you can buy songs through other venues, but eventually you have to go through iTunes to put the songs on your iPod. So why not use iTunes to buy songs in the first place? But people who opt for other brands of digital music players (usually at a lower price) have to shop for tunes somewhere else — the issue of incompatibility among digital music players and online music stores that feed them can be tiresome.

Even more aggravating is the digital music stores’ stingy previews. Just as people can’t judge a book by its cover, they can’t judge a song by its 30-second sample, either. While the reason they don’t use one-minute previews eludes the consumers, the restrictions on the number of computers and CDs onto which they can copy purchased songs further frustrate them. We live in an age where viruses and worms don’t just invade breathing beings but also attack the 21st century necessity, the computer. Reformatting and even switching computers now happens frequently. You either lose a couple hundred dollars worth of songs, or you rip them to your new machine from the backup CDs you made. A downside to this alternative is that unless you buy albums, you’ll have to manually type in the song information. Imagine typing hundreds of song and artist names. Again, our inconvenience is their profit.

Now record companies are not completely free from fault, either. Illegal downloading is attractive to people not because it’s easy, but because some songs are just not worth the price of an entire album, especially when albums are laden with filler songs. Moreover, there are catchy tunes that sound good during the first 10 spins but grow increasingly vexing with every radio repeat. This type of song is the song that’s likely to have a higher price tag next year.

It is understandable that violence and sex sell, but if companies can spend less money on booty shaking and car crashing, and more money on putting out quality artists with quality music, maybe people would buy music like they used to, willingly. Many people download music legally not because they think the song is worth the 99 cents, but because they don’t want to violate the law. Instilling fear is a temporary solution to illegal music downloading. Until the record companies decide to release songs and albums that the population deems worthy of their hard-earned greens, people will continue to circumvent the laws.

The only consolation is that boycotting is easy (if you have enough will power). Unlike gasoline’s price, which is tied to so many other things that avoiding the ramifications of a skyrocketing oil price is utterly impossible, we CAN live without digital music files (or we can sustain on what we’ve already stocked up). If they raise the price next year, being the law-abiding prude that I am, I will stick to my radio and books. In the long run, it’s probably better for my soul, anyway.