While You Just Stayed in Your Room
460 · 20 November 03
Mandy Moore: Coverage (excerpts)
The longer the iTunes Music Store lasts, even here in what may turn out to have been its infancy, the more interesting questions it provokes. The iTMS may as well be a deliberately instantiated thought-experiment in at least four domains. Most obviously, maybe, it is an uncannily direct test of the sociological hypothesis that personal ethics are subject to market forces. Logistically speaking, the iTMS carries essentially nothing that cannot be stolen fairly readily from elsewhere (with an incredibly small chance of legal repercussions to any given individual). We assume that if music were actively given away free, nobody would bother pirating it, and we know that where it is prohibitively expensive at any scale, the street creates its own economy of counterfeits. It's tempting to think that a line can be interpolated between these points, describing how the price of music influences attitudes towards its consumption ethics. The cheaper downloadable music becomes, we suspect, the fewer people will bother to circumvent the existing copyright laws. Moreover, since people's beliefs and their actions don't often obey ruly cause-and-effect relationships, the cheaper downloadable music becomes, the more people will tend to report themselves as law-abiding on principle. Apple is thus attempting to experimentally determine the American music-consuming public's moral price. Their first official guess is that it is $.99 per song. This is undoubtedly a function of numerology more than analysis, but it's easy to remember, easy to calculate with, and happens to keep iTMS prices for most slightly-discounted whole albums noticeably lower than the new-release sale prices of the physical editions. My suspicion is that this will turn out to be too high, especially since physical prices are higher than they have to be. Actually, my suspicion is that Apple already thinks it's too high, but wants to establish a baseline public impression of what songs are "worth" before then making themselves heroes by undercutting it with great fanfare.
This leads quickly to many interesting business questions. Is $.99 per song a sustainable price-point? Apple has hinted that at this level they're only breaking even, and if so it's not clear whether increased iTMS traffic will make things better or worse. If it turns out that the prices need to be even lower, can Apple afford to lower them? I believe they will try, which will lead them to put pressure on every other participant in this particular commercial food-chain. Apple pressure may matter. They will attempt to push the music industry towards rethinking their royalty schemes and potentially their entire approach to artistic property. They will attempt to push the credit-card industry towards restructuring transaction rules and mechanics, which could end up indirectly leading to the viability of micro-payments for other purposes. And although it feels petty to point this out during these heady early days, iTunes may be setting Apple up for the worst installed-base customer-relations nightmares in the sordid history of either media or computing. And that's before they even begin worrying about competition.
Meanwhile, the technical issues are plenty interesting all by themselves. Apple's use of AAC and its careful copy-protection compromises are a risky, however cogent, attempt to thread a way between the other format options, but until the iTMS sells its way to critical mass, AAC will still have to simultaneously play size/quality games against MP3, standards games against open-source formats, and anti-sliminess games against Windows Media (all of which are technical challenges as much as business ones). And even if Apple gets away with that gamble, the use-model of virtual music is going to hit storage-capacity problems almost immediately, because once your hard-drive is the real repository, it has to be large enough to hold everything you care about at once (which also creates a whole new backup problem that was moot when the CDs were the backup as well as the source). Laptops and iPods need bigger drives by a factor of five or ten (and lower prices by about the same ratios). Or somebody other than the lumbering cell-phone industry has to get to work on ubiquitous streaming, the real long-term solution.
And if all of those issues weren't enough, the music industry is also going to have to wake up and confront the first modern trend-reversal in the conceptual packaging of music. The pop industry has gotten away with the bait-and-switch of marketing singles but selling albums for decades, but pop is about to be a singles world again. The major labels are going to have to earn their survival in increments of $.99, not $18.99, and at their current metabolic rates that probably can't work. The mergers and sell-offs and acquisitions rippling through the music industry now may turn out to have been a futures market for the already-obsolete.
Factions will duly polarize across each of these radii: culture, commerce, engineering, marketing and probably a couple more I'm overlooking. But all these orbits are governed by the implicit central question about what is happening to the way people live their lives with music. The iTMS is not a paradigm shift, it is a belated solution to a logistics problem that the internet created. Freedom of information about music engendered the demand for freedom of music, and this is just the beginning. We may not ever get rocket cars, but we are going to have an information space beyond our wildest fantasies and direst nightmares. The problems of organization and access and retrieval and awareness and taxonomy and persistence are about to spin out of control, and we'll have to hope desperately that the worst of the chaos is temporary. What the net is going to permanently and revolutionarily eradicate, though, is the long-standing barrier between second-hand knowledge and first. If I tell you a song exists, you will be able to go listen to it. The problem of your limited exposure to the universe of possibilities remains, but at least whatever you know of, in the world of data and information and media, you will be able to instantly know. Links change everything.
Except they don't, of course. The net may be big, and every page may lead to ten more, but that's Zeno's idea of completeness, topology not expanse. Where the net ends in anything larger or livelier than a fact, the information-space revolution will turn out to be rather mundanely disappointing. A restaurant index is not food. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is not the terrain. Even purely within the realm of information, access involves a lot more than URIs. You may suddenly have access to a sea of theoretical-physics papers that would previously have been locked away in controlled-circulation journals, for example, but good luck making sense of them. The US Census is online. Now what? Data is only as useful as your ability to process it. But music can fit through wires, and you don't need to be taught to hear, so music should suffer neither the problems of food nor science. Music criticism can be cheerfully marginalized, the same way photography relegated (or freed, depending on your perspective) painting, and if we get nothing else out of this colossal experiment in grand dumb disembodied brains, at least we can make up our own damn minds about music.
But even that, sadly, isn't exactly true. At the moment, the iTunes Music Store lets you listen to thirty seconds of any song. Not all songs lend themselves to thirty-second samples. Not all albums lend themselves to being split into songs. Even for those that do, though, this mode of evaluation by sampling is not neutral. Previewing is not the same as listening, and shopping is not the same as appreciation. As much as I want to believe in Apple, or believe that Apple has offered a first rough draft of a solution to a real problem instead of essentially throwing a trash can through a pizzeria window, the more I try to incorporate the iTMS into my life the more chillingly I realize that I probably think it's part of the problem. The iTMS is no more a better way to connect people to the music than email is a better way to send letters or the web is a better way to publish novels. Email is frantic and imperative and truncated and remorselessly literal, where letters are slow and graceful and unhurried and easily distracted. The web is fragmented and fractured and flitted through, where books are solid and quiet and their pages turn languidly in lamplight. And the iTMS is quick and easy and cheap and immediate, where listening has duration and difficulty and cost and anticipation.
The talismans of this inextricable potential and betrayal of downloadable music, for me, are the three songs I bought off the iTMS, for what seemed like a wholly reasonable $.99 each, from Mandy Moore's new covers album. This is somebody's idea of the whole point: I listened to all the samples, and only purchased the songs I actually liked. A victory for choice. I don't need to hear Mandy sing Carole King or Elton John songs, and I don't want to hear her mangle "Moonshadow", "One Way or Another" or "Breaking Us in Two" more than once. But the glitteringly over-ornamented version of XTC's rococo "Senses Working Overtime" is funny in what I take to be an endearing way, the elegant dance through the Waterboys' "The Whole of the Moon" suggests that both Mandy and her producers have some real reverence for these songs, and the exuberantly clanging performance of Joan Armatrading's "Drop the Pilot" makes me temporarily forget that there's anything odd about the juxtaposition of one of the old guard's most enduring figures with one of the new one's most expendable. For $2.97, I get the experience I want. For a fourth or a fifth or so of the cost of the physical album, I get a virtual mini-album assembled (or in this case, disassembled) specifically for me.
And I like it exactly as much as I planned to, and no more. I listen to these three songs, and feel pleased that I spent neither money nor shelf space on the other nine. I listen and feel good that I correctly predicted that I'd keep enjoying these particular songs (although I'm not retesting the idea that I wouldn't enjoy the others...). I listen, and I like these songs. But I don't love them, and my world is no bigger. The iTMS is not a way to connect us to music we love, it is a way to sell us music we like. Listening to these excerpted songs is a celebration of disconnection, in fact, and of the way in which iTunes has freed me to listen without caring. But what the hell did I want that for? These songs take thirteen minutes out of my life, every time I listen to them, and give me back nothing meaningful that I couldn't get more of by not listening to them at all. If I had bought the CD of this unheard, I'd have hated it and moved on. If I'd sampled it in a whole-album context, I wouldn't have bought it. The iTMS helped me recognize a mistake, but then it went ahead and helped me half-make it.
Of course, I don't have to shop that way. I don't have to sample, and I could buy whole albums according to the same rules I'd use for CDs and listen to them the same way. I don't have to channel-surf just because I have a TV remote, either. If the iTMS and its successors change music, my iPod will still play albums like my television still plays movies. I just wish I thought that was enough. I wish I felt like the evilness on television can't touch me if my own TV is off. But it can. It's everywhere, so it's never really off. TV poisons our culture, and I hate the idea that music can be a toxin, too. I hate thinking that Apple is part of this, but then I already hate Napster and Clear Channel and MTV and K-Tel and movie tie-ins and remakes and retreads and every other way in which music has probably already been doing this to us all my life. I hate how devalued music impoverishes us in abundance. I still believe that making music is what human beings do best, and I fear for us most when we are terrible at our greatest thing.