Highway To $0.99 Hell
Apple's iTunes music store: A rockin' revolution, or same ol' corporate song and dance?
By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist Wednesday, May 21, 2003
Damn but how I'd love to believe that a nice hefty portion of the 99 cents I just dropped in the wonderfully simple and elegant and it's-about-goddamn-time Apple iTunes Music Store for Björk's glorious "Bachelorette" is going straight into Björk herownself's orange fur-lined pocket. You know?
Instead of where I know my money is really going, which is straight toward some Universal records exec's Range Rover payments, with the remainder right into the vault inside Steve Jobs' gold-trimmed bedchamber. And most likely not a single dime to the artist who wrote and recorded and sang the actual music.
This is the tragic flaw, the biggest disappointment of Apple's much-vaunted service. It is the underlying unfair evil that, if you're at all aware of the music industry's long-standing vow to gouge your ass to high heaven and screw their own artists out of royalties and keep the prices of antiquated CDs artificially high and continue to promote slick prefab hit makers to the detriment of new, quirky, more talented indie acts, bites your attuned consumerist butt every step of the way. Apple could've gone for revolution. They settled for mild rebellion.
Oh but Apple did a fine job, on the surface. Leave it to a computer company, leave it to Apple, the masters of elegant design and clean interface and friendly user experience, to trump the music biz and launch the first successful pay music site and actually make you feel welcome, and appreciated, and not completely ripped off.
No subscription fee. Any song, any artist, any genre, any length, 99 cents. Entire albums for 10 bucks. Burn and share and transfer. Minimal and easily flaunted copy restrictions. It's genius. It's beautiful. I want to love it. But I can't.
Normally I gush all over nearly everything Apple creates. I worship at the altar of the PowerBook titanium upon which I write this very column. The iPod is the gold standard for kickass gizmo MP3 players. The iMac is elegant design genius.
But not this. This has a decidedly megacorporate taint, a distinctly snarling restrictive bent. Here's why: Most of the money you spend in the store goes straight into the record-biz corporate coffers. Maybe a few cents to the major artists who are lucky enough to have such a profit clause in their contracts, but for the most part, the old business model is still very much the same.
Record companies rule, major artists get pampered, indie music gets ignored, technology barely advances. Sure you no longer have to buy an entire CD to get your favorite song. Very nice. But other than that, the corporate stranglehold largely remains.
Bottom line: Apple's service is almost exactly the same as buying the CD at the store, only a bit cheaper, and more tech savvy. But if the money's still going to the same places, supporting the same outdated system, why should anyone care?
Let's put it this way; If the choice is to download a particular song for free, or spend a buck on Apple's site, I'd probably choose the former. And why? It ain't the money -- it's the sense that the music industry has been ripping consumers like me off for years via inflated CD prices and ancient technology, and that my buck does nothing to change that. It's just like Big Oil -- if you had access to a secret stash of free gas, would you still go to the pump?
And choice? Apple's wonderufully simple and clean site, unfortunately, isn't about choice. So far, they cater only to the most mainstream of music fans. This is the roster of a mere five major labels. There is no alternative music. There are no cool indie compilations, no underground, no small-label genius, no new voices. Hopefully this will change. Dramatically. Soon.
Want the new Ani DiFranco? Maybe the latest sexy chill-out Hotel Costes compilation? Tosca's new "Dehli9"? Something by DJ Cheb I Sabbah or Perfume Tree or Fila Brazillia? Too bad for you. Not a wisp to be found. Gobs of Sheryl Crow and Sting and U2 and Celine Dion and Bon Jovi, though. Yawn.
Claims are Apple's new service sold 2 million songs in its first two weeks of business. Wonderful and good and an encouraging sign indeed that the music biz is finally beginning to see the light of new technology, the potential for change.
But my next dollar eagerly goes to the site that promotes the artist over the label, the music over the industry, a new and fairer business model over one that keeps true music lovers under the heel of litigious corporate hit factories. Simple, really.
My hard-earned columnist money happily forks over to the service that doesn't make me feel like I'm still supporting an industry that treats me like a criminal for recording Net radio and burning my own CDs, that invests its billions in fewer and fewer talented upstart artists and more and more prefab "sure thing" arena acts, that sues the living hell out of a bunch of upstart college kids for running file-sharing servers.
My next buck spent on the site where, say, the artists submit their own music and the service takes a small reasonable cut and the label takes a small reasonable cut and the artist gets a nice big cut and I can get any song for a buck and don't have to wade through the entire Fleetwood Mac catalogue to find it.
Apple, can you? Please? Because everyone seems to like what you've done so far. But you could go much, much further ...