iDon’t Get It

The digital smackdown between France and Apple over a pending French law that would require the iTunes Music store to allow music downloads onto devices other than iPods is another reminder of a digital-age phenemenon that I don’t get.

What is the value proposition that causes iPod and iTunes to be the dominant portable music format?

If you buy an iPod, you can only get music from one place: iTunes. On iTunes, you can only listen to fragments of songs. If you want to hear the whole thing, you have to buy it, for 99 cents. At that point you own the song, just as if you’d bought a CD of one song for 99 cents. Which is great, if you’re sure you want to keep playing that song the rest of your life. You can burn it onto a CD. But you can’t put the song onto any other portable device–only an iPod.

There’s another alternative. You can become a subscriber to another online music store, such as Rhapsody, Yahoo! Music or Napster. You pay them a monthy fee. There are usually two pricing tiers — neither of them more than the price of a typical CD. The lower price allows you to stream almost anything they have, i.e. listen to the whole song as often as you want on your computer, or to burn it and keep it like iMusic does, for an additional fee of about 79-89 cents.

For the slightly higher price, you can also “subscribe” to tracks, which means you can store them on your computer to play even when you’re offline, and you can download them onto your portable device. Eventually, your “rights” to that song will expire if you don’t reconnect your device with the subscription service. And you can’t burn it onto a CD, unless you pay that extra fee.

Myriad portable devices can take downloads off these competing music services, from dozens of manufacturers. Microsoft has finagled its way into this picture with the “Plays for Sure” logo, which is actually helpful. When I got a Creative Zen for my birthday, I was able to give my Rio to my son, knowing that I could put subscription music onto his and mine from the same service.

That’s a very different world from the restrictive one that Apple has built.

Go back to the lower-tier price. If you have a laptop and can pick up wi-fi, the ability to stream music means you can set up a playlist of, say, 200 songs (any number really), plug the earphones into your computer and just listen while you work. I’ve done this many times. Sometimes I’m in the mood for Handel. Sometimes I’m in the mood for the Rolling Stones. Rhapsody lets its listeners create playlists, and sometimes I listen to one of those. One weird day, I even created a Bee Gees playlist. Not too bad, actually!

You can’t do that on iTunes, unless you’re happy with 200 30-second fragments.

johnny_cash.jpgI am not endorsing weird French laws. Mon Dieu, non. If Apple wants iTunes to only play on iPods, that’s their right.

But thanks to subscriptions and streaming, I’ve been able to discover, or re-discover, vast libraries of music I would’ve never paid to try. Not just the Bee Gees, but a long list of current rock bands, old jazz masters, and favorites who just had more music out there than I could have kept up with before.

Take Johnny Cash. Most everyone knows the great version of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” that Cash recorded with producer Rick Rubin a few years before he died. But Cash completed four CDs with Rubin, and more songs that didn’t fit into those CDs were released later. A great version of the Beatles’ “In My Life,” the country chestnut “Streets of Laredo,” and literally dozens of others. Who has the money to buy all of that? But now I’ve heard a lot of it. Recent box set surveys of Duke Ellington and the Band are now, almost in their entireties, on my MP3 player.

neko.jpgAnother example: I bypassed CDs by the New Pornographers many times, just because I didn’t like their name (still don’t.) But checking them out on Rhapsody has turned me into a huge fan of their expertly crafted pop-rock (imagine the Mamas and the Papas, backed by Led Zeppelin, singing songs by Brian Wilson). Listening to the New Pornographers turned me on to one of the band’s singers, Neko Case, who has grown from a Patsy Cline-like alt-country cowgirl into a brilliant, uncategorizable singer-songwriter. If you want to listen to her new album, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood,” you could test-drive it on Rhapsody before deciding if you want to buy it. Or, if you’re a subscriber, you could put it on your MP3 player — as long as it’s not an iPod.

That’s what confuses me. iPod gives you fewer choices, but it’s far and away the standard, outselling everything else. When Donald Fagen released his new single “H Gang,” the press release said it was available for purchase on iTunes. And it was. But it was also available for streaming, downloading or purchase on Rhapsody and presumably other services, but that fact was not mentioned in the news releases. Is it supposed to be a secret?

This might be a PR problem. The benefits of subscription services have not been reduced to a soundbite. Napster, Yahoo! and Rhapsody are all competitors against each other as well as Apple. Apple is selling hardware as well as its online service, so its incentive to market heavily is greater.

To me, it’s a hiccup in the market, one I hope is corrected, because the subscription model opens doors for people to get exposed to new music in ways iTunes’ does not. And with the demise of commercial radio as a proselytizer of music, I would hate to see the subscription alternative fail.

2 thoughts on “iDon’t Get It

  1. I’m totally with you this: Yahoo Music has turned me around completely. I now hate my CDs because I am paying the rent on the space they occuppy! I am discovering more music, and enjoying music more now than in many, many years. All for $5/per month! Ipod/iTunes combo is not much f a combo. In fact, if I were Yahoo I would NOT synch with iPod as a strategic competitive move.

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