The iTunes Music Store and the Prematurely Predicted Demise of Album Rock

AppleFunny how people still just don’t get it. Even when faced with the overwhelming success of Apple’s iTunes-based Music Store (with only a fraction of the PC market, remember), the copycats continue to serve up business models that have already been proven to fail miserably. When faced with the opportunity to beat Apple at its own game — I mean, Apple said from the get-go that they wouldn’t have a PC-compatible version of iTunes until this fall at the earliest — the rest of the industry seems incapable of getting past its own already-failed attempts. How is it that nobody can grasp the basic fact that people will not pay either to rent music (the “monthly membership” model) or buy music that they can’t fully use (the “limited playback capability” model)? No matter how much the RIAA tries to go after music downloaders, the old Napster model (and no, I’m not providing a link to the venture that shares naught but the name of the original) is here to stay — whatever option you offer has to compete with that. Take it or leave it.

Now this isn’t to say that the RIAA shouldn’t go after the real music pirates — though I will stop short of saying it’s “right” for them to do so; I can’t quite regret the fact that an industry built on cheating people is finding itself on the receiving end for a change. But as the success of the Music Store has shown, people are willing to pay for music, provided they get the same flexibility they have under the free models. That means you have to allow (a) individual song selection, not just full albums, (b) the ability to transfer the songs to multiple devices, including other machines and portable players, and (c) the ability to create CDs from downloaded music. So far, with the exception of Apple, none of the other companies have been willing to allow all three. The most asinine model I’ve seen so far has to be that of BuyMusic.com, which touts its 79¢-per-song download price — omitting the fact that you can’t burn most tracks to CD (well, that and the music’s in the woefully inferior WMA format, BuyMusic isn’t actually paying a whole slew of the artists listed, and worst of all, they’re selling your personally identifying information to the highest bidder). Sure, I’ll occasionally listen to music on my computer, but 90% of my listening is going to be somewhere else (usually in the car, given my daily commute time). Folks, the specific price point isn’t a competitive advantage if you can’t provide the basic requirements — particularly when you’re talking less than a quarter.

Apple’s even thrown in a little bonus — the songs aren’t in the ubiquitous MP3 format, but what they’re calling AAC (think of it as MP4). Sure, that gives them the option of adding a few (surprisingly nonintrusive) protection features, but it also improves sound quality at a reduced file size. Not to mention that the tracks are made from (relatively) pristine masters, and aren’t subject to the encoding errors common to even relatively new CDs. Certainly makes one at least consider replacing some of those old ’net-downloaded tunes.

Now, Apple’s store isn’t perfect (well, glossing over the fact that it’s not yet available at all to Wintel users). There are some notable holes in the lineup of available music — the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, just to pick out a few — and in many cases, the song-by-song download model is circumvented, either by omitting the most popular song from a particular album (leaving only a partial selection available), or by making said song available only with the purchase of the entire album. In some cases, complicated licensing rights leave albums — multiple-artist compilations, particularly — with only a fraction of their content available. The aforementioned AAC format is great, but isn’t widely supported, particularly on lower-end portables — great for iPod sales, but not so hot for widespread adoption. And though the 30-second sampling option is fantastic, a lot of your perception of a particular track can depend on exactly which 30 seconds are selected for that sample. Still, nobody else is even coming close, and I can’t help thinking that Apple is gonna shock us with success all over again once they do get that PC version working.

None of this is anything really new — nor is my opinion unique, or even particularly original. Folks have been debating this for a while now (although I believe with a shocking overestimation of the viability of these music-store upstarts). But one thing I do want to make somewhat-original comment on is the oft-repeated mantra that this entire model is destroying the very institution of “album rock.” (The phenomenon certainly isn’t limited to rock as a genre, but as that’s the most commonly heard term, I’ll stick with it for clarity’s sake.) Artists used to — and in many cases still do — create albums as coherent, artistic pieces in their own right, rather than just a compilation of individual songs. Sure, “Pinball Wizard” was a great song, but — as Tommy’s recent Broadway incarnation has driven home — it’s just part of a much larger whole. Pulling it out of place may be feasible, but it does suffer — even if only slightly — having to stand alone. And I’m not limiting my discussion merely to the “concept album,” but any album in which artistic input is made into the construction of the album as a coherent whole. I’ve got my own favorites, from classic rock (e.g., Van Halen’s Diver Down — scary that my own high school days are now “classic”) to contemporary pop (e.g., the underrated Songs From an American Movie Vol. One: Learning How to Smile by Everclear). Sure, you can enjoy the individual songs, but it’s so much more enriching to hear them in context.

The recording industry flacks — and whatever naysayers they’ve managed to buy over to their side — would have us believe that under the new paradigm, we’ll lose that form of artistic expression entirely.

This, of course, is a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys.

First of all, by failing to provide an alternative to the album format (when was the last time you saw “singles,” save perhaps at specialty outlets in New York or L.A.?), the industry has killed the very incentive to create music in true album format. After all, a label can stretch out a few decent songs onto several different albums, filling out the remainder with hackwork. If people want the good songs, they have to pay for the rest of the crap along with it. Even when the “talent” aren’t industry fabrications, they’re working against a system that is patently antithetical to quality work; the artists really have to buck the system to put everything they’ve got into that one album, banking on the fact that they’ll be able to do it again next time. It’s not a “safe” investment for the label; music’s always been a business, but — as with the movie industry — now it’s just another line-item on a corporate conglomerate’s balance sheet.

And second, nobody’s saying you can’t produce albums — but if you want them to sell, they’re gonna have to stand up to scrutiny. Hell, I can buy music by the album at Apple, and a bit cheaper than buying the individual tracks. But I’m only gonna do it if I think the work’s gonna be better as a whole than the best of its parts. (What with the advent of the Internet, I don’t even think the model has killed liner notes, as is also frequently claimed.)

The new paradigm hasn’t killed album rock. If anything, it’s saved it.

I just picked up an album that really works in its entirety: Rob Dougan’s Furious Angels. Before checking it out at the store, I’d heard maybe three tracks from the album (two of which were different mixes entirely): “Clubbed to Death,” “Furious Angels,” and “I’m Not Driving Anymore.” Still, from the track listing — and the samples — I could tell that this was an album that had been put together as a single piece of artistic expression.

If any doubt remained in my head, I had only to listen to track 13: “Pause.”

It’s 30 seconds of absolute silence. Completely appropriate in its place on the album, but...

I doubt a lot of folks are picking up that one on its own.


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