You Say You Want a Revolution

AppleLast week, in passing, a colleague mentioned that he’d found a new “anti-iTunes” website for which he’d have to send me the URL. Not being all that patient a fellow, I waited a couple of days, then promptly went about searching on my own. I can’t be certain that the site I found is the one to which he was referring, but given its prominence in various search engines, I’d say the odds are pretty good.

The site itself is pretty slick — a dead-on imitation of Apple’s design aesthetic (even non-Mac users may be familiar with the look from the old “Switch” campaign). And to be fair, there are a lot of valid points being made therein (I hate it when the adversarial nature of most debate necessitates the complete vilification of one’s opponent). Still, as a longtime iTunes Music Store booster, I do feel the need to rebut some of the accusations leveled at Apple.

The essential critique is that the iTunes Music Store doesn’t fundamentally change the structure of label-artist relations; as with traditional CD sales, the labels keep the lion’s share of the proceeds while the artists receive piddling amounts. Changing the paradigm is certainly a worthy goal, but I think it’s gross oversimplification to lay this burden wholly on Apple. Apple’s sales method is an alternative to illegal file-sharing, and not necessarily an attempt to correct the ills of the recording industry.

Let’s evaluate the arguments made on the page (you may want to take a look for yourself first) individually. First: “It’s too expensive.” The page author contends that the $10-per-album price is substantially less than the $5 to $8 one can pay for a used CD. True, but undermined by the principal argument the page makes: An artist receives nothing from used CD sales, not even the pennies the labels pass down on a new disc.

Second: “Lossy means loss.” In other words, the AAC format is a “lossy” compression scheme, throwing away data to allow for smaller file sizes. On its face, a true statement. The format is inferior to a CD’s uncompressed AIFF format. But then again, so is the ubiquitous MP3 format. And the page author isn’t proposing an alternative to this format. AIFF files are too large to distribute via the ’net, leaving us with... CDs. We’re back where we started.

Third: “‘But I don’t really care about compression.’” The author argues that one would be better off using the free peer-to-peer networks, which, at least most times, offer a much wider selection and, obviously, a price point that can’t be bested: Nothing. But see my rebuttal to point one — this solution gives nothing to the artists, so how is it an improvement over the Apple store? And while yes, the music is compressed, the public has demonstrated that it is willing to allow for that compression as a trade-off for reduced file sizes. And whereas the music at Apple is compressed, the AAC format is notably superior to the MP3 format you’d find being traded over the swapping services.

Fourth: “If you build a shiny new house on a landfill it still stinks.” Here the author’s logic falls apart. Yes, Apple’s marketing department may be overstating things a bit when they imply that the artists are being rewarded, but the simple truth is that they are. It is objectively better than the free-trading system in terms of artist remuneration. So the system stinks, and artists can be trapped having to recoup the label’s initial investment costs before seeing a dime. Fine, but I think that’s holding Apple responsible for a lot more than could reasonably be expected. While I’ll concede that music retailers may have some responsibility to use their market clout to force changes on the industry, until the iTunes Music Store opened, Apple didn’t have any clout. And in order to establish the store in the first place, Apple had to gain the approval of the major labels; otherwise, it wouldn’t have anything to sell. Remember, the artists don’t own the music, the labels do (okay technically, it may be more an “exclusive distribution right” in some cases, but it amounts to the same thing). Can we honestly believe that the labels would sign off on a system that cut them out of the loop?

And fifth: “Nothing changed.” Basically, no. Apple’s system does save the labels substantial production costs, and in an ideal world, those savings should be passed back to the artists. But remember — the system doesn’t exist without the labels’ consent. The industry’s almost-hardwired resistance to entering the online music world had to be overcome somehow. Without a substantial, demonstrable benefit, they would have simply said, “No,” scuttling the enterprise before it got off the ground.

The site goes on to challenge Apple to display the “artist’s cut” along with each track, so the consumer can see how much is actually going back to the artist. Great idea, but probably impractical. First of all, it’s not a simple matter of per-song remuneration, so such a calculation would be an average at best. And second, that’s fine if the labels consent to it. I’d like to see it happen, but I don’t see what’s in it for them — as underhanded as it may be, the industry has a vested interest in downplaying that sort of information, so I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that column to appear.

The solution proposed by the site is to download songs you like from a peer-to-peer file-sharing network — free — and then send the artists a contribution directly. Also a nice idea, but there’s not a chance in hell that it’ll get off the ground. For one thing, as it stands right now, downloading music from one of these networks is still illegal; sure you probably won’t get caught, but if you are, you sure as hell won’t be able to rationalize it by saying you were trying to be fair to the artists. For another, people are a hell of a lot less likely to do something if it involves substantial effort on their part. The iTunes Music Store is easy — one click and it’s done. Packing cash into an envelope and mailing it may not take a whole lot of time, but it’s still over the threshold of what most people are going to bother with — especially if we’re talking about several different songs from several different artists. And finally, the proposal overlooks one salient fact: With the exception of true independents, the artists don’t own (the rights to) the music. Yeah, the labels are screwing the artists over, and I’d like nothing better than to see the entire system dismantled and a more equitable one established. But I’ll guarantee you that even if they don’t catch you on the file-sharing front, they’ll be working their damnedest to catch you for paying somebody else through an organized remuneration system. And sending money through the mail, no less — which means they’ll tag you for mail fraud to boot.

Now this whole rant has been a little harsh on the proprietors of the Downhill Battle website, when in reality, I think their ideals are noble. But in the absence of a workable alternative, they are going overboard to blast a company whose only crime is not being as adamantly revolutionary as they are. A threshold which, frankly, I think anybody would have a hard time overcoming.


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