On the Download

Is the online music store the Apple of digital music's eye? It should be.

What follows is an inbox-to-inbox discussion on the merits (and demerits) of Apple's iTunes Music Store conducted recently via e-mail by Dallas Observer associate editor Eric Celeste, managing editor Patrick Williams, pop culture critic Robert Wilonsky and music editor Zac Crain.


Eric Celeste: Gentlemen: I believe the question before us today is, "Is Apple Computer's online music store good for the music industry and, by extension, good for music lovers?"

For those who don't know what this is, a quick primer/example. Right now I am working on my Apple laptop, connected to the Internet. I fire up Apple's music management software, iTunes, and a window pops up that allows me to manage my music files, in effect turning my hard drive into a digital jukebox. I currently have about 3,000 songs loaded onto my hard drive.

But say I want a song that I don't currently own--for example, something from the Flaming Lips, as I've heard only a few of their songs, and everyone says I'm a music wuss if I don't own their music. Well, I click an icon called "Music Store" and I'm connected to the online store, which looks and acts like a Web page. There I can browse albums and songs by genre, release date, artist or category. Or I can simply type "Flaming Lips" in the music store search engine.

Which is what I did. I find six albums from the band, including seven tracks that are exclusive to the music store. I notice that the most downloaded song of theirs is the exclusive cover of "Can't Get You Out of My Head." So I listen to a 30-second sample, which you can do for every song in the store. I love it. I click on it, it downloads and my credit card is charged 99 cents.

Now, after I'm done typing, I'll go through and find some other songs or albums I like from the Lips and consider downloading them. The artists and labels make money, and I have music I otherwise wouldn't go find on most days (because unlike, say, music critics, I don't have much time to go all geeky and track down music I've only read/heard about). So, how is this a bad thing?

Zac Crain: As far as I am concerned, the only bad thing about this: Everyone's music isn't in the store yet. But that will come later, I'm sure.

Of course, there is one other thing that Napster and Kazaa and the various other file-trading sites had/have that Apple's model doesn't: bootlegs. Sure, Apple has convinced some of the bands to offer up exclusive tracks, but part of the appeal of the other sites was the depth and breadth of the really illegal offerings--live cuts, studio demos. It was as if someone handed you a treasure map and asked if you needed help carrying your booty home.

Apple's system is simple and simply great. If the Recording Industry Association of America would only focus on making this even better (more smaller labels, please) instead of alienating consumers (suing everyone who uses file-trading software? Not so good, boss), the wild, wild west of online music will have finally found a competent sheriff.

And as it stands, it's already gotten Eric to listen to the Flaming Lips instead of Wham!

Robert Wilonsky: It's a bad thing, because iTunes, like its antecedents (Napster, Kazaa, Aimster, etc.), will further eradicate The Album. You remember those, don't you? The Album--a piece of work put together by an artist, intended to be absorbed as a whole rather than in easily digested bits and pieces. Today, some people will never find a "deep cut" swimming in Internet's shallow end.

Granted, the CD's already done much to destroy this: There's no better sequencer than the listener and a "skip" button. In most cases, hey, fine. Most music today's but product anyway, singles stitched together by marketers and publicists on bloated digital discs not worth the buck it costs to manufacture a CD. And most CDs are way too long: Just because they provide you with 76 minutes of space doesn't mean you need to fill every second. But that experience of being sucked into a record someone constructed from songwriting to song sequencing vanishes with iTunes. Our quick-fix culture has taken care of that: Everything's a greatest-hits collection, at best, rendering things like "context" and "texture" antiquated concepts.

Imagine the kid today who downloads something from Quadrophenia. "The Real Me" is a great single, but that's an album all about flow, about storytelling, a record with a beginning and a middle and an ending. Now it's but a Frankenstein monster without the brain Pete Townshend gave it. This applies, I should think, to albums old and new: to the works of Wilco as much as Dylan, Stankoniaas much as Pet Sounds. Say bye-bye to Concept Albums, Rock Operas, Political Statements, Personal Music. No one's interested in hearing the whole story; they've been trained to pay attention one chapter at a time.

Zac Crain: I somewhat agree with the whole erosion-of-the-album argument. But I would suggest this: People would have a better chance of actually hearing the next Dylan or next whomever if there was a place (and the Apple music store very well could be such a place) that made it easy for people to hear them. This ain't the '70s--or even the early '90s; that kind of thing doesn't fly very far on the radio these days.

Norah Jones made it through the same trench and came out on the other side with 10 million in sales, but what about the hundreds of other quality artists who have nothing but a tiny yet very devoted fan base? They're the ones likely to give up and stop making records. Who cares about Concept Albums, Rock Operas, Political Statements when you can't get someone to listen to one freaking song?

It's still not proven that digital music will supplant the hard copies. You can still come across a song by the Flaming Lips, decide you like it, download the entire thing, burn it and have what Wayne Coyne and the band wanted anyway. Not everyone will do that. But plenty of people will. Or maybe I'm just that naïve.

Eric Celeste: I'd like Patrick to address Zac's take on the glory of Kazaa, et al., because Patrick suddenly, for some reason, has found a conscience at the age of 40 and feels guilty about downloading music without paying for it. And he just bought a new iMac. (So...jealous.)

But I want to address Bobby W.'s point about how this piecemeal downloading destroys the concept of the album. Yes, unless I download all 11 songs (at a full-album discount of $9.99--another nice Apple touch) of the Lips' latest album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, then I won't experience their work the way they intended. And I haven't decided to do that. Ten bucks sounds a lot less affordable than a dollar on our salaries. But...

I still may indeed decide to download the entire album, which I probably would never have gotten around to purchasing. The ease of the Apple experience gives me the chance that this becomes a band I love, not just a few songs I dig.

I already have Pet Sounds in my digital jukebox, as well as all of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Mermaid Avenue and Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and a host of other complete albums. Music fans will always want albums from the canon. The music store is simply adding to my collection, not substituting for it. It is enhancing my love of music and the joy of, yes, discovery. It's how I found (and downloaded the entire debut album of) OK Go. And, yes, it's at least somewhat incumbent upon the act to capture my attention and make me want to listen to their entire work. No one gets a free ride in the cultural marketplace.

The album experience is somewhat overrated, mostly because of weed use on the part of all who decry its passing. We drunks like strapping an iPod to our arm and having several hundred singles at our fingertips.

Patrick Williams: I went out and bought a Mac this past weekend--no payments till January, and with any luck I'll be rich or dead by then--in part because of iTunes. So if it's a bad thing, I'll add it to my list of bad things I really like. Just one more thing to make me go blind, I guess.

What's that you say, Gramps? The album is dead? Thank God. The CD player and a remote control already mean I haven't had to sit through "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" since I sold my turntable. (Would I have bought Nashville Skyline or Blood on the Tracks if I could have bought singles from iTunes? Of course I would have. Give me credit for being smarter than that.)

I'm the oldest guy in the group here: You want the glory of the album? Let's talk about how much money I blew over the years replacing needles I broke from dropping the arm while trying to lift it over some cut I hated on an otherwise good record. And where was your mourning for the death of the single, brought about by CDs? Out of all my long-sold vinyl, the only piece I truly pine for is a 45 of Clarence Henry's "Ain't Got No Home," one of only two pieces of music that will actually force me to get out of my chair and dance my arrhythmic ass around the room.

As for the Art of the Sequence. Please. Yeah, Quadrophenia is a great album. So's Tommy. But they're also--loosely--narratives, and writers as talented as Townshend and singers as great as Daltrey aren't exactly falling off of trees.

But tell me, is there some story arc I'm missing in the Lips' Yoshimi...? Like the CD. Would have bought it anyway after hearing the title cut, but the truth is the arrangement on the disc is about mood, not a story arc, and frankly I'm a big enough boy now that with a catalog of singles to sort through and cheaply experiment with, plus a CD burner, I can put together my own mixes of great songs to match my own moods.

I average 50 bucks a month buying CDs. With iTunes, I can be choosier, spread that money around to more artists--I shunned Kazaa, etc. because I want to support the artists I like so they keep making albums--and sample a wider, better, more eclectic array of music. This is bad? Well, alrighty then. FedEx just delivered my DSL modem for the new Mac today, so I'll be spending the night wallowing in sin. As usual, I suppose, but with a much better soundtrack.

Robert Wilonsky: Patrick, your abhorrence for antiquated technology is touching. I am not talking about the death of vinyl here. I am talking about software, not hardware.

You and Eric are right: Once people get a taste of an artist, they will likely enjoy the flavor and take a bigger bite--maybe even buy a whole album. Certainly, the death of radio has created a void, and iTunes fills the need and niche: You're your own music director and your own disc jockey, with no commercial interruptions. Of course, there is a difference: You own the songs you like and may not be so inclined to rush out to buy some you might not. Adios, Tower Records.

I just wonder what will become of The Album as a storytelling device, a medium through which an artist can tell a complete tale. Imagine if people only heard Nebraskain downloaded snippets, or Rumours or Ziggy Stardustor Good Old Boysor Transformeror Rubber Soul. What becomes of the modern-day artist who'd like to make a comparable record--and who has the talent to do so--but then figures, fuck it, no one's gonna buy the whole thing, what's the point?

Zac Crain: A few things possibly only slightly related that I will state in the highly annoying practice of passing opinion as fact:

1. The dollar-store world of Apple will only make albums better, if that's what you're worried about. Maybe even more essential. I like albums you can listen to during your lunch break--45 minutes tops, 10 or 11 songs. That's all you really need. How many times are you gonna be able to sit through 18, 19 songs at once? Even musicians I dig--Badly Drawn Boy, say--could use an editor.

2. You'll still be able to get those 78-minute Statement Albums if you want because of--surprise, surprise--the Internet. If labels start dropping prestige acts such as Radiohead or the Flaming Lips, that isn't gonna change what they do. They'll just make the same albums they were going to, press them up themselves and sell 'em online. Prolly make more scratch that way, anyway, and reach even more people. Especially if they put those songs on iTunes.

Patrick Williams: It's just democracy at work--don't be scared, that's a good thing, not bad. Can't really say the oligarchs at record companies and radio chains have improved the quality of my musical experience over the years. Thank Steve "Che" Jobs. Power to the people, etc...

I note that there was a long spell there in my 30s, after AOR and locally formatted radio died, that I didn't buy much music, didn't know what was out there, didn't hear much new stuff. Now, with XM in my car and a digital catalog at my fingertips, I expect to be selling blood plasma to boost my collection--some full albums, some not. It's a fact--exposure to music just leads to buying more music.

EpilogueRobert Wilonsky: I would like to offer the following as an addendum, and as Exhibit A, to my argument that iTunes is killing the album. From Reuters News Service, dated July 2, 2003: "Rock bands The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica are refusing to make their music available as individual downloads on Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes online music store, a representative for the bands said on Wednesday. That move comes in response to Apple's decision to allow users to buy single tracks and is intended to protect the future of the long-playing album, the format that has dominated the music industry for decades."

Just wanted to point out there is backlash within the creative community and that mine are not merely the rantings of a prematurely old man with Good Old Days Syndrome.

Zac Crain: Yeah, but those guys are notorious pussies.

Robert Wilonsky: Nevertheless, I assume they will not be the last acts to take such a stand. But why, oh, why couldn't they have been better bands?

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