On the Download

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, Stankonia as 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.

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