Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Listen to the Music

Jerry Stratton, April 29, 2003

Same as the old boss?

Apple’s Music Store is not the same as the old crappy music download services, both official and unofficial. It is the best on-line music store I’ve seen. It is simple, fast, and efficient to use except for some annoying quirks. But it beats the hell out of everything else, which seem to deliberately discourage consumers from buying. This system was actually designed by people who listen to music on their computers, in their cars, and at the office.

It does have its quirks. There is no way to “remember” a track or album for later purchase. You can put it in your shopping cart, but then you’ll have to remove it from your shopping cart the next time you make a purchase. And, you can’t add to the shopping cart without giving them extremely personal data, such as your credit card information. The shopping cart isn’t for casual browsing. It’s for when you’re ready to purchase. Casually browsing through the list of titles, if I want to remember something for later I don’t want to screech to a halt, enter my credit card information, and go back to browsing. I’ll just keep browsing and forget about that track.

The track selection itself is currently fairly low. Two hundred thousand sounds like a lot until you start searching for something unique. Hell, I have 4,993 tracks just in my personal collection. Too often, on looking for some album that I haven’t been able to find in a CD or on vinyl, the album either isn’t there, or only a subset of tracks are available, requiring me, if I want them, to purchase each track separately and still not have the whole album. This should change over time.

The sample is 30 seconds, good quality, and more than enough to recognize the song. (In some cases, this is half the track!)

I’d like to see an in-store radio service, where Apple plays a couple of channels of music, and I hear the entire song. When I hear a song I like, I can buy the track or the album it’s on, immediately. That would be cool, and it would help alleviate the one problem I’ve had since using iTunes: I don’t listen to the radio any more, which means I don’t hear much in the way of new music.

Let’s Get Down to the Real Nitty Gritty

The real test is in the purchase. The purchase process is awesome. I’m not a huge fan of Elvis Presley, but there are a few songs I’ve wanted for quite a while. Since the service seems tuned towards buying single tracks over buying albums, I figured that would be a perfect test of the service.

The interface is perfect. You open up into a standard-looking web page-like view into their bestsellers. Whatever. But it is easy to search for specific items or drill down into artists. The tracks I wanted were “Viva Las Vegas” and “Promised Land”. The first thing I did was search for Elvis Presley and sort by name. They had one track for Viva Las Vegas, and none for Promised Land. I tried to drag “Viva Las Vegas” over to the left to remember it; iTunes wouldn’t let me drag at all. I went into the preferences to see what might be of use there. In the “store” preferences I switched from one-click to shopping cart. I still can’t drag, but the “Buy” button changes to “Add”.

Thinking that maybe another group might have done a good “Promised Land”, I did a search on the title and found three Elvis tracks! I went back to my Elvis search, and Promised Land definitely wasn’t showing up there. I don’t know if this is a feature or a bug, but if you’re looking for a specific track, you need to know the name. For some performers, the name of a track changes depending on when they’ve performed it and who did the album.

However, I now did a search on “Viva Las Vegas” and found a nice selection of tracks there as well. (Actually, I think there were only two tracks, but one was duplicated across a couple of “best of” compilations.)

I previewed the tracks to find the “Viva Las Vegas” and “Promised Land” that I wanted, added them to my shopping cart, and clicked “Buy Now”. The service asked me for a confirmation that I wanted to buy them, and in seconds, literally, I had both those tracks in my iTunes collection.

Now came the real test of the service. First thing I did was head to the Finder to see if the tracks were real files. They were indeed two tracks in my iTunes Music folder, in “Compilations” and then in the appropriate folder for the albums (each track was from a different album).

That’s good.

I then went to the command line and copied the folders (and their files) over to my work computer. The next morning I came into work, went to “Add to Library”, and added those two tracks to iTunes in my office. They added. No fuss at all. Went to play them and it asked me for the password that I had used for the account I bought them with, and they started playing.

That’s better.

But it helps that I use multiple computers. I’m not likely to forget my password. If I only used one computer and didn’t buy a lot of music, the chances of my remembering the password I’d used three years earlier is not good. I’d be screwed the moment I purchased a new computer. Now, Apple does ask you for some personal information so that they can reset your password. (Your birthday, and one question/answer that you provide.) But I’ve personally not been around for a long time, and I’ve outlived most of the computer companies I’ve purchased from. I have some computer programs I bought in the eighties that I can’t play anymore, because they’re copy-protected and the company is no longer in business. A 5 1/4” floppy is useless to me if I can’t copy it to a hard drive. I know people with DIVX discs and DIVX players. The discs make nice coasters. DIVX’s problem was predictable. It was a crappy system. But there are echoes of it here. What if Apple goes out of business, or just out of the music business?

I’m sure Apple has no plans to go out of business. Few companies do. But I’d still like assurance that if they do, the things I purchase from them will continue to work. This is a major reason why I don’t like copy restrictions of any kind. If I purchased it, I still want to use it even if they go out of business or simply stop providing that service. But at the moment, I see no indication that I’ll even be able to authorize my music, that I’ve paid for at near CD prices, for subsequent new computers. Before I purchase significant amounts of music, I need to see that addressed. I plan on listening to this music for a long time.

You can, of course, get around this by doing some work yourself: whenever you get about 70 minutes of tracks, make a standard audio CD of those tracks. You can then rip them as you normally would, to MP3. Of course, you’ll lose all title/artist info. No CDDB will be able to find your personal CD in its database.

Let’s Get Physical

Yes, I actually own that album. On vinyl. I haven’t bothered to rip it to MP3 yet, but I’ll get to it someday.

The albums themselves are overpriced, as are tracks unless you literally only buy one or two tracks per album. Tracks cost 99 cents. Whether it’s a one minute Steve Martin sketch or a 6 minute song, it’s 99 cents. Albums are $10 and up.

Remember, with on-line purchases, you have nothing physical, unless you make it yourself. If your hard drive goes bad, if your kids accidentally throw away some of your tracks, you have no CD to go back to unless you make it yourself. And then you’ve lost the near-CD quality by just a little bit.

Having nothing physical means more than just back-ups, too. I happened to run across Tom T. Hall’s “Country Songs for Children” in the store. The album cover clearly says “Sing-along Book”. Well, you’re not getting the sing-along book either!

You decide you no longer need this album/track and want to sell it? You can’t. You have nothing physical. The only way you can give it away is if you give away your username and password, too! You’d basically have to sell all of your tracks (your password authorizes the computer using it as one of the three computers). You cannot sell the original. With a “real” CD, you have the safety of being able to go onto eBay or into your local music store and selling albums you grow tired of. You don’t have that ability with Music Store songs.

Costs need to reflect that you’re not getting anything physical, and that you’re getting none of the benefits of buying something physical. Their prices do not adequately reflect all of those restrictions on usage.

The Music Store charges $9.99 for an old Doobie Brothers Album that I can get for $11.98 from Amazon, which is likely the same price it is available in local stores. But the CD version has no restrictions on use, and if I later decide that I don’t like the album, I can erase it from my hard drive and sell it for, apparently, $7.99. I don’t see any such fallback for the Music Store version.

The price is not significantly different from the CD prices that I pay, but there are all these restrictions on how I can use the music that don’t exist on a CD. I don’t have to remember a password to use a CD. I don’t have to worry about how many times I’ve burned and tossed this party compilation. I don’t have to worry about authorizing/deauthorizing computers. I don’t have to worry about the company that sold me the CD going out of business. I can sell the CD if I get tired of it.

The only advantage that the Music Store has that I can see is that I can buy individual tracks, and I can buy them in seconds. For me, that’s not going to be enough of an advantage to get me to pay these prices for music in general. Perhaps a few tracks here and there from artists or albums for which I know I don’t want the full album, but not for full albums and not for artists I’m not familiar with.

The Radio Still Sucks

To summarize, I think that Apple’s Music Store is a huge step forward. It begins to assume that people who buy music want to listen to it, and that people who want to listen to music are willing to purchase it. Most importantly, what you buy at Apple’s store is yours to keep. While it is just an electronic file, it is your electronic file. Concerns regarding the long-term viability of the file aside, that’s an important change from almost all other on-line music services.

I suspect that this will be really useful when making party compilations. If I don’t have a track in my collection already, I can quickly switch to the Music Store, and if they have it I can have it in seconds, in a near-CD-quality version. But I would use the service more if:

  • It was possible to “remember” tracks for possible purchase later.
  • More full albums were available. I like to hear the songs that did not make it onto the radio! Some of my favorite songs are the more subtle ones that didn’t catch my attention until I heard them a few times. I’d hate for the Music Store to further move us to a time where only blatant and obvious songs are commercially successful.
  • Prices reflected the fact that if I want a physical back up, I need to take the time and money to make it myself. That I’m not getting any of the physical “extras” that go into a CD purchase.
  • There was a contingency plan in case I forget my password and Apple does not respond to requests (either because it is out of business or no longer in the music business).
  • I could sell my tracks to someone else when I grow tired of them.
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