Tin Ear

Last week, I said that Apple was giving away U2’s new album Sounds of Innocence, but noted that it had yet to show up in iTunes several hours later.

Now we know why it took hours to make it available: Apple didn’t put the tracks in iTunes with a price of $0.00, as they routinely do for giveaways. Instead, they actually sold the music to each of their approximately half a billion customers.

The move was billed, of course, as being customer-friendly: why should those half-billion customers have to search for the gift and go to the trouble of clicking the “Free” button?

Very nice of Apple, but as you may have heard, there are a lot of people out there who apparently hate U2 with a passion. Over the past week, quite a large cottage industry has developed in ways to get the offending music off of one’s computers and iGadgets. Apparently it isn’t as easy as one might hope to lose one’s Innocence, and Apple has been forced to put up a special help page to allow iTunes users to despoil their collections.

On one hand, I have trouble sympathizing with those who are upset. Dudes, it’s free music. Take a listen; maybe you’ll like it. If not, turn it off and don’t play it again. The worst case scenario is it costs you 48 minutes you’ll never get back. At the Federal minimum wage, that’s $5.80. Heck, tell you what: send me $5.22 and I’ll listen to Sounds of Innocence for you. That’s a 10% discount!

On the other hand, I also understand why people feel violated. By pushing U2 into everyone’s iTunes libraries, Apple has rather graphically reminded their customers who really controls “their” music. Under the circumstances, the album’s title reaches a level of irony only surpassed by Amazon’s removal of 1984 from their customers’ Kindle libraries*. Forcing the album into customers’ collections so that U2 can advertise “Half a billion served” does seem like a tactic better suited to burgers than music.

* Yes, the particular edition of “1984” was unlicensed and shouldn’t have been available for sale in the first place, but that’s beside the point here–we’re talking about the demonstration of just who controls the customers’ collection.

Apple has long been criticized for running a “walled garden” in which each of their gadgets and programs are designed first and foremost to work best with their other gadgets and programs, but it’s been a highly successful strategy. Their latest moves, assuming everyone wants U2’s album, requiring customers who want an Apple Watch to purchase a recent iPhone, and killing off the last non-iOS iPod, indicate that Apple is now putting a roof on that walled garden to prevent any escapes. “Think Different” is long-dead and there’s clearly no more room at Apple for anyone who wants to march to a different drummer. Casts a whole new light on the famous “1984” Mac ad, doesn’t it?

Thoughts on the Music Industry

Interesting comment on last week’s post about the Internet Archive (thanks!). I thought it was worth talking about in more detail than can be readily accommodated in a comment. Here’s the comment in its entirety so it’s handy for reference:

It's interesting to observe, and think about, what these archive sites- and other music sources like Pandora, Spotify and Youtube- are doing to what used to be called "the music business". It's true that when I want a recent work by some currently interesting artist- Fiona Apple, say, or Anais Mitchell- I will get myself down to one of the few "record stores" still in existence (I favor Amoeba, in Berkeley), but mostly I listen to the stuff I've always listened to, and that stuff I can get anywhere at the click of a device. Take the Dead ("of course"): Grateful Dead Productions continues to put out collections of great tours or specific shows, but, good golly Miss Molly, I can go to an archive site and find countless hours of Dead shows- entire shows, often in several different recordings. I doubt I'll ever buy another CD from what's left of the Dead; why should I? The fact is, the bottom's dropped out of what used to be the music market, and nobody knows what do do, in this brave new world. this is great news for music lovers, but bad news for musicians, trying to make some kind of living with their art. Where's it all going? Stay tuned.

Just to set expectations: IANAPM (I Am Not A Professional Musician). That’s going to give me a somewhat different perspective. It also means I could be totally off-base. I should also note that some of this is paraphrased from my recollections of David Byrne’s “How Music Works”, in which he devotes several chapters to the history of “the music business” and how it’s changing in the current era. A fascinating book; I need to re-read it.

In many ways, the music industry parallels the publishing industry. In a “platonic ideal” relationship, the record label chooses the songwriters and/or musicians that have potential, pays them for the right to publish the music, and then handles production, promotion, and distribution. Similarly, in a “platonic ideal” book publishing relationship, the publisher chooses the authors that have potential, pays them for the right to publish the books, and then handles production, promotion, and distribution. That frees up the artist to concentrate on the creation of the music or book. (A clear example of how little platonic ideals have to do with the real world, but work with me on this.)

Somehow, despite the fact that every study done to date shows that downloads and streaming music sales are trending upward at least as steeply as CD sales are trending downward, the labels’ accounting shows income as dropping off. That being the case, to continue to do what they’ve done in the past, the labels now expect to take a piece of the rest of the income (concert gate, merchandising, etc.) and in some cases they also want a piece of creative control. At the other end of the spectrum, the musician can go it alone, in the same way an author can self-publish, doing all of the promotion, distribution, and bookkeeping: the cost of entry has dropped; you don’t need a thousands of dollars worth or recording studio, CDs can be burned for a few hundred dollars, and MP3s can be distributed for a few cents each. And, of course, there are many ways to divide the responsibilities and sit somewhere in between those extremes.

What it comes down to then is the ability to get noticed – promotion. And in my view, how you think about what you’re doing controls your approach to promotion.

  • If you’re playing music because you love music and want to be a music maker, you don’t need much promotion. Put up a webpage, upload your MP3s and wait for people to stumble over you. Maybe you play some local gigs and put up posters, or maybe you don’t.
  • If you want to sell CDs (or the equivalent), then you need a lot of promotion. You need to get people to find you. In that context, your tours are part of the advertising. Sure, it would be nice if the tour made a profit, but as long as it gets your name out and inclines people to buy your CDs, it doesn’t matter if the tour loses money.
  • If you want to sell an experience – the “live music experience”; the connection between artist and audience – then the CDs are part of the advertising. They’re what draws people to come to the show.

Just to be crystal clear here, I doubt that anyone falls into only one of these categories. But in most cases one will predominate in the mixture, and that will color the approach.

Which brings us (finally) to the archive and streaming sites. I’m going to draw a distinction here. On one hand, you have archives like the IA that focus on live concert recordings. On the other hand, you have streaming sites that focus on single tracks or albums (and I’d include iTunes and the other music stores in this group). And then, on someone else’s hand, you’ve got the pirate sites, which focus on the same things as the streaming sites, but without cash changing hands.

If you’re primarily in the first group, then the sites are largely irrelevant to you. If you play out, you’re probably somewhat in favor of the archive sites because every download from one of them is someone who appreciates what you’re doing. You probably don’t care about the other sites because your music isn’t available from them.

If you’re in the second group, you dislike the streaming sites because they’re selling the same thing you are and you’re probably not getting as big a cut as you would want. You loathe the pirate sites because they’re giving away what you want to sell. And your opinion about the archive sites is going to be somewhere between neutral and dislike. The closer your live shows sound to the CD, the less you’ll appreciate the archive sites. If you make heavy use of pre-recorded “fill-in” tracks to ensure that the concert sounds “just like the record”, you won’t want people downloading the concert because there will be no need to buy the CD. But if your live show is different each night, it’s less of a concern. People can download the show, and it’s all part of the advertising for the “real” version on the CD.

The third group is in favor of all of the online venues. Sure, you would prefer that people buy the CDs or MP3s, but all of the recordings are the advertisements for the “real” version that they’ll get at the concert. (My gut tells me that this category is largely the province of jazz and jam musicians. The more your show varies from night to night and the more you emphasize the feedback between the performers and the audience, the more you’ll fall into this category. Is it any wonder that the Dead outright encouraged people to record their shows and trade the tapes?) That “real” version includes not just the sound, but the sight (and probably the smell) as well.

The key here, IMNSHO, is that any division of labor along that spectrum I mentioned several hundred words ago will work in this universe as long as the label and the artist agree on what it is they’re selling and both get a cut of the revenue from that selling. But in all three cases, there’s a role for the archive sites and the streaming/download sites. The pirates are outside looking in, but then, they’re not only used to that, they glory in it.

Utopian? Probably. Optimistic? Definitely. Totally off base? You tell me.

Apple WWDC

Last week was pretty depressing, especially towards the end of the week. I’m going to try to keep it a bit lighter this week, but the universe being the perverse place that it is, I fully expect a major disaster of some sort that will totally blow my plans to shreds. Until the universe starts slinging tire irons at our metaphorical kneecaps, though, cheerful is the word.

Let’s start with some updates on the wonderful world of Apple as revealed in this morning’s WWDC keynote. I’m getting most of my information from Ars Technica, and I highly recommend them if you want additional details on anything I talk about. Note that I’m not going to talk about iCloud and OS X as I don’t particularly use either, so I’m not in a position to comment on the usefulness of the updates.

Correction: One comment specifically on OS X. Apparently Apple has run out of cats. All of the versions from 10.0 (“Cheetah”) to 10.8 (“Mountain Lion”) were named after big cats, but the 10.9 release is “Mavericks” (for the California surfing spot, not the Dallas basketball team). A shame, really, but it does offer some room for fun and speculation. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that next year’s release (whether it be 10.10 or 11.0) will be named “Emeryville” in view of Apple’s close relationship with Pixar.

Moving right along…

Apple has officially announced their much-rumored streaming music offering. “iTunes Radio” will, according to Ars, be built into the upcoming iOS 7 (more on iOS 7 in a moment) and be available through AppleTV and iTunes for OS X. Not making it available for Windows iTunes users seems to make no business sense. Other venues are reporting that it will be available when Mavericks is released; I suspect Ars misunderstood or misreported. At the moment, this comes off as a “me too” play from Apple – it doesn’t seem to offer customers anything they don’t already have, but if Apple can do a significantly better job with its new music recommendation functionality that the current players have, there’s a potential for major migrations away from Pandora, Spotify, and others.

On the iOS 7 front, the biggest news in terms of number of words spent is actually the least significant in terms of functionality. Everyone is reporting on the new “flattened” UI. This is a change that makes little or no practical difference to customers, but will make work for developers who will now need to implement a new set of UI elements to stay consistent with the overall look and feel. Such good times!

On the brighter side, developers will no longer have to worry about the iPhone 3GS as iOS 7 will only be available for the iPhone 4 and newer. Over on the iPad side, original iPad users were not brought in from the cold – they’ll remain stuck on iOS 5. All other iPad users will be able to upgrade to iOS 7 when it comes out in the fall.

And speaking of updates, the App Store will now automatically update apps instead of nagging users to upgrade. If Apple implements this as the only configuration, it’s a big win for developers, who will no longer need to support multiple versions of their apps at once. If it’s optional behaviour, there’s likely to be little change from the current situation, as users who don’t like to update will just turn off the automatic updates and continue to ignore the nags.

More small changes that seem like they could actually be useful for users: the iCloud keychain will act as a password manager, suggesting secure passwords and sharing them across customer’s Apple phones, tablets, and desktops. This sort of functionality has been available from third-parties for years, but baking it into the OS should increase adoption and make at least a small boost in online security. Photos and movies can be shared from inside the Photos app and can be shared via an ad-hoc wifi connection (no need to tap phones together as on Samsung’s Android phones). Safari now has a scrollable tab interface, as well as what appears to be an integrated RSS reader. That could actually be very handy with the demise of Google Reader.

Ooh, here’s an incredibly useful change: Siri now has an optional male voice! How thrilling! (Seriously, there are useful Siri changes, including integration of Wikipedia and Bing search results, but that was too easy a target to resist…) I’m a little surprised Apple hasn’t started cutting deals for celebrity voices as on GPS units. Granted that the larger vocabulary would be a bit of a barrier, but I’d be willing to bet that a core vocabulary could be defined and implemented, and less common words could be handled with the current synthesized approach.

What else? I’m not seeing a whole let else. I’m sure my former cow-orkers are busy installing the developer beta of iOS 7 as I write this. Hey, gang, chime in and let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed that we should be looking forward to.

Until we hear from that old gang o’ mine, I’ll rate iOS 7 as “nice, but not earth-shaking”.