Turn On, iTunes In, Shop Out

iTunes Music StoreYou’d think, from all the hype, that Apple’s foray into the online music business is some kind of spiritual epiphany, so potent is the Apple publicity machine. This new service, which debuted yesterday as a part of iTunes 4, breaks ground in that it has, for the first time, united all five major label record companies behind a single effort to sell and distribute music digitally in a kind of legally blessed Napster. As is to be expected from most Apple endeavors, the service is singularly elegant and overeagerly hyped.

Apple calls the service the iTunes Music Store, and it’s a bit like having the Amazon.com music section integrated right into iTunes. Click on a small icon in the left-most pane of the application and the right area becomes a browser window (using, presumably, Safari technology) that will be comfortably familiar to anyone who’s shopped online before. Here’s a brief overview of what the buying experience offers:

  • Preview 30 seconds of any song at 128 kbps
  • Make purchases using a one-click feature based on stored credit card information
  • Buy any song for 99¢
  • Buy entire albums for approximately US$10
  • Download songs in the new, digitally secure AAC format
  • Listen to those songs on up to three Macs that you authorize
  • Burn as many copies of each purchased song as you like
  • Burn up to ten copies of an entire album (it’s possible to burn more, but as part of an anti-piracy effort, the playlist must be changed after ten burns)
  • Copy songs to your iPod

The Music

Aside from the victory in business diplomacy that Apple can claim in uniting the big five labels, the iTunes Music Store’s content is a major disappointment. Where Apple once implored us to “Think Different” it now apparently wants us to listen to and buy the same music as everyone else. Who cares if the biggest music labels are represented here if all they’re bringing to the table is the same old shit?

If you’re a serious fan of any kind of music that might be remotely considered unorthodox, then this selection will hardly raise a pulse. In fact, I had the same bored feeling that I get when browsing the limited selection found at any Sam Goody, and this in spite of the fact that Apple boasts a catalogue of 200,000 available songs. I can only hope that Apple has the will to seek out more interesting music labels and the sense not to impose partnership terms that will make it impractical for those labels to participate.

iTunes 4

The Application

Above, the iTunes Music Store integrated into iTunes 4.

Turning away from content to interaction and technology, iTunes 4 is an unqualified success in the way it hybridizes a Web application and a desktop application. In this regard, I can’t think of another program that can even approach it.

With a broadband connection, shifting from your local music collection to the iTunes Music Store is painless and seamless. Songs are downloaded directly into your local music collection, eliminating the awkward, manual process of adding songs downloaded from KaZaA into the iTunes library. This is the most unobtrusive bridging of desktop and Internet that I have seen yet.

What’s more, Apple has finally delivered on the long-promised Rendezvous music sharing feature (which had been approximated in the mean time by programs like MP3 Sushi). A few simple, intuitive settings made to the iTunes preferences and you can quickly, easily browse other iTunes collections on your local network. When we tried it here at the office, it took me less than a minute to start listening to my co-worker’s music.

The Industry

Will any of this make a difference to the moribund music industry? I can’t be sure, but the odds are good, I think. As a small but significant representation of music and technology consumers, Apple’s constituency is an ideal test audience. Apple also has the brand name that other online music endeavors like Pressplay and eMusic lack. And, perhaps most of all, the iTunes Music Store has the benefit of Apple’s disproportionately effective publicity machine.