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The Flipside of iTunes?

Glenn Otis Brown, June 19th, 2003

“[B]ecause of the discrete selling and buying of music, digital single by digital single, that iTunes and its kin will foster, we can expect a decline in music bundling, and thus in risk-taking and its shy companion, innovation.”

A thought-provoking piece by Sahar Akhtar in Salon today. Akhtar predicts that iTunes-like services will lead to a shallow, ear-candy music economy.

Questions for the author, and Creative Commons blog readers:

(1) Isn’t Akhtar really advocating music-snob paternalism? Listen to the songs as I package them for you, because I know better than you how your tastes should run. This attitude might be fine for a DJ spinning a set, but not for an entire market. To a savvy consumer, or an antitrust lawyer, “music bundling” sounds like a euphemism for tying listeners’ hands.

(2) To avert the death of the art-rock album format, couldn’t artists simply begin producing CDs without indexed tracks? If you really want someone to listen to a whole album, let the technology push them that way.

(3) How often do musicians (real ones, not A&R puppets) really consider the format of distribution when writing a hook? When you’ve stumbled upon an edgy arrangement or harmony, are you really going to scrap it because of that pesky new iTunes?

(4) I like b-sides, too. But before Net-based music, the only way to find obscure b-sides and outtakes was to buy a boxed set, or an EP single — which without exception included the hit songs that die-hard fans had already paid for on albums. (I must have bought four copies of the Pixies‘ “This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven” just to hear a few rare b-sides it was bundled with.) Why force cult fans to doubly subsidize hit singles?

(5) “‘B sides’ and the noncommercially oriented tracks that fill out a given album have always been the artistic payoff.” Sure, sometimes, but always? Ever listen to a Police album all the way through? I’m pretty sure the U.S. military used those b-sides for psychological warfare in Iraq.

Your thoughts?

11 Responses to “The Flipside of iTunes?”

  1. Joe Taylor Jr. says:

    (1) Of course there are musicians who will want listeners to experience the work in a specific way. But professional musicians understand that listening to a CD is an entirely subjective experience for the listener. The artist can’t control the sound system, the visuals, the listener’s actions or behavior during the work. If an artist creates a set of songs that MUST be listened to in a specific order, they can certainly request that of their audience. But they have to understand that there are no guarantees. The sign of a solid album is that it’s engaging no matter how the listener decides to enjoy it.

    (2) This format developed specifically because of limitations of a medium — in this case, vinyl. When CDs arrived on the scene, many artists assumed (wrongly) that it was their job to fill all the space on the disc. That’s what’s produced so many “filler” tracks over the years. This new medium can allow artists to create songs and threads of songs that wouldn’t ever be viable until now.

    (3) Musicians are artists first — a song or a hook that inspires or delights them isn’t going to disappear because of market forces. Plenty of successful artists have cultivated side projects to vent their creativity without risking their “brand.” And the majority of artists, for better or for worse, head into the studio with a stronger sense of what they want to accomplish than what their audience might make of it.

    (4) Repackaging benefits songwriters more than anyone else — writers’ royalties are usually the only payment artists ever get from recording.

    (5) There’s usually some reason those are “B” sides to begin with. “B” sides only exist (again) because of the nature of vinyl. I’d rather see artists treat every production like an “A” side.

  2. Wiley Wiggins says:

    As someone already posted, almost half of the current downloads are full albums. I’m sure that Britney Spears fans will only download specific tracks that MTV has told them to like, but I was pretty delighted to find whole albums I was missing by a few artists and snatched them up.

  3. Chris Morris says:

    (1) After borrowing a CD from a friend, sometimes there are only one or two tunes I’d be interested in buying. I like the option of just buying the one or two.

    (2) Some artists now have the opportunity to share with the world one-offs without having to get them piggybacked on an album. Akhtar claims the extra tracks on an album are the result of innovation. I’m sure some album’s extra tracks are garbage, motivated out of need to fill up space.

    (3) No mere format change is going to stop the fierce artist from being innovative.

  4. stuart willis says:

    something like 43% of the downloads of ITMS are whole albums – which is surprising. i’m sure that less than 43% of the albums on there are actually any good as complete albums.

  5. Mart Gordon says:

    Isn’t iTunes a good thing, more choice in how we listen to music, more choice in how we get access to music. A new technology rarely means the death of an old one, TV News has not negated the Newspaper so iTunes offers nothing more than another way to access our music. I personally welcome this.

  6. Lisa Spangenberg says:

    Well, yes, this is snobbery. It’s also not what users are doing with iTunes. According to Apple, you’ll note that the number of albums versus the number of singles has been about half and half, with slight differences on a weekly basis. I suspect that in part those weekly differences are being driven by what the new releases are, but that’s largely just a hypothesis, at this point. It’s too early to tell. The link is just for the first week of the store, but followup on the later press releases and interviews, and it’s much the same.

  7. Brian Flemming says:

    1) Isn’t Akhtar really advocating music-snob paternalism?

    God, yes. I was shaking my head when I read the article, it sounded so much like a joke. Forcing people to buy 10 songs when they only want one is a GOOD thing?

    I have purchased 6 albums and exactly one a la carte song at the iTMS. But I bought the albums because I wanted to, not because I was forced to.

    (2) To avert the death of the art-rock album format, couldn’t artists simply begin producing CDs without indexed tracks?

    Yes. As this post at Blogcritics points out, classical tracks at iTunes are often available only as albums. If someone wants to make a long-form piece of music, in any genre, they can do it. And they can record shorter, more accessible tunes if they want in order to draw people to them (their area on the iTMS, for example). You don’t have to force unwanted tracks on people in order to attract those who might be interested in your more esoteric work. The new delivery methods offer many other ways to do that.

    (3) How often do musicians (real ones, not A&R puppets) really consider the format of distribution when writing a hook? When you’ve stumbled upon an edgy arrangement or harmony, are you really going to scrap it because of that pesky new iTunes?

    Speaking as a filmmaker, if I have an idea for a short film, I make a short film. If I want to make a feature film, I make a feature film.

    (4) Why force cult fans to doubly subsidize hit singles?

    Yeah.

    (5) “‘B sides’ and the noncommercially oriented tracks that fill out a given album have always been the artistic payoff.” Sure, sometimes, but always? Ever listen to a Police album all the way through? I’m pretty sure the U.S. military used those b-sides for psychological warfare in Iraq.

    It’s almost as if Akhtar is telling us we’re too stupid or lazy in our habits or incurious to truly judge for ourselves what music we want to hear. She seems to imagine that if we can buy hit singles singly, that’s all we’ll ever buy. So she laments the loss of this coercive method of forcing us to own music, which we will then discover we love.

    Play live. I’ll hear that other stuff. Put your music online. I’ll check it out. There are lots of other ways to expose me to your music than smuggling it into my CD player.

  8. Erik Ostrom says:

    (2) He’s not talking about art-rock epics, about the value of hearing a work all the way through as a whole.

    I haven’t released an album–in fact, I’m giving away my recordings track by track, like Akhtar’s worst nightmare–but here’s what I know from performing. Some of my favorite songs are quiet and subtle, or make their point through insistent repetition. Others are catchy pop songs. I have to use the hooky stuff to get people’s attention, so that once I have their attention, I can introduce them to the subtler charms of the other stuff. If I start with the esoteric stuff, people never tune in.

    (3) I don’t think about this stuff when I’m writing the songs, but I do when I’m deciding what to record, what to perform in what order, and I’ll think about it when I’m making the CD. And you can bet that if I were working with a label, rather than financing everything with my software engineering salary, other people would be thinking about it a lot more than I would.

    This doesn’t mean I think the mix-and-match world of iTunes is bad–I’m all in favor of consumer freedom, and I agree with Lisa Spangenberg’s point that it’ll make it easier for musicians to create works of unusual size. (I’m more interested in releasing TWO tracks than FIFTY, but it works either way.)

    But I think Akhtar’s point is that the method of distribution will have an effect, and some of it won’t be good.

    (FWIW, I think the 30-second clip is worse for innovation than the unbundling of music–many unusual songs’ best qualities aren’t conveyed by thirty seconds, let alone thirty seconds picked out by someone working at a music encoding shop.)

  9. Lisa Spangenberg says:

    It occurs to me that rather than “destroying” the “concept album,” or the idea of a playlist/album as a physical infrastructure for musicians, iTunes frees musicians. They are no longer restricted to a 74 minute piece; they may, if they wish, have fifty or a hundred or however many tracks they wish, if they can convince digital consumers to buy them, which has of course, always been the case with music.

  10. Jeff says:

    I’ve read that Jobs failed to pay license fees for the songs held on the orignial ipods that he handed out to the press.

    !

  11. bechir hmidi says:

    je mai scus spl seulemant je cherche une travalle

    mercie

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