Two years ago this coming Thursday, the online music business stopped being a joke. When Apple Computer Inc. opened its iTunes Music Store for business on April 28, 2003, people finally had a song-downloads destination that didn't treat them like crooks but did provide a fair value for the money.
Since then, Apple has reaped its deserved rewards, selling more than 350 million songs and grabbing almost three-quarters of the market for music-download sales. Every other successful online music store has adopted Apple's template, mostly selling songs for 99 cents each and albums for about $10 a pop with moderate usage restrictions intended to prevent these purchases from being redistributed to the rest of the Internet.
I've spent a fair amount of change at the iTunes store myself since doing my initial review. There are still albums that I prefer to buy in CD form, but overall, collecting songs onto my hard drive has become a natural part of my shopping experience.
And yet millions of people still get their music online from a file-sharing service or site -- and in the process, put up with an often dubious selection, spyware-ridden software and the unpleasant reality that the artists who made that music won't make a cent off each such download. After two years of progress, what's still missing with the legit online stores?
A full selection of artists: No matter what legit store you shop at, you won't find any albums by the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, among others. Just what are these bands -- or their lawyers -- waiting for? News flash: The Internet is not going away, any more than the CD was 20 years ago.
Competition on price: A buck a song (88 cents a song in Wal-Mart's case) is a fair price, and I'm certainly not in favor of that going any higher. But what if a label or an artist wants to sell a song for less than that? Why can't an independent record label, with far lower marketing and production costs than a major label, choose to sell its songs for, say, 50 cents each? What about offering cut-rate prices on back-catalogue material to goose its sales? Aside from temporary promotions, such as free-song giveaways, that has yet to happen.
A way to transfer purchases to other people: Right now, transferring an individual song from the buyer to somebody else -- which is completely your right with a CD -- is not possible unless you go through the workaround of burning the song to an audio CD, then copying the song back to your computer in some other, unrestricted format. All you can do is transfer an entire collection by giving the lucky recipient your account log-in and password.
A choice of software and hardware: Apple is the worst offender here: Without the use of unlicensed hacks (or that burn-to-CD-then-re-rip workaround), a song file downloaded off the iTunes store can be played only on hardware or software from Apple. Period. If you want to take that file with you, you'll need to listen to it on an iPod. If you want to send it wirelessly from computer to stereo, you must use Apple's AirPort Express WiFi adapter.
This would be one thing if Apple had gone into the business of producing music playback hardware full-tilt. But it hasn't. There's no Apple-branded car stereo or home-theater receiver. If Apple doesn't want to do all that work, then it needs to let other people do the job by licensing its store's format. The more devices you can play an iTunes download on, the more valuable that download becomes. What's so hard to grasp here? (Apple did not reply to questions sent midweek.)
The hackers of the world may force this point. Recently, a group of developers has been working on software that lets Linux users buy songs off the iTunes site, since no Linux version of iTunes is available. This program, pyMusique, reportedly works -- but the workaround it employs winds up not placing the usual copying restrictions on song downloads.
In response, Apple has kept tweaking its iTunes store to lock out unauthorized software, to the point where customers now must upgrade to the very latest version of iTunes to keep shopping. All to stop people who are trying to give Apple their money. Apple may win this fight, but there will always be other hacking attempts. It can only win if it makes them unnecessary, by allowing people to play iTunes downloads on as many different devices as possible instead of a handpicked set.
Microsoft Corp. understands this situation a little better: It widely licenses its Windows Media Audio format, resulting in a far broader selection of playback software and hardware -- even if no Windows Media-compatible music player is quite as elegant as the iPod.
Non-copy-controlled downloads: This will sound like heresy to folks at the major music labels, who have insisted that stores selling downloadable copies of their works take measures to control buyers' use of these songs. But is that really necessary?
One answer comes from stores stocking music by independent and minor record labels. The minor-label outlet eMusic.com, the world-music store Calabash Music, alt-rock retailer DownloadPunk.com and the Smithsonian Institution's upcoming Folkways Global Sound all sell or will sell songs as MP3 files with no copying restrictions. If the smaller labels supplying these stores -- all of which lack the majors' entrenched distribution channels, vast marketing budgets and ready access to radio and TV -- can survive this way, why not the major labels too?
It's risky to ask that the terms of sale in the online music business be reopened to discussion -- before the debut of iTunes, we had stores that were designed to suit major labels' wish lists, and the results were horrible. It's still a good idea to have retailers such as Apple, Microsoft and Napster LLC enforce a ceiling on prices and usage restrictions, so that we're not yanked back to the bad old days of such customer-hostile stores as Pressplay and MusicNet. But customers don't need any online retailers imposing restrictions that stop labels from offering buyers a better deal.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.