When Apple began not only encouraging people to Rip. Mix. Burn their favorite CD tracks, but also selling them the tools that made it all easy, the different-thinking computer company seriously ticked off the record business.
You could imagine an Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man sitting somewhere clucking that Steve Jobs and Co. would be singing a different tune if Apple owned the copyrights on the tracks in question.
Apple may yet have the chance to put its money where its mouth is—last week, the LA Times reported that Apple is in talks with Vivendi Universal to buy Universal Music Group, the worlds largest record company, for as much as $6 billion.
Apple is set to launch a music download service later this month, an effort that most of the major record labels are said to be backing. However, judging from the record industrys attitude toward online music distribution so far, I cant imagine that itd permit this service to break any new ground.
For instance, Sony, which possesses the technical know-how to deliver a music service that could really take advantage of the enormous music distribution potential of the Internet, is currently frozen by the conflicting demands of its consumer electronics and content production divisions.
Like the rest of the recording industry, Sonys holding out for bulletproof digital rights management technologies. Assuming these sorts of unbreakable content controls could ever be developed, which they couldnt, theyd prove so restrictive of fair use rights, like transferring songs from to device or sharing tracks between users, that the public would never buy into them. If Apple controlled its own large catalog of recordings—and Universals stable of artists is an enormous one—theyd enjoy enough flexibility to try what no one else has: offering to sell people what they want, how they want it.
Its clear what people want. They want to download single MP3s and, once theyve downloaded them, they want to be free to do with them whatever they want. Whats less clear is whether recording companies can make money this way. I believe that they can.
The evils of unauthorized copying, the sort thatd undoubtedly increase if consumers could buy no-strings-attached digital singles direct from record companies, have been greatly exaggerated.
Downloaded music serves in a very real way as advertisement for recording artists. One of the most interesting facts pointed out in a paper on file sharing by National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences board member John Snyder is that the album “The Eminem Show,” which is believed to be the most downloaded album of all time, was also the best-selling album of 2002.
No matter what the RIAA would have you believe, unauthorized downloading of music has always been a major hassle, and thats the case now more than ever. Recording companies have been very successful at polluting P2P networks with misnamed or incomplete tracks, and even when you can find good tracks over the Internet, their quality cant be compared to what you get from a CD or DVD.
Whats more, its going to be a long time—maybe never—before the Internet can beat something like a post office-delivered DVD for speed in transferring data. Honestly, the recording industry has much more to worry about from CD counterfeiting than it does from unauthorized downloading.
Im holding out hope, then, that Apple realizes all of this, pulls the trigger on the Universal Music purchase, and brings music distribution into the Internet age by injecting some much-needed liberalism into the mix.
And, as an added bonus, we could expect from Apple a parallel level of liberalism regarding computer platform choice as well. By necessity, Apple would have to support at least Mac and Windows, and support for other platforms, such as Linux, could then follow.
Of course, theres no guarantee that any of this will happen—the sale might not go through, and Apple might start thinking different about rip, mix and burn once its owns the music.
However, if Apple does take this shot, and if it sets prices to reflect its reduced distribution costs, people will pay for it. If the largest player is doing it, and its working, the rest of the business will fall in line—to everyones benefit.
Apple Music: “Let It Be,” or “Get Back”? Drop me a line at [email protected].