How Apple Seals the Audio Deal

At the Mac maker's music-service rollout, Storage Supersite Editor David Morgenstern talked with vocal star Seal about the rise of remote storage in the audio industry and detected some life left in CDs.

Common wisdom (at least on the Sun Microsystems campus) would have us believe that the computer is the network: that most applications will live in distant servers and likewise all our data storage. This weeks introduction of Apple Computers iTunes Music Store lends credence to that technological proposition, at least for the audio market. However, human nature may render obituaries for traditional formats a bit premature.

At the Apple rollout, I was hustled by a cadre of well-intentioned public relations reps to talk with Seal, one of the recording artists on hand to show support for Apples new plan. In the background buzz, I heard someone whisper "Rolling Stone"; they had apparently confused me with Steve Morgenstern, that venerable publications technology writer (and no relation). All my attempts to dissuade them of this mistaken identity proved fruitless; yes, they insisted, even the Storage Supersite Morgenstern would benefit from hearing from Mr. Seal. And they were correct.

Grammy-winner Seal—I understand Seal is his actual given name—proved to be a knowledgeable and thoughtful spokesman for the new service who offered some interesting observations on storage media.

"With this new technology theres no need for physical inventory," Seal said, a benefit to the artist and the customer (fan). "The whole concept of the CD, or any other [media] format, is forgotten."

Thats true. While an album or single piece of music is only a click away (especially with the all-important one-click order button), its removed from a particular media format and its packaging. You can play it on a computer or a portable player or from a burned disc.

At the same time, Seal admitted that his fans wanted more from the download experience. He said some of the most common question from customers concerned the missing cover art and liner notes that they had with CDs.

I remember similar complaints from consumers during the introduction of the CD-Audio disc. The packaging for the smaller media had less room for words than the previous vinyl record format. After all, a long-play platter could hold a lot of notes, and there was plenty of room inside for four to eight pages of lyrics. There were folks who made a good living writing essays and reviews to fill those spaces.

Of course, an Internet service will be able to provide this information and even more. Apples service offers exclusive cuts and videos. Artists can even get closer to their fans through chat sessions.

Still, this transition to a virtual music library may not be the smooth ride everyone expects. Theres obviously more to the concern expressed by consumers over missing physical media than missing cover art and liner notes.

First, theres materialism: The physical media itself is comforting to many people. This is more than a crass emotion. Some folks understand something only when they see it and feel it—a digital file on an iPod or on their computer doesnt provide the same satisfaction, even though the experience of music is auditory.

Moreover, many people are better able to find things from visual and physical memory. Besides the fact that they liked it, they may not remember much about a musical work—even important things such as the artist or title. But they will remember that the cover was blue and gold, or where it can be found on the shelf.

I witnessed this behavior while working in a library years ago. There were many people that knew the location of a particular book only as a set of directions in the stacks—the human version of Yahoos driving directions. However, when the library moved all the books around following a major earthquake, most of these patrons were forced to search by subject in the online catalog, to their great distress and dissatisfaction.

Similarly, with a digital music collection on the iPod or computer, out of sight, out of mind. To find the piece, you have to think of the piece and then search for it. A single piece of music on a unlabeled CD disc is at similar risk of being overlooked.

Perhaps this is the reason Apple was so insistent on including cover art as part of its service: to afford customers a visual discovery of music.

And it could mean a longer life for CD- and DVD-Audio as distribution media. No worries: Youll still be able to buy an album when picking up a quart of milk at the grocery store.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.