Letters

iTunes will save the music industry, not destroy it. Readers respond to Sahar Akhtar's "iTunes -- The 'i' Doesn't Stand for Innovation."


Salon Staff
June 20, 2003 11:30PM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

Sahar Akhtar's scare article about iTunes assumes that people don't want B sides, that artists have to force them on reluctant listeners by packaging them with a radio hit. I don't think that's true. The people I know -- even the ones who aren't rabid music lovers -- go out of their way to collect B sides, imports, compilation tracks, etc., for the bands they love.

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If anything, I think iTunes is more likely to hurt the bands who don't innovate or have B sides, the ones who are nothing but one mass-marketed song with a three-chord guitar hook. Who honestly cares about the other tracks on a Britney Spears album? Once you've bought the one from MTV, you've seen everything she can offer.

-- Michael Whitney

Hasn't Sahar Akhtar ever heard of singles? His theory supposes that access to the most popular songs from a complete album will kill the sales of the album. When the record industry stopped making singles, eliminating vinyl 45s and cassette singles, record sales started falling. While the brain-dead programming of conglomerate-owned radio stations is partly to blame, albums sales fell because there were no singles to boost the album.

Single tracks are great for the kids with limited money and a pitch for scrounging up the $15 dollars needed for the entire album. It worked through the '50s, '60s, '70s, and a portion of the '80s. Downloads will rejuvenate the single, and I'll bet that once the Apple model of downloads is initiated for Windows, sales of all formats of music will take a dramatic swing upward. One could even imagine a situation where a band doesn't "hear" a single from their album and simply provides a download of the album and not single songs. It aggravates me that he has conjured up a paper-thin complaint about downloads, the downloads that I think will save the industry and the art of music.

-- Lou Lala

Has Sahar Akhtar been buying music much lately? A great deal of what is out there in the CD world is a good song or two combined with mediocre filler to create a $16 disc. It should be no surprise that consumers are eager to buy just the songs they want for $1.

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I've had the same experience that Akhtar describes of buying a CD for one song and discovering a lot of interesting things on the other tracks. But far more often I've had the opposite experience -- buying a CD for one song, and discovering that the rest of it was worthless.

We haven't lost a format for innovation because of iTunes -- we lost it long ago because of the music industry, and now there's an alternative to subsidizing it through purchases of CDs. I expect that many iTunes users -- like me -- still buy entire albums from iTunes, or even on CD, because they are artists we know aren't going to give us 50 minutes of junk and 10 minutes of music we want to hear. If anything, iTunes is going to raise our expectations of CDs.

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-- John Whiteside

Oh, boo hoo. Why, how dare Apple give consumers what they've complained for years about not having -- the ability to buy songs individually instead of being stuck shelling out for an entire album for the sake of only one or two songs they like. Why, this might possibly cause people to stop looking to illicit file-sharing networks and start compensating artists for the music they download -- and we can't have that, can we? After all, how can you trust a consumer to know what he wants? They're mindless sheep, and the sheer creativity of these artists is wasted on them.

And why should we care that the songs people like enough to buy individually might not even be the same songs that are heard on the radio? If popular but ultimately shallow radio-play tunes could subsidize the rest of the album in the pre-Internet age, then the non-played songs should have to subsidize the ones people hear over and over again until they're utterly sick of them, now that the Internet is here.

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And what does it matter that the Apple Music Store does allow artists to specify that given songs cannot be purchased individually? (For example, "American Pie" is the only one of Don McLean's Apple Music Store songs that can be purchased only as part of an album.) Why should we give artists a choice in how their music is released, either? It's not like the record companies give them much say in anything else, is it?

-- Chris Meadows

Sahar Akhtar's article on the iTunes Music Store wasn't worth the bandwidth that transmitted it to my screen.

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Leaving aside a completely rote and fatuous generalization about Lennon and McCartney -- I can't bring myself to quote it and I won't dignify it by refuting it -- the article proceeds on a variety of false assumptions, the biggest being that any and all artists are capable of creating an album of songs that are worth listening to, and that we as listeners are therefore obligated to support their efforts to do so.

Sahar should talk to some P2P file traders some time. Many of them would only be too happy to pay for the music they consume. They refuse, however, to subsidize a music industry that has no compunction about offering one or two decent tracks on a 14-track CD.

Great artists, from the Beatles and Dylan in the '60s to Eminem and the Flaming Lips (and maybe Tool) today, will almost always put out albums that are worth listening to in their entirety. The majority of any era's artists, however, simply do not have the chops to create a clutch of good -- or even interesting -- songs. If online services like the iTunes Music Store expose this essentially dishonest system for what it is, that can only be a good thing.

Artists who challenge their listeners, and whose listeners in turn expect and demand to be challenged, have nothing to fear from the iTunes Music Store. It's the hacks and the second-raters who should be afraid; they're going to have to either raise their game or start calling on the artists, writers and producers who can help them produce good material. In either case, the days of the two-song/10-filler-track album are numbered. And about time, too.

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-- Dan Wiencek

In response to Sahar Akhtar's piece on a return to singles-oriented releases, I must say that the opposite is equally true. How many times have you purchased an album based on a catchy single only to find that the rest of the album is filler? All too often that has been my experience -- to the point that I rarely buy albums anymore. But I do download individual tunes.

My guess is that the singles delivery model will be the method of choice via the Internet. Teeny-boppers and tweens have been and will always be singles buyers. As a 12-year-old in the '70s I was buying the Police, Queen, Pink Floyd, etc., on 45s. It wasn't until later (when I had more disposable income and could make it to the store without Mom) that I discovered their albums.

Also, while I largely agree that Lennon was the "experimental" Beatle, he too had stock styles that he fell back on (blues, '50s rock, for example), and this all too common generalization denies the fact that McCartney was responsible for screamers like "Helter Skelter" and "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" Finally, commercially friendly, yes. Innocuous, please! Some of those love songs are sublime classics. Writing about love doesn't make you sappy. Just ask John Lennon.

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-- Brian Harris

In the article "iTunes -- The 'i' Doesn't Stand for Innovation," Sahar Akhtar lambastes the era of the 45, and essentially the reign of singles, as brain-dead and superficial, while praising the genius of Tool and the Doors.

This is errant, as it ignores the songs and careers of numerous artists who have seriously raised the creative stakes in pop music. A wide swath of performers -- including Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, just about everyone on Motown until "What's Going On," the Sex Pistols, U2, the Smiths, the Minutemen, Mudhoney, Nirvana, and the Manic Street Preachers -- got their foot in the door with singles, if not 45s, then a comparable format such as the 12-inch record. Protean hip-hop, acid house, and even America's homegrown indie scene from Black Flag on have flourished in the singles mentality.

And then there's the questions posed by Akhtar's high rating of B sides. Can anyone besides Greil Marcus instantly recall the B side to Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart"? Is the dub of "Blue Monday" (the all-time sales champion of the 12-inch single) by New Order somehow more innovative and a better song than the original mix that inspired it?

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Chances are, even if iTunes is wildly successful, it will be difficult to do away with the album format. The format, which was invented by Frank Sinatra in 1954 with "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," and perfected by the Beatles 13 years later on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (masterminded, by all accounts, by the supposedly artless Paul McCartney, while John Lennon sat at home in English suburbia), has too many advantages to be tossed aside. If I hear a great song, like Moby's "Porcelain" or Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," I'm going to want to chase down as much music in that vein as I can. If anything, iTunes and its ilk will help free up shelf space in good ol'-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores. No one needs an hour-plus of Britney Spears, or Eminem repeatedly ranting against any female in his life over the age of 10.

Besides, the three-minute mark enforces great quality. Brian Wilson, to get airplay, had to cut "Good Vibrations" down to a much more digestible length. The result? He gets his tune on the radio, and we get all his good ideas while being spared all the navel-gazing wankery and filler. Yes, it was a challenge for him, and it will be for any songwriter/arranger used to indulging every whim for however long, but it paid off for Wilson, and it can only help anyone up to the challenge.

-- J. Dawson

Sahar Akhtar just barely missed the insight needed to see that a music business based on selling individual tracks will increase, not decrease, innovation. That crucial insight is that with such a business model, the "high one-time, or fixed, cost" of producing an album goes away. Indeed, the barrier of entry for new artists goes away as well, which means that consumers will no longer be subject to the whims of record companies who are governed by commercial, not artistic, interests.

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If Apple will allow independent musicians to add their tracks to the iTunes Music Store, we will have innovation in music that hasn't been seen in the history of music. (Admittedly, it would be difficult for Apple to do so, given the licensing and payment issues that must be dealt with for each music licensor. It should be easy to set up a simple management company to simplify such things for both Apple and the musicians; Apple could even create a subsidiary for the purpose.)

A business model based on single tracks means that it will be harder to be a big winner. A Britney or Nirvana won't be able to sell millions of albums at $18, instead selling millions of single tracks at $1. There will, however, be a lot more winners. A band that really only has one or two good songs could actually sell those songs, rather than never having the opportunity to get the songs to market at all. Innovative musicians could get songs to market, rather than being rejected by music companies because they don't fit a genre.

Unless something truly unexpected comes up, a track-based (rather than album-based) model is the future of the music business. The consequences are a better variety of music, a lower cost for the music, and more opportunities for musicians. Poor Sahar Akhtar just doesn't get it.

-- Greg Seidman

Hm. Sahar Akhtar wonders: will single-song sales à la iTunes kill the album and thus innovation? I rather think not, because the CD/cassette single format is more or less dead in the U.S., where consumers have evidently made the choice heavily in favor of whole albums. In the U.K., the single is still alive and well but doesn't appear to have stifled their music business.

The author mentions Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan as two artists who, in the past, released innovative B sides that diverged from their albums' styles; what he doesn't mention is that both of them stopped selling as many singles to the fans when they started padding B sides with crappy remixes and throw-away noodlings. Laziness isn't rewarded in the current music market, innovation is.

Fans want the odd stuff, the interesting stuff, as well as the radio hits, which is why fans buy albums. Savvy music consumers will do one of two things with an album that contains only one song they like: avoid buying the album and try to find either a single (if one exists) or a free download, or buy the album used, which sends no money back to the artist and record company. I don't see adding the option "buy it from iTunes" as changing much in terms of consumption patterns.

If anything, un-bundling may reduce the number of artists out there who can make a whole album out of the same sound-alike song, or who can coast on three radio-friendly hits backed up by seven tracks of pure crap. Musicians who put real artistry into every track will still do just fine.

-- S. Addison

Sahar Akhtar's condemnation of a return to a singles-era zeitgeist for pop and rock music relies on a lot of statistics and even tries to use the Who to make his point. He fails.

Consider the songs "Can't Explain," "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," "My Generation," "Substitute," "The Kids Are Alright," "The Seeker," "Magic Bus," and "I Can See for Miles." These were all written and recorded by the Who during that "brain-dead era of the 45" to quote Akhtar. Hardly brain-dead -- many would say it was the Who's best work.

I'm looking forward to the change in the music scene. The large storage capacity of CDs requires bands to write and record 15 to 17 songs for each release. Most bands just don't have that much to say every year. We end up with an $18 CD with lots of filler. And that's one big reason the music biz is suffering.

I think it will be healthy for bands to look at writing and recording say, three songs every six months or so. And if people like the band, they'll download songs beyond the big radio hit. Akhtar needs to chill -- this could be just what rock 'n' roll needs.

-- Jeff Keezel


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