Musical snares

Is Apple's iTunes service nirvana for music fans -- or just the start of a file-format nightmare that will drive us all nuts?

Published October 28, 2003 8:15PM (EST)

I downloaded my first MP3 file in February 1998. The process was convoluted to the point of absurdity. I used one program to rip a song from a CD I owned, another program to convert that into a compressed MP3 file, and a third program to upload it to an FTP site that required visitors to donate their own MP3s first before any downloading would be permitted. To complicate matters further, just finding that FTP site required lurking in seedy chat rooms where file traders exchanged passwords to sites that might be open only for a few hours in the dead of night.

And yet, there was something so obvious and right about playing music on my computer, on simply desiring a particular track and then going and getting it, that I knew that something fundamental had changed about my relationship to recorded music. When my Rage Against the Machine track blasted out of my computer speakers, I was transfixed by a vision of music-consuming utopia: Some day, everything ever recorded would be one or two clicks away. Every bootleg, every B side, every studio outtake. This is what the Internet was good at: connecting me with the objects of my desire. I want; therefore I get to have.

Questions of cost were not meaningful to me. I am no fan of record companies or overpriced CDs, but I am also not one who believes that all intellectual property should be free. I was, and am, plenty willing to pay a fee for a desired service. Indeed, when Napster ushered in the era of instant music gratification in 1999, I always felt a little uneasy with the justifications that file traders made for the morality of their copyright violations. To me, the success of Napster and then Kazaa demonstrated that there was a gaping market opportunity, and the longer the record companies took to get their act together, the longer they would stoke the flames of piracy.

So while waiting for an online music service that was right for me, I contented myself with ripping my own CDs to my hard drive and burning compilation mixes for my own amusement and as gifts for friends. And then came iTunes.

Like millions of other Windows users, I was excited when iTunes was finally made available to the non-Macintosh world two weeks ago. At the original debut of iTunes' online music store, it seemed clear that this was best legally sanctified option so far -- and not just because I lusted after an iPod. Steve Jobs and Apple ("Rip. Mix. Burn.") understood that instead of resisting music consumers, it was time to aid and abet them. I downloaded the software within hours of its being made available and bought my first songs within minutes of installation.

The quality of my life has improved. But iTunes for Windows is not perfect, and my music consumer utopia is still an unrealized dream. Despite its vaunted half a million songs, I want plenty of albums and acts that are not yet available. I am greedy. I want everything. Let me buy it now. I'm also not crazy about the iTunes library organizing software. But what alarms me the most is the flip side of Apple's success -- a looming battle over file formats that, at least in the short term, is going to force consumers to make hard choices.

Because iTunes won't play my Windows Media music files. And the Windows Media Player won't play songs purchased from the iTunes store.

That's not the future I want to pay for. In the 21st century era of late capitalism, the consumer is supposed to be king -- my every desire is supposed to be reflected by marketplace offerings. Instead, the market is ordering me to get Steve Jobs' smirking grin tattooed on my butt, and while that may be an improvement on being branded with a Microsoft iron, I'd still rather keep my skin as it started, unblemished.

Right now, there are several options for compressing music files into sizes where it becomes feasible to download them online. Tunes purchased from the iTunes Music Store come in the AAC format. Tunes bought from most other commercial services have aligned themselves with Microsoft's WMA format. Then there's the original MP3 standard, which is aligned with no single company, and there's even a free software alternative called Ogg Vorbis.

This is not the place to engage in a detailed discussion of the relative merits of the different formats. Suffice it to say that about a year ago I committed an egregious error. When I finally purchased my first computer with a CD burner, I was so excited about being able to make my own CD mixes that I unthinkingly went ahead and used the Windows Media Player to rip all my favorite CDs to my hard drive. The Windows Media Player allows users to encode their songs only in the WMA format, which (like iTunes' AAC format) comes with various digital rights management capabilities built in.

Now I have all this music that iTunes won't play, and a bunch of songs purchased from iTunes that the Media Player won't play. So, at the moment, I am prevented from burning a CD that has songs from both libraries. There are converters available that will transform WMA files into AACs and eventually there will no doubt be converters that perform the reverse service, but the process is a hassle that may end up downgrading the overall sound quality. I would have been far better off if I had ripped all my CDs to MP3s to begin with, because iTunes and the iPod will play MP3s. (And even, better, the iTunes software will allow me to rip my CDs into MP3s.)

I should have known better, because now I'm sitting exactly where Microsoft wants me, facing a significant "switching cost" if I want to adopt iTunes as my music-management software of choice. It takes time to rip CDs -- and I have a lot of 'em.

Sometime soon, I will start the laborious process of re-ripping all my CDs into MP3 files so they will play nice with iTunes. But the more I think about it, the more antsy I get about my decision to back the iTunes camp. What if, after I spend thousands of dollars on iTunes, Rhapsody or or the new Napster rolls out a new version of a service that offers access to 5 million songs instead of just five hundred thousand? What if some new programming genius comes up with a compression format that uses even fewer bits but delivers better sound? Then won't I have achieved little more than exchanging one digital music tyrant for another?

I am confident that the marketplace is going to steadily deliver a progression of options that benefit me in some way: a wider selection of songs, lower prices, easier-to-use software. But I'm not confident that I won't be endlessly posed with a series of ever more onerous switching costs. Perhaps, once hard drives and bandwidth get big enough, we'll be able to do away with compression formats altogether, but companies like Microsoft and Apple are still going to strive to lock users in to their software/hardware platforms as long as they can. And that is decidedly not an example of the marketplace serving my consumer desires.

Then again, the music industry had its hands forced once, when widespread piracy made it clear that the studios faced the prospect of losing their customers entirely if they didn't offer customers a way to get what they wanted. The whole dynamic could easily repeat itself, should consumers ever get too frustrated with the available offerings.

I have a friend who has about 30,000 songs on a hard drive. There's nothing to stop me from hooking his computer to mine with a USB cable and slurping all that music at once. Sure it's illegal, and I'm not going to do it, but the RIAA would never know if I did, unless I did something stupid and put that server online for everybody on the Net to grab.

All over the world, even as Hollywood tries to push copy-protection legislation and sue individual file traders, music lovers are accumulating larger and larger collections of songs on their hard drives. Eventually, we'll be able to go to our local flea market, and the guy who right now is selling freshly burned copies of Eminem is going to be selling us DVDs with 4.8 gigabytes of music, also for a few bucks. Even worse, the swap meets will soon be featuring swappable drives that will contain everything the Beatles ever recorded, or all the pop music from the '60s, or the entire Warner Bros. catalog. Cheap.

I don't know how the record companies are going to stop it. I do know that if one day I'm staring at hundreds of gigabytes of music files on my own computer that I paid for that aren't playable on the newest piece of hardware or best available piece of music software, I'm going to be sorely tempted to head down to the flea market. And even if I refrain, that doesn't mean everybody else will.

Wouldn't it just be better to give me what I want, right now? Please don't make the consumer angry! Or he'll bite.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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