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Just A Thought
by Vern Seward

iTMS: Are Those Sour Notes I Hear?
July 4th, 2003

Music, technology, and I go way, way back. I won't tell you how far back exactly but I will say that I can remember when you bought a radio depending on the number of transistors it sported and one that received FM was considered a luxury.

Back then I tried to imitate Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, and Al Green. Over the years my taste for music expanded to include Blood, Sweat, And Tears, Queen, Alan Parson's Project, Grand Funk Railroad, and Parliament/ Funkadelics. I actually listened to Disco, rocked to Carlos Santana on his first outing in the hit parade, and found jazz through Herbie Hancock and Bobbie Humphrey.

The thing about all of the music I listened to and the 500+ albums and CDs I've collected over the years, is that while the majority of the albums I bought were because of the hits, I found that there was something else on the album that I liked better than the hits. In fact, it was because of the less popular but, to me at least, far more interesting cuts on an album that prompted me to buy more from that group or artist.

Blood, Sweat, and Tears (BS&T), for instance, was very popular for its hit Spinning Wheel. That track appeared on several albums, but few people have even heard of their New Blood album which featured an amazingly eclectic blend of jazz, folk, and rock tunes. It has become my absolute favorite BS&T album, and the cuts The Snow Queen and So Long Dixie are my favorites, though any cut on the album is great music. I would likely have not bothered with the New Blood album had I not heard similar but not popular cuts on other albums by BS&T.

A recent article in posed an interesting question that made me sit back and think about my music collection and the way buying music is changing with services like the one Apple has championed with the iTunes Music Store.

In the article titled iTunes-- The "i" doesn't stand for innovation, author Sahar Aktar suggests that Apple's iTMS may actually be bad for music. Aktar believes that people will buy only the hits from music download services like iTMS, and so will miss out on the album cuts the artists reserve for exploring facets other than what is popular and money makers. Aktar says:

"Instead of tunes that were able to dodge the traditional commercially oriented gatekeepers by being attached to other tunes that did follow the rules of the game, each individual iTunes will be subject to the pressures of mass appeal. Consumers will likely purchase songs they know from radio, and thus become subject to the whims of programmers who are governed by commercial, not artistic, interests. iTunes allows a 30-second preview of songs, but we know that some of the best tunes don't even get going in that time. The 30-second preview just reinforces the need for each tune to be catchy and pleasing right up front.

Consumers of iTunes won't be able to sample for free other full pieces by the musician, and so will bypass the chief passage to the musician's more remote work. And in turn, with the growing popularity of iTunes, producers of music will be inhibited from taking musical risks since each piece will need to stand alone.

For now, this digital option and others like it complement the hardware world of CDs, with many consumers still buying CDs; but as online music sales grow, the sale of CDs will continue to decline, and digital music will come to reign supreme. When this happens, we can expect very little bundled innovation -- making the artistry of bands like the Beatles, the Doors and Tool potentially a thing of the past.

I now find myself wondering if, in this case, the easy way is not the best way. I enjoy my albums and CDs. I make compilation CDs of music that many people have never heard before, though they find they enjoy it as much as I do. While I can download entire albums from iTMS, I wonder how often I actually will. Before iTMS came along, buying albums was a crap-shoot; you buy it for the hits but you hope there is other music on the album that you'll like. Almost as often as not, you found that there was only the hit that you liked and buying the album was a waste.

Often I found too that some of the non-hit cuts on an album had to grow on me a while before I liked them. I'll play a cut and, at first blush, find that I don't care for it. Several months later I may have the occasion to play it again. Maybe the mood is right, the stars are aligned properly, or the alcohol kicks in, but this time I might find that I like the music.

When it comes to music, I've learned that the old cliché of one man's trash being another man's treasure rings very true. I can't count how many times I've played a piece of music for friends that I discovered; as I'm standing there beaming over my new find, I see the faces of my friends take on a blank, bewildered expression, or morph into a frown similar to the kind you get after sucking on a lemon. I 'got' what the artist was doing and liked it. My friends either didn't get it or got it and hated it, but that's OK, because we are not supposed to like everything the next guy likes. It's why we have jazz and country, rock and gospel, and it's why my music collection includes Bootsey Collins and Michael Oldfield; it is why we have variety.

Sahar Aktar believes that some of that variety will be lost as digital music downloading supplants CD buying, and, to a certain degree, I have to concur. If that happens, then the iTMS will be to blame, if for no other reason than that it is the first viable music download service. As the article says, Apple makes it too easy to just grab that single tune, and in doing so we miss out on the hidden treasures (or trash) we would otherwise find on a CD.

There are other opinions on this matter. TMO's own Bryan Chaffin posits that iTMS is the wave of the future that will usher in a golden age of cheap, diverse tunes that are ready to download and play at a moments notice. No doubt that will happen, but if such a future exists without some physical outlet for artists, then the future will not be as diverse as Bryan believes.

Diversity in music can only be achieved and maintained if there are other outlets through which an artist can express him or her self. It is not just about the music. Single songs are great, bite-sized packets of entertainment, but an album broadens the canvas; it provides avenues through which an artist can reach his audience that digital downloads and a single song can never accomplish.

Music on vinyl, and now CDs, has substance partially because of the media; you could hold it in your hands, read the jackets and study the cover art, you could collect it and organize it. Music on media involves your sense of touch and smell as well and sound and sight. Services like iTMS take away full sensual involvement, and makes music ephemeral and insubstantial, lacking character and weight.

I'm not saying that iTMS is a bad thing. On the contrary: I believe it is one of the best things Apple, or anyone, could have done for the selling and marketing of music, but I think it only solves part of the problem of music acquisition and ownership. It is a compromise where the record labels concede to the notion that individuals have at least some rights of ownership after buying a tune, while consumers give up the physical aspects of music ownership for ease of use and implied honesty. iTMS does not, and I believe it can not, fully address the matter of ownership such that it equals what I have when I buy a CD. It is a different animal altogether.

There will be those who will say that because services like iTMS are so different, that both iTMS and CDs will continue to coexist, that nothing will be lost because we will still be able to buy music on a plastic disc while we happily download the hits. To that I say you only have to look at history, and the people who stand to make or lose the money, to know that one medium or the other will win out. If record labels find that there is more money to be had using services like iTMS, then you can kiss CDs goodbye. And if that happens then real music, the not-so-popular stuff that accompanies the hits on albums, will die at a rate of 99 cents per download.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

You can send your comments directly to me, or you can also post your comments below.

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