In Defence of Online Album Sales: Apple Should Bend To Meet Artists' Desires

I usually agree with our Editor-in-Chief, Bryan Chaffin, on most matters. For example, we are of similar political persuasions. We both like Macs. We both love New York City. I approve of Bryanis taste in photography, and Bryan has expressed appreciation of my musical endeavors. Bryan is obsessed with The Who but has respect for Led Zeppelin; Iim obsessed with Bonham but am often mesmerized by Keith Moon. I agree with virtually all of Bryanis editorializing on Apple (namely which products, marketing tactics, and corporate decisions are wise--and which arenit), Microsoft (namely its illegal leveraging of its OS monopoly into other markets, like browsers and streaming multimedia), and the record industry (namely its self-inflicted suffering).

So I was surprised by Bryanis recent Back Page column, in which he skewered Radiohead, Metallica, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Madonna, Dave Mathewis Band and others for backwards thinking in their refusal to sell singles on Appleis iTunes Music Store (iTMS). He claims they "are no better than Bill Gates or Orren Boyle" for refusing to jump headlong into Appleis music distribution revolution. According to Bryan, these bands are party responsible for the music industryis decay.


Let me be clear: Bryan is spot on in almost every regard in the great Online Music Debate. Heis had my agreement for years that the labels have been foolish, technophobic, and greedy; heis correct to suggest that the iTMS could initiate a rebalancing of power in the music industry; I agree with his claim that hit-making and superstar-creation have sapped the life out of entire genres of music; and he is right to hope that bands will embrace the online music revolution and move it forward.

iTMS: Possibly Imperfect
However, thereis no reason why artists should have to split up their albums to sell them song-by-song online. More to the point, if artists want to join the online music revolution, I donit see why they should have to trade enslavement to the big fiveis outdated model for subservience to Appleis new vision. Artists should sell their music through Apple only if the iTMS helps the artist produce and distribute good art. Apple needs to deliver a good product to the artists as much as it needs to satisfy the labels and the consumers.

Maybe the iTMS isnit everyoneis idea of perfect music distribution. Apple has paid primary attention to the distribution of singles, but some artists (namely, the iTMS renegades that Bryan attacks) see their primary artistic endeavor as album creation, not song creation. And if a musician must change his artistic priorities to sell songs on the iTMS, itis hard to blame him for turning Apple down. In other words, while record labels may resist aspects of the iTMS out of technophobia or greed, I suspect many holdout musicians resist because the iTMS does not help sell the type of art that the artists wish to produce.

The iTunes Music Store is not perfect. The problem is Americais obsession with Top 40.

Top 40 and the iTMS
Apple is not all-powerful, despite what Steve Jobs would have us believe. If you back away from the rhetoric within the famous "Jobs Distortion Field," itis pretty clear that Apple is using Top 40 artists to drive the success of the iTMS, not the other way around. The presence of titans like Emimen, Cheryl Crow, U2, Coldplay, and Jack Johnson, and Jewel have forced critcs to take the iTMS seriously. Apple needs to show that itis hip to the biggest acts, that they dig Apple and Apple digs them.

Bryan and I both hope that in time, the iTMS will become a force of its own. If the public gets hooked to the iTMS, then Apple will be in a position to gradually change the rules of the recording industry. We hope Apple will sign independent labels. We hope Apple will promote up-and-coming artists. I donit mean "underdogs" like Norah Jones and John Mayer and Jason Mraz, who climb with the support of the major labels, but underpublicized talent outside the realm of pop-rock and hip hop. (These alternative artists wonit replace pop, but they could add variety to the homogeneity of todayis music superstars, and their presence would provide music consumers with easier access to that which we dearly miss: choice.) We hope online music distribution will inspire more people to create their own music by reducing the barriers to entry around the music industry.

For now, however, the iTMSis success depends on its association with music that sells. That means embracing Top 40. That means no independent labels. That means very little hype for new artists. And above all, that means very little flexibility in how to distribute an album. If you want to join in Appleis music revolution, you pay for entry by permitting your album to be sold as single songs.

You buy the whole Picasso
But isnit there music beyond hit singles? Mahler symphonies can last two hours. A CD of techno will usually only contain a single song. Most of the track divisions on "The Wall" are arbitrary. "Abbey Road" lets several tracks all run together.

On many albums, the track divisions are very much like scenes in a movie or chapter divisions in a book. (With DVDs we encounter a new concept: the movie "chapter.") How is the movement from "Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)" to "Mother" any different from a movieis movement from an action sequence to a love scene? And none of us expect movie producers to let us buy chapters of DVDs.

Weive grown to expect that we can listen to music in bite-sized pieces. But some music is destroyed by such partitioning. Buying the "Ode to Joy" from Beethovenis 9th symphony is like purchasing the upper-right quarter of Picassois "Guernica." The triumph and jubilation of the Ode means far less without the turmoil and struggle of the preceding three movements, just like Guernicais ghostly figure of hope means little without the violence and destruction of the rest of the painting. Why would we, as lovers of music, want to force artists to work within the three-to-five minute window of the bubble gum pop consumeris attention span?

(Re)Defining the Music Revolution
For musicians who want to distribute their work online without compromising their art, there has to be a better way than Appleis singles-centric approach. More importantly, the ball is in Appleis court: if it wishes these bands to jump on the iTMS bandwagon, Apple needs to find a way to present albums as a cohesive, single work of art to be digested in toto. It needs to make the online release of an album an event, the same way it is in a traditional music store. It needs to be willing to reduce its dependence on its own "Top 10" lists in favor of more sophisticated data-mining approaches.

Bryan is right to call the online music revolution a matter of distribution. But in his "Back Page" editorial, he assumes that part of that distribution revolution demands that the artists must get into the business of making bite-sized songs to suit the publicis fancy. I disagree. As long as artists are producing four-minute dainties, we should be able to purchase them one at a time. But if an artist wishes to produce a larger work and demand it be consumed in a single draught, Iim all for it. Truth be told, Iim immediately sympathetic to any artist standing against the tide of music for the attention-deficient.

We know the online music revolution will give consumers greater choice, but unlike most products in the marketplace, it is a defining aspect of art that the consumer is meant to experience the product in a manner defined by the artist. We would insult artists to demand that they relinquish that right.

Ricky Spero is a singer, student, and Contributing Editor of The Mac Observer.