I love me the iTunes music store, even though I can’t access it right now because Steve Jobs has initially limited it to Macs and iPods, and I have a PC and a Creative Nomad Jukebox. But it’s the first online music model that’s not mired in total stupidity: You pay a buck for a song or ten bucks for an album, and then you’re done. Easy. The music you download is portable, which signals that Apple assumes its customers both actually like listening to their music away from their computers, and are smart enough to get around any lame-ass copy protection they might slap on. It also assumes that people will actually pay for the music they like from the bands they admire.
And will they? I think so, especially the older music listeners like myself, who both have the money and like the idea of putting cash into musicians’ pockets so they can make more music for us. But even the “kids” will probably do it to a fair extent, with the bands they like. Which is what they’ve always done anyway. When I was in college, there were two types of music — music from the bands you liked, whose albums you would actually go out and pay for, and music from everybody else, whose CDs you borrowed from your dormmates to tape that one song you liked for a road mix tape. The mix tape music never would have been bought by you in any era, so as a practical matter, the music industry isn’t losing money on that music — in other words, much of the music being traded now is music that never would have been paid for in any era.
This isn’t a defense of file trading, which I do think has cut into the music kids would have purchased legitimately (partially because kids feel the money they spend isn’t actually going to artists; partially because kids want their music the way they want it), but a recognition that music industry is largely counting money it never would have had anyway. College kids, like everyone else, will support the bands they like if you give them the opportunity to do it the way they want.
The 99 cent per song idea is also incredibly useful for someone like me who has a long list of bands who have that one song I like but which I have no interest in buying an entire album. I’m at a point in my life where I’m not going to spend $16 or whatever for a single song I know I’m going to like, and 10 or 11 I might not ever listen to again. It’s not that I don’t have the money, it’s just that I don’t have the inclination. Thereby there are a large number of bands out there who will currently never see a speck of my cash. Would they (and their labels) like me to shell out $16? Sure they would, but I’m not going to do it. That being the case, they’ll be happy with the $1 instead. It’s better than nothing.
It’s also to the point that for most practical purposes the album — that is, a collection of songs from a single artist — is pretty much dead in the water. Aside from what I do for OPM and IndieCrit, I can’t tell you the last time I actually pulled out a CD and listened to an album all the way through. Right now my primary recreational music listening mode is the random shuffle on my Winamp player. The last album I thought deserved to be listened to start to finish as a coherent whole is Emmlou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, and that came out eight years ago. I’m sure there are other albums since then which deserve a full run-through, but I haven’t found them personally.
This degredation of the “album” concept is partially due to the CD format itself, which allows for 74 minutes of music. They heyday of the album was the LP, which could only manage 46 minutes total. It’s not too difficult to keep a mood for 46 minutes, but doing the same for an half-hour taxes most musicians’ capacity. Also, simply put, some bands are singles bands — they make great songs, not great albums. I want the song, and I’m willing to pay for it. But if I don’t want the album, I won’t pay for that just to get a song.
I already have a backlist of bands who have single songs I’d love to get, and I’m willing to drop some serious cash to get those songs. I could get them on KaZaa right now, but as I’ve said, I actually prefer to support the bands I like, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. All I have to do now is wait for the iTunes store to start supporting Windows. Sorry, Steve, I’m not going to buy a Mac and an iPod just to access your store. But when I can access it, I’m going to be a big customer. Count on it.