People are paying for songs on the iTunes Music Store because they think it's a good way to support musicians. But iTunes misses a huge opportunity. Instead of creating a system that gets virtually all of fans' money directly to artists-- finally possible with the internet-- iTunes takes a big step backwards. Apple calls iTunes "revolutionary" but record companies are using the service to force the same exploitive and unfair business model onto a new medium.
Let's start simple: the iTunes Music Store is not a good value for customers. Apple says many users are buying whole "albums" for $8-$12 each. That's less than the $16 store price, but used CDs at Amazon or ebay cost $5, and those come with liner notes. If you don't care about liner notes, you can burn the CD from a friend for 25 cents and send the musician a buck. In both cases, you end up with a real CD, and you can always use iTunes to rip it onto your computer or mp3 player. And you don't have to deal with restrictions on how you use it.
iTunes AAC files don't sound as good as CDs. AAC is a "lossy" compression format: it shrinks the sound file by throwing away subtle nuance and texture that a computer program thinks you won't be able to hear. The thing is, you can hear it. You might not notice listening to your iPod on the subway, but if you get home, lie back on the couch, and listen to your new iTunes album on a real stereo, it won't have the same nuance, punch, and presence that a CD has. A burned copy of a real CD will always sound better than a burned iTunes album."But I don't really care about compression"
Then you're in good company: lots of people just want to hear the songs they like and don't mind listening to compressed music. The majority of those people (the sensible ones) choose peer to peer filesharing programs like Kazaa or Acquisition to get their mp3s. Downloads are fast, there's a bigger selection, and peer to peer sharing doesn't prop up the music industry. Plus it's free.
Apple says iTunes is "better than free" because it's "fair to the artists and record labels." That's simply not true. First of all, Apple gets 3 times as much money as musicians from each sale. Apple takes a 35% cut from every song and every album sold, a huge amount considering how little they have to do. Record labels receive the other 65% of each sale. Of this, major label artists will end up with only 8 to 14 cents per song, depending on their contract. Many of them will never Artists Get Ripped Off. even see this paltry share because they have to pay for producers and recording costs, both of which can be enormous. Until the musician "recoups" these costs, when you buy an iTunes song, the label gives them nothing. (Sources: major label musician's cut Apple's cut For a thorough explanation of how recouping screws musicians, see Confessions of a Record Producer by Moses Avalon)
So why does iTunes give artists such a raw deal? Because it's the exact same deal that artists have always gotten from the big five record companies. Despite huge new efficiencies created by internet distribution --no CDs to make, no distributors to store and ship them, no CD stores to build and run-- artists receive the same pathetic cut. That is the disaster of iTunes. Instead of using this new medium to empower musicians and their fans, it helps the record industry cartel perpetuate the exploitation. Apple might say it's not their fault: after all, they didn't write the unfair record contracts. But when Apple supports and profits from an obviously unfair system, while telling customers that it's "fair to the artists", they are just as guilty. For years, Apple Computer has built a reputation for straightforward business. So
iTunes is just a shiny new facade for the ugly, exploitative system that has managed music for the past 50 years. Thanks to peer to peer filesharing, we finally have a chance to break the major record label system-- but every iTunes user who pays 90 cents on the dollar to middlemen props up the old regime and delays the day when corporations finally lose their stranglehold on music. Now that's something to feel guilty about.
If you want to support the musicians you love, the best way to begin is
by downloading the song for free on a filesharing network. Then send them
what you want to give, no middleman. 14 cents. 99 cents. 10 dollars. A
site like musiclink.com, though still rudimentary, makes this a little
easier and is a step in the right direction. Weed (weedshare.com) is an ingenious new
system where songs can be distributed on p2p networks but must be paid for
after 3 plays. Instead of pursuing dead-ends like iTunes, we can develop
p2p and direct contribution systems into a full-fledged music economy that
sustains many more musicians than the current one. If downloading and
contributing is made just as easy as iTunes, it could work and it would
work. After all, iTunes is already voluntary.
Since we first created this page about iTunes in August 2003, there have been some positive developments. Apple, which had previously indicated that they would only allow artists signed to record labels to offer music on iTunes, has begun including music from CD Baby. CD Baby allows any artist to join their service and takes a very small cut from each song (about 9 cents). This leaves the artist with about 55 cents from each sale, which is pretty decent-- though it could be a lot better. Additionally, as noted in the "victory" section above, Apple has stopped saying that iTunes is fair for artists, which was our primary concern. The key factor for deciding whether a music purchase is good for artists is the record label-- some purchases on iTunes leave artists with fair compensation, but buying major label music not only leaves the artists with pennies, it also supports a system that marginalizes every independent musician.To sum up
As you've probably gathered by now, this project is about more than just iTunes. Downhill Battle is about why major label domination of music needs to end. Filesharing and CD burning have given us some tools, but we need to defend our right to use them and at the same time develop new ways to support artists. Downhill Battle has articles, interviews, news, and free music propaganda. No matter what kind of music you're into, it will be way more fun after the major labels are gone. Take a look at some projects, if you like what we do, we'd love to have you get involved: downhillbattle.org. If you're interested in reading more of our thoughts about iTunes, check out this page of responses to emails that we've received.
Save the iPod We think iTunes is misguided, but we think the iPod is very important. Congressional legislation could make iPods and similar devices illegal if we don't act now.
iTunes iSbogus: Napster Sucks Edition, it's as different from this page as Napster is from iTunes.