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Happy Birthday: iTunes Turns 10

Eleven years ago, if you wanted new music, you needed to stream it online (if you had a fast enough Internet connection), or blindly purchase new albums in stores and hope the full-length was as good as the single. Napster was a thing, as was bit torrent, but neither was as large a presence as they are now. The music industry knew it had to change before the illegal realm passed the commercial world, and so ten years ago yesterday (April 28) iTunes was born.

Opinions of the software and service continue to vary wildly, but there is no denying that iTunes is a prominent force in the music industry. Ten years after its launch, it continues to outpace the competition, even if some of the updates have been met with widespread criticism, and no app or product is currently poised to dethrone it anytime soon.

To celebrate iTunes hitting the decade mark, Apple put together highlights from the product’s life up to this point. Click here to check out their efforts.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Apple Developing Custom Online Radio To Rival Pandora

In an aim to increase its Buy ‘N’ Large-like dominance of the online music marketplace, Apple Inc. is reportedly developing a streaming customized online radio service similar to Pandora. Like Pandora, Apple’s custom radio will stream music suggestions generated by a specific artist or song of the user’s choosing. While Apple isn’t the first company to chip away at Pandora’s preeminent status “ both Spotify and iHeartRadio sport similar services “ its plan to deliver a seamless experience across all of its devices, and its custom radio, through a similar user interface indicates that the service may become a serious contender in the marketplace.

For online streaming music services, however, profit has always been the problem. Despite Pandora’s success among online music listeners, the company has yet to post a profit as a result of the escalating government-defined royalty fees that it must negotiate. Apple plans to circumvent this issue by dealing directly with record companies as well as punctuating user streaming intermittently with advertisements channeled through its iAd service. If Apple’s streaming custom radio service comes to fruition, it is not likely to be the death knell for Pandora, but it will certainly result in more options and a greater freedom of choice for the hundreds of thousands of online radio listeners who flock to such services every day.

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Match Madness

Steve Jobs announced Apple’s new cloud-based service last week”fully equipped, of course, with an industry-rattling curveball. iCloud itself holds no real surprises; it’s basically a free way to share new music you purchase with up to ten different devices. The real kicker is that Apple is also launching a complimentary service, for $24.99 a year, called iTunes Match. This allows iTunes to scan your library, ID your songs and (assuming the song exists in iTunes) give you access to their legit version on the iCloud. On the surface, iTunes Match is just a convenient way to quickly take your library to the cloud without having to upload it”which could take days. What’s ruffling everyone’s feathers is that Apple is letting people convert their bootlegged songs to legit ones for what is essentially $2 a month. As you might expect, everyone (and their mother) has an opinion about how this will affect the industry.

Let’s start with the bad. Many people think that Apple is just offering a “parley” with the music pirates and essentially finding a way to profit off of piracy. The stance of “some payment is better than none” is nothing more than a weak compromise. But that’s far from the biggest concern. With the industry moving closer and closer to subscription services, some people fear that Match will kill the future before it has a chance to happen. The big four labels, who are reportedly being paid about $150 million up front by Apple (all together), have taken the quick cash without any incentive to pay their artists in the future. As Bob Lefsetz says, “[I]t’s like Nintendo being paid a bunch of money to never develop the Wii. It’s like Electronic Arts being paid to never develop mobile games. It’s a denial of the future. Who in the hell is going to buy a music subscription for even $3 a month when for $25 a year you can have everything you own, even stole, at your fingertips via iCloud?” While Lefsetz’s theory may be a bit extreme, he does bring up a good point.

Steve Jobs

On the other end of the spectrum, however, there are those who see Job’s announcement in a more positive light. The most obvious upside is that the industry will recoup some, if only a fraction, of the money it’s lost over the years to illegal downloading. As pointed out earlier, it will probably only benefit the labels and not the artists, but it’s still something. According to the industry executives that Fast Company spoke with, though, the real value is in the data; legitimizing illegal libraries will give them firsthand knowledge of what people are listening to. This crucial information has been almost non-existent since piracy became popular. There’s also the theory that suggests the exact opposite of Lefsetz’s: that iTunes Match will actually help prepare the world for music subscription services. The logic behind it is that Match will get people back into the habit of spending money on music. After years of illegal downloading, people have come to expect music to be free”Match, supposedly, will make consumers associate costs with the product once again and ease the transition into a world of subscriptions.

Steady as a rock...

Like anything else, there’s at least three sides to Apple’s upcoming release. What do you think? Is it good for the industry, the end of life as we know it or will it just get sued into oblivion by the record labels like My.Mp3.com? Share your thoughts below!

 

Industrial Revolution: Audio Files For Audiophiles

Woah. Death came to two digital music pioneers within just a couple of days of each other. Max Matthews, widely considered the father of computerized music, died on April 21st. Two days later, the inventor of the compact disc, Sony’s Norio Ohga, also passed away.

In 1957, Matthews, then working for Bell Labs, wrote a program called Music, which played back synthesized sounds according to the user’s input. His work is the foundation upon which all subsequent computer music, including his own additional innovations, have been built.

Ohga, who led Sony’s immense growth as president from 1982 through 1995, pushed for the development of the media-revolutionizing compact disc. In addition to determining the size of the disc, the classical music lover and former aspiring opera singer famously mandated the CD’s 75-minute running time so that it would fit the entirety of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Ah, when music fans were in charge¦

Max Matthews

Digital music evolved greatly in the intervening years and beyond. Matthews’ initial forays inspired more the actual creation of synthesizer music, rather than the development of digital formats. It wasn’t until 1975 that Betamax developed high-fidelity digital audio to their compact video cartridges (ultimately falling to the competing VHS format, which quickly caught up to Beta’s audio quality). 1978 similarly saw an audio development married to a video format in the Laserdisc, the first optical disc storage format available commercially, which offered unparalleled audio quality in terms of home video. However, due to the high cost of discs and players alike, along with its inconvenient size (about that of a vinyl LP, but heavier), the Laserdisc never truly caught on.

Norio Ohga

But both of these developments were important steps in the evolution of digital music. The Laserdisc is essentially a giant CD and led directly to the game-changing success of that smaller format, first made available in 1982 by Norio Ogha’s Sony. The CD itself inspired further innovations”the High Definition CD and MiniDisc are obviously direct descendants, and Digital Audio Tape (DAT) owes more to the CD than the compact cassette.

Then around 1988, Apple Inc. introduced the Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF), a non-compressed digital file that could store pieces of audio for personal use. AIFF is still widely used today by audio professionals, along with the Waveform Audio File Format (WAV) and Digidesign’s Sound Designer II (SDII). While there have been additional improvement in tangible formats (DVD, DualDisc, Blu-ray), the real leap forward was in 1993, when the MPEG Audio Layer III (MP3) successfully compressed audio files into a manageable size without rendering the sound quality so low as to be an unfaithful or unlistenable reproduction.

Laserdisc: its the FUTURE!

The MP3, in tandem with Internet technology, has obviously led to file sharing, and the myriad of opportunities and problems that ensued have forever altered the music industry. While no one can dispute the usefulness of the MP3, it is lamentable that it is quickly becoming the standard for audio consumption. You don’t have to be an audiophile to hear the difference between compressed and un-compressed music.

All this begs the question of what’s next for digital audio? Will consumers demand higher quality? Will lossy MP3s be the standard for decades to come? Or will the demand to fit more information in less space extend a tolerance for even a lower-quality format (or lower bit-rate MP3s)? It would be nice if, as professional music recording technology and fidelity standards continue to improve, consumers rightly clamor for an improvement in fidelity, either via format or, more likely, via technology that can handle more lossless files, like WAV and AIFF, in less space. Some people won’t have an interest in improving the sound of their music beyond what MP3s can provide. As their iPod is able to hold more information, they are more likely to see this as an opportunity to fit more MP3s. But some will certainly trade off better quality for at least the same song capacity.

A good sign is Apple’s development of the Apple Lossless format (ALE or ALAC, denoted by the .m4a extension), which is now in use for iTunes, both in converting CDs and for music purchases. This is still proprietary, though, and is not easily shared, especially onto PC and Windows-based computers. Certainly, more innovations are to come, and hopefully ones that support higher quality audio. Hopefully music lovers in the mold of Max Matthews and Norio Ogha are on the case. R.I.P., gentlemen.

Industrial Revolution: First Mate Biden Takes On Pirates

Look, piracy is outright theft. People are out there blatantly stealing from Americans”stealing their ideas and robbing us of America’s creative energies. There’s no reason why we should treat intellectual property any different than tangible property.” “ Joe Biden

Piracy of music and movies is rampant. Technology has made it easier than ever for a person to clone and disseminate materials to which they do not own the rights. This is not in dispute. But attitudes about both sharing and receiving this intellectual property vary drastically.

Older generations tend to accept the notion that getting music or movies for free is stealing. When you’ve spent years paying a premium for such things, suddenly getting it for free just doesn’t feel¦well, legal. Of course, some of those people are more than willing to ignore that nagging feeling, especially once they get a taste of the good stuff (free music, immediately). And then, of course, there’s a younger generation for whom this pang of guilt simply doesn’t exist. It’s not whether they view it as stealing, it’s that they view the marketplace from a completely different perspective. For a generation raised on freely available media, the resulting cognitive development has transformed the question of whether receiving such media is right or wrong into a simple question of what is just. And when you determine your own standards of justice, all you need to do is self-justify your actions. You might not pay for the band’s album, but you’ll go to the show and buy a t-shirt. It all evens out, doesn’t it?

This is not to say they are wrong. They are simply adapting to a world in which there are no obviously correct sets of standards. Of course stealing, as a concept, isn’t right. But it’s just not valid to equate downloading a music file to smashing in a window at Tiffany’s and taking what you can grab, as Vice President Joe Biden tried to do recently in an interview with Variety. Biden’s recently ramped-up rhetoric leaves no room for the kind of compromise required to find a solution to the problem of media piracy. And, most crucially, it makes no distinction between counterfeiting goods and file-sharing.

Wouldn't it be ironic if we got sued for using this chart?

Joe Biden comes off as a pretty amiable guy. While former rival Sarah Palin went to great lengths to sell herself as the gal next door, she was unfortunately up against the genuine article. In the average Joe contest, even Joe the Plumber couldn’t out-genial Joe the Senator. Now Biden has become the public face of the anti-piracy movement in Washington. And he’s perfect for the job. His plain-spoken demeanor makes his easy-to-grasp argument sound natural and compelling: getting something without paying for it is stealing. It can’t hurt that he undoubtedly buys this argument wholesale. And it is easy to imagine it being sold to him by his longtime friends in Hollywood, including that newly-installed bridge from DC to LA, former Senator/shifty character Chris Dodd”the new head of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Biden’s new crusade has resulted in a summit on the matter of piracy, to which only one side appears to have been invited”players in the major media companies. There is no one to make the argument that these players are on a completely different field than their would-be customers. That the VP and the media companies are still clinging to an outdated model is not a new complaint, even to them. In Variety, Biden counters:

“The fact is, media companies have already taken significant steps to adapt their business models to keep up with changes in how we watch movies and listen to music. Content is being offered to consumers in a variety of different ways that make it easy and cost-effective for people to access legal material. Anyone who does not understand this should simply talk with one of my grandkids.”

Always lovable.

Obviously the media companies are aware they have a huge problem and have made attempts to keep up with the changing landscape. Unfortunately, they are always several paces behind both the consumer demand and the technology. And while they might have a new media department or brain-trust to make their shareholders feel better, the bulk of their energies and funds are spent on defending their property. The significant steps they’ve taken have only been because their hands have been forced. The ubiquity of Apple and iTunes (and others that have followed) has demanded that they play along to an extent, or risk losing the last major outlet they have for legal music sales. It’s worth noting that no representatives from Apple or other cutting-edge media companies were included in Biden’s summit.

Had the conglomerates recognized the futility of their position earlier and made compromises that would, in the long-term, strengthen that position, they would still be the present and future powerhouses in entertainment. Instead, they raged and struggled. Taught by decades of experience that they could bully their way through any challenge to their modes of operation, they realized too late that this fight was not simply them against a few Napsters. It was instead them against the free market and the inevitable advancement of technology, in addition to a new generation who have never known anything but this state of flux.

Biden at least has the insight that this is the challenge. In his interview, he says, Kids are taught that it is not right to steal a lollipop from the corner store. They also need to understand that it is equally wrong to knowingly steal a movie or a song from the Internet. And he’s not totally incorrect, either. In fact, it’s admirable that the Vice President is arguing for artists’ rights. But his approach leaves no room for a new solution. Any summit on the matter has to include all perspectives. That’s what a summit is. The approach that the other side needs to be taught a lesson is wildly misguided. As a result, Biden and his media friends will lose this battle, sooner or later. Perhaps he can take some comfort in his GRAMMY.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

If Illegal Downloads Didn't Hurt Music Sales Do We Still Need To Go To The Cloud?

Illegal downloads are bad for music. Blah, blah, blah. Yadda yadda yadda. Like we haven’t heard that one before. You know what we haven’t heard before? That illegal downloads haven’t hurt music sales. Well, at least the claim that they haven’t hurt music sales all that much. This is the assertion being made in a new report from the London School of Economics.

According to the report, file sharing is not the enemy but the future of the music business. And illegal downloads are not the principal cause in the drop off of physical music sales. Rather, it’s a combination of factors such as changing patterns in music consumption, decreasing disposable household incomes for leisure products and increasing sales of digital content through online platforms. Read the whole thing if you have a minute and you have a craving for wordy dissertations on the ins and outs of digital downloads.

But wait, doesn’t this contradict everything we’ve heard about the evils of file sharing? How can the major labels, the RIAA and Metallica all be wrong? The report has come out while another file sharing storm has been brewing. But this time it’s not the anonymous hordes on the peer-to-peers fighting the established fat cat labels; this time it’s a white collar boardroom brawl.

Last month Amazon launched their Cloud Drive service which acts as a mobile, digital locker. Users can store up to 5 Gigs of media for free and can then access the files from any web connected device. Sounds great, right? Well, nearly every other player with some involvement in entertainment business, especially the music biz, are feeling, well, played.

Labels are especially upset as they argue that Amazon doesn’t have the licensing rights to offer streaming music to customers, only to sell digital downloads. Amazon, naturally, thinks otherwise, likening their service to the also free Google Docs in terms of accessible storage for subscribers of the service. Not only that, but Amazon also claims that the service has already boosted music sales on the site. Amazon wasn’t able to back up the claim with hard numbers, though.

Cloud computing. Is it really the wave of the future or is it a trendy buzz word”a piece of fodder for the hype machine? Some might be a little unsure of the benefits of heading “to the cloud” but that doesn’t change  that everyone’s trying to get in on the ground floor. How does this affect music? Well, everyone’s trying to sell music too. Or if not sell it, at least offer it to people. Sony just launched their Music Unlimited service for PSP users, allowing users to stream music to the hand-held console for $3.99 a month. Industry titans like Google and Apple also have cloud-based services similar to Amazon’s Cloud Drive in the works and iTunes users can already stream their music to other devices… if they’re recent generation Apple Products.

All signs point to file sharing as the digital wave of the future. Analog will always carry a charm, a certain nostalgia. But come on. Getting your files anywhere on nearly any device as part of a freemium or nearly free service? I mean, what beats that?!

That said, the labels have a valid argument in all this. While the reasons for the drop in sales are and forever will be in dispute, facts are facts. Sales of music are down, overall. Labels are going to fight tooth and nail for every available dollar and they have a valid concern if they’re not going to get licensing dollars for streaming music. Amazon is just the first to really dip their toes into the water. If they don’t need to pay the labels to store and stream the music, as they claim, then that would open up the floodgates for numerous copycat competitors. The National Music Publishers Association brought a concern for a more sympathetic group with a stake in all this: the songwriters. One of the main issues is the filtering of content and lack thereof. What’s to stop a user from illegally downloadingmusic and then uploading it to the Cloud Drive service? As of this moment, it appears that there isn’t.

Amazon and representatives from labels met last week to further discuss what the terms of the service to further work out the kinks. While Amazon does acknowledge that there might be future functionality to be added to their Cloud Drive, they’ve made it known that they’re not interested in paying anything extra to stream music to their users. Still, the future of cloud computing looks bright, ironically enough.

The Great Race To The Cloud

Nothing is more frustrating than downloading a song on your phone and having it stranded there, except for maybe losing your hard drive and saying goodbye to your long-coveted music library. Apple, Google and Amazon have been working on solutions to these problems and more in the form of cloud-based music services. Google and Apple have been hung up on some minor details, called music licenses, but Amazon decided to bypass all of that nonsense and released their service last Tuesday.

Amazon’s Cloud Player and Cloud Drive have already caught a lot of flak from the music industry, and it’s bound to get worse with time. When Billboard asked Amazon’s director of music, Craig Pape, about skipping the licensing step, his answer was concise: “We don’t believe we need licenses to store the customers’ files. We look at it the same way as if someone bought an external hard drive and copy files on there for backup.” Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. The main issues stem from the fact that users can upload their music to the company’s servers. Record companies are concerned about users uploading illegally downloaded content, which is a reasonable concern, and a Sony spokesperson said “we’re keeping all of our legal options open.” One senior music executive even went as far as calling the service “legalized murder.” Amazon’s Terms of Use prohibit the uploading of illegal music, but if the debate ends up in court it will be interesting to see if Amazon protects its users or turns them over to the labels.

The industry implications of Amazon’s Cloud Player are huge. If they manage to evade a lawsuit, or if the courts decide that what they’re doing is legal, it can set a precedent for all future cloud-based services. Music piracy has been on the decline since LimeWire closed up shop in October, but Cloud Player has the potential to turn that around pretty quickly. On top of that, it would give Amazon a big leg up on Google and Apple who have yet to finalize their services. If you ask us, though, a lawsuit against Amazon is all but inevitable.