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.