iTunes 4 and the Apple Music Store

Apple have released iTunes 4, the latest version of one of my favourite pieces of Mac software. Version 4 comes with AAC encoding and playback facilities; it’s nice to see Apple keeping up with new developments, even if I’m having trouble hearing any difference whatsoever between equivalent AAC and mp3 files, encoded at the same bitrate. Never mind, eh?

The other major development with iTunes 4 (apart from the minor design tweaks, which I like) is the direct link to Apple’s new Music Store, where you can search for songs or complete albums, listen to previews and then pay to download complete tracks. This is nothing new (several similar services are either in operation or at the planning stage) but it represents a great opportunity for compromise between the record industry and the filesharing/downloading community.

However, it has to be done properly, and although I’m prepared to accept that it’s early days yet, Apple really need to avoid another “dodgy public beta” accusation. So it’s not promising to learn that you can only use Music Store if your credit card is registered to a US postal address. As Ben Hammersley says, “This is the internet, you daft sods”.

Still desperately trying not to be nitpicky, I browsed the tracks and albums online (yes, this facility at least is available to us non-Americans). As you’d expect for a currently US-based service, there’s a comprehensive, if not exactly daring, selection of jazz, country and blues, with plenty of big-name pop acts and US grunge-lite. But it’s quite startling how many relatively well-known artists are not represented at all… Frank Zappa, Stravinsky, Aphex Twin, Soft Machine, Mercury Rev. That’s just a random sample from my list of favourites, and I’m not exactly your average top-40 fan, but even so… we’re not talking Bolivian lizard chanting here.

My worry is that the music industry could end up missing the whole point, and indeed the huge potential of online music delivery. I and a lot of people I know (financially secure adults with eclectic musical tastes) use filesharing networks not as a slacker expression of wannabe anarchy, but as a simple reaction to the fact that so much music is otherwise unavailable. I don’t know who to point the finger at here (I fear I’d need more than my full complement of fingers, anyway) but when even large London CD shops and online stores such as Amazon don’t have what you want, illegal downloading is the only way to hear a lot of relatively obscure music.

The only way the record industry can properly address the filesharing issue is to work towards a musically comprehensive network of online facilities, with a range of filesizes/bitrates and a progressive pricing policy to match. I would definitely use such a thing. However, with Apple’s Music Store tracks currently set at 99 cents each (these are mp3s, remember, *not* CD-quality tracks), I’m starting to wonder what the UK prices will be…

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