Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Stevie 99 Rebuttal

I took me a while to figure out what that high-pitched noise was which started at 1:43 this past Thursday afternoon. Turns out it was the whining of Ms. Veronica Fevers with her latest blog posting, trying to support her previous provocative claim that "Mr. (Steve) Jobs has been wrong from the get-go and has been doing a disservice to the industry and the music lover for years."
Actually, there's not much in the new post to support the "wrong from the get-go" claim, and while there are actually some valid criticisms on places where the iTunes/iPod model falls short, I'm going to dispense of that previous claim right now... If nothing else, Steve Jobs needs to be thanked for rather dramatically proving to the completely clue-less titans of the music industry that a pay-for-download model was not only something that could work, but if designed simply and elegantly enough, is something folks would actively flock to. It's easy to forget that before iTunes, this was generally dismissed as a workable model. Now whether that alone qualifies him to be crowned "savior for the music business," something Veronica admits to be looking for, I cannot answer. But clearly that was the first big step, and he was right.

Veronica categorizes her two main complaints as the lack of community and absence of innovation. I, for one, think the best commerce model tends to be incompatible with the kind of community to which Veronica aspires. With music retail, it always goes back to re-creating the corner record store, where there was at least one clerk who knew your musical preferences, and could recommend new things or gently push you in new directions knowing your proclivities were more likely to respond positively. Ms. Veronica, being a former member of the Tower Records empire, remembers fondly the rather brief period where this kind of thing was de rigueur (pardon my French, literally) at individual Tower stores.

But what happened at Tower should be the cautionary tale of mixing commerce and this form of "community," and I'm not talking about its bankruptcy and financial collapse, although this may well have been one of its first mis-steps toward that end. What happened is that the concept of personal recommendation became seen as an opportunity for another revenue-generating profit center. Each slot on that main wall of recommended new releases, once a source of great debate and pride among the individual store's staff members, became something that was sold to the highest record company bidders on a national level, and became an important "profit center" for Tower corporate.

The same thing happens at Amazon (and every other national music retailer, to my knowledge). If you believe that the "other customers who purchased this title also bought these" recommendation system is based on some pure mathematical algorithm from their purchase history database, consider yourself a newly enlightened chump. As a record label, I can pay money right now to have someone buying a Beyoncé album be recommended, say, a Garmarna record.

So I would argue that the community part is best left to disinterested third party bloggers and recommendation sites (who will still, inevitably, get a kickback from iTunes (or whomever) for the link). Frankly, I would always be skeptical about any recommendation system, but especially those generated directly by any major retailer.

As for the innovation issues, here is where Ms. Veronica finally lands a few punches. But she seems to be unaware that iTunes began offering a lower price-point, 69 cents, at the same time that it started offering the higher price point of $1.29. So far, the lower price point has hardly been utilized by the record companies or the artists that have direct deals with iTunes (of which there are more and more). It is, after all their decision to set the price point, not that of iTunes (albeit at those three limited choices). So a good amount of the innovation blame goes to those putting these things into the iTunes store in the first place.

As for the flood scenario (what would you do if you lost all of your iTunes music in a flood?), here's where Veronica actually builds a stronger case for the value of the 99 cent download. For the first time in history, Veronica's entire music collection, all 49,577 tracks, can now be copied endlessly onto storage devices, each the size of a pack of smokes. It's pretty much common sense now for anyone with a large data music collection to maintain at least one backup volume, and if you want to protect yourself from fire or flood, it's pretty easy to have one of those backups be a portable drive that you keep off-premises. Need I remind you that this was never an option with LPs, tapes and CDs?

Considering this ease of portability of digital files (which also enables you, theoretically, and also for the first time, to maintain an endlessly playable, near-perfect copy for all eternity), I would say that ever since the record companies allowed iTunes to be rid of DRM restrictions, and to upgrade to 256k, 99 cents per track and $9.99 per album actually represents enormous value. And I think I need to remind Veronica that before the $9.99 iTunes model came along, the selling price of most reasonable new-release 10-track CDs which were "produced, manufactured, packaged, shelved, shipped, received, shelved again," as she accurately put it, was more like $15, or about 50% more.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't see Steve Jobs or iTunes as the panacea or savior of the music industry. I do also subscribe to emusic, although I have to say that while it's a great deal for the music consumer in me, it's such an awful deal for me as a record label that I won't go near it! There is plenty of room for improvement, further innovation, and better execution at iTunes and elsewhere. But it has unarguably altered the landscape of music retail for the better, and as a music consumer, I for one am grateful.

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To leave on a more musical note, it's going to be difficult to top last Wednesday's packed Dirty Projectors show. Here's a recent live clip with a taste of the amazing things they do:

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