p2p news view / p2pnet: This week the Apple iTunes service was launched in Australia. The Australian service is the 21st, which is interesting given that Australia is the 9th largest market for recorded music in the world.
While I wouldn`t use the word afterthought, I was keen to see the media coverage associated with the launch. Anyway, most of the mainstream coverage was resoundingly positive even gushing. Reportedly, journos attending the launch received a $20 iTunes Music Store free card and a free iPod Nano.
Of course, I`m certain the positive coverage and presents are unrelated.
In any event, Apple`s iPod is expected to be Australia`s #1 Xmas present for the second consecutive year. The Australian music industry certainly seems to be crowing about the iPod. Yet ironically, the iPod does not come with any music already pre-loaded onto its system. So, where can Oz consumers get music to populate an iPod?
Really, there are only two available choices.
Either consumers must obtain their music from Apple`s new Oz iTunes service, or they must potentially breach the copyright of Apple and the record companies by getting it from elsewhere.
Despite a long running incomplete Federal Government enquiry, under current Australian law consumers can`t still can`t legally rip the CDs they’ve purchased, and convert them into iPod compatible digital music files. What how is this possible? – I hear you ask, given that Australia has a Free Trade Agreement with the US where these fair use principles are entrenched into copyright law? Weren`t Australian and US laws supposed to be harmonised or something? Good questions and with apologies to Mr Marley, we’re still waiting for the answers.
Australians can`t even buy digital music files from a non-Apple related provider (like Ninemsn, Bigpond and Destra) and play them on their iPod without breaching the copyright attached to Apple`s proprietary system. [Of course, they CAN purchase the digital music from the non-Apple related provider, burn it onto CD, lose a generation of sound quality and then rip it. Phew!]
So, Australian consumers have two choices: spend their money at Apple`s iTunes or risk being branded a copyright infringer a pirate.
Technology was supposed to make music more freely available to the wider community. It was supposed to inspire musical democracy, freedom of choice, and a fairer go for independent record companies.
Instead, we have Australia`s most popular piece of commercial musical hardware being supported by a single, limited service. Just when did the Australian public agree to this new monopoly?
Described in some recording industry circles as half a service, iTunes is missing Sony/BMG`s repertoire. Reportedly, Apple and Sony/BMG are fighting a turf war over platforms and pricing. This battle represents a continuation of a battle that has been waged in Japan, Italy and elsewhere. There also seem to be significant gaps in back catalogue on the iTunes service. Some of the indies are there, but many are not.
Prices for individual tracks on the Oz iTunes service are high – individual tracks cost $1.69 each. Albums are $16.99. After converting to US currency, Oz prices are about 30% higher than in the US. Obviously, the difference is greater when Oz iTunes is compared to Walmart`s US service. There is no discernible reason for this price differential, other than the desire of record companies to maximise their margins.
Aussie iPod owners may find that if they can`t find their desired song on iTunes, they effectively can`t legally have the track on their iPod! In effect, a group of techno geeks at Apple are deciding what music consumers can and can`t have on their iPod, and they’re doing this by deciding what music they will and won`t license for iTunes.
No license no upload no iTunes. Sounds like a monopoly to me!
One of the reasons for the popularity of p2p file sharing systems such as Kazaa was consumers wanted to control their music. They were tired of commercial radio stations and record companies telling them what they could and couldn`t listen to and purchase. Technology was supposed to free them from the controls of the majors. Well, the technology is here, and instead of major record companies from a few multinational companies deciding what music consumers CAN purchase, now the decision is being made by a single multinational company Apple.
What qualifications does Apple have to decide what music consumers can and can`t have on their digital music player? What insurance is in place to ensure that independent Australian record companies get a fair go from Apple, and ensure their music is made available for iTunes users under reasonable terms?
For a long time there was no iTunes service in Australia. What guarantees do we have Apple`s lawyers won`t sue consumers who by-passed Apple`s proprietary system with cracking technology, and populated their iPods with music obtained from Bigpond music, Ninemsn music, or any of the other pre-iTunes authorised Australian services? How do we know the major record companies won`t join them? As a monopoly what guarantees are in place to ensure that Apple won`t hold Australian recording artists up for ransom, in order to maximise returns to their shareholders?
Before the digital revolution there were six major record companies, about thirty significant independent record companies, and hundreds of opportunities for aspiring young recording artists to have their songs heard. Now, BMG and many indies are gone. If you want to be successful, the good news is you only have to convince one staffer to support your music the bad news is it`s probably going to be a technophile at Apple.
And before you take your single shot at success, remember he probably cares more about megabytes than melody.
The major record companies haven`t been answerable to community tastes for a long time, relying on Idol type shows rather than any genuine search for talent. Now they’ve ceded control to Apple. If majors like Universal and Warner are being forced to bow to Apple, what hope do small independent record companies and artists have to survive the digital age, let alone thrive? The technology based democracy has turned into a musical dictatorship, and this time consumers don`t get a vote.
[Malik is a lawyer, music industry commentator and academic researcher at the University of Technology in Sydney.]