What-why-where Pod
When it comes to music and the Internet, the iPod has stolen the show – but no one agrees on what to do for an encore.

By J.H. Tompkins

LATE ONE NIGHT many years ago, while stumbling through a pedestrian tunnel in the New York City subway system, I saw these words scrawled with a black marker on a grimy white tile wall: "Mick is sex." –"Mick" was Mick Jagger, and in the still young world of rock and roll, he embodied all of the raging, ferocious sexual currents that burned so hot and wild they threatened to consume Western culture. Or so it seemed, which is the same thing.

Today Mick is just an empty seashell left by the tides on an anonymous private beach. A parade of new royals have since sat on the throne, but none more notable than this year's model. Sex incarnate has deserted flesh and blood and taken up residence in a thing, an object, the thong of digital devices, pure techno-sex: the sleek, white plastic housing of Apple Computers' fabulous iPod.

Pod people

"I've got an iPod," Aquarius Records' Allen Horrocks says, before pointing at his partner, Andee Connors, and adding, "and so does he. We love them. I don't download music, but it's full of albums I own. I mean, the technology is amazing."

Longtime Aquarius employees, Horrocks and Connors now own the store. And if the claims of the Recording Industry Association of America, the voice of the music industry, are to be believed – rumors are its leaders are going to call a press – the two men shouldn't be laughing about the contortions some of their customers go through in order to get new music on iPods and avoid paying full price (or even at all) for what they want to hear.

"The thing is," Connors says, "in order to get people to buy music, they have to listen to music. And I can't think of anything that's more of a sign that people are listening to music than the fact that almost everyone seems to own an iPod."

Not everyone, maybe, but despite prices once described as wildly expensive, it's tough to find a music fan who hasn't purchased one. As a service to the few among us unfamiliar with the iPod (could anyone have missed the recent billboard saturation campaign?), here's the necessary background information: a child of the Sony Walkman, the iPod is a portable music device that delivers good quality digital sound and weights less than two CD jewel cases. Using Apple's iTunes application, you can "rip" CDs onto your computer hard drive or iPod. If you want to shop for new music, you can go to the iTunes Music Store, where it's possible to purchase the 400,000 songs Apple has licensed from various record labels. The selection has limits – the most glaring being the absence of music recorded for small indie labels – but it's growing steadily.

Last month Apple announced it sold 733,000 songs in the first quarter of fiscal year 2004, generating $256 million. For an idea of where that fits into Apple's health and welfare, the company sold 829,000 computers during the same period, bringing in $1.3 billion in sales. Business related to the iPod amounted to approximately 9 percent of Apple's gross income during that quarter. In two years, company spokespeople dreamily predict, it'll bring in nearly half of the annual gross. Meanwhile Time named the iTunes Music Store the Invention of the Year while Fortune named it Technology Product of the Year. Equally instructive was this "criticism," courtesy of CNET Reviews senior editor Elliot Van Buskirk: "Although everyone can think of reasons why they want an iPod, I've decided to use this column to list a few reasons why not to buy one. Before you send me rants for putting down the iPod, please read the list, realize that we still love the iPod, and take a deep breath."

Of course, it's easy to find potshots at Apple and the iPod in the prickly (and well-informed) world of blogs – where geeks, music pirates, and anticommercial activists lob criticism ranging from sound quality to expense and relationship to the music industry. But in mainstream media, the iPod seems to have an honored place at the table – not bad for a device that depends on the Internet to work.

Will music do for Apple what the company's graceful desktop interface couldn't? Will America's passion for the iPod induce the populace to desert the boring, predictable PC universe and begin to "Think different," as the company slogan goes? I'm hardly qualified to speak about PCs, since I don't know much about business applications and I've worked on Macintosh machines since 1984. But it makes sense to me that music, and not Windows compatibility, could do the trick. Take this test and decide for yourself: Do you collect spread sheets? Do you bring accounting software with you to impress a first date? Ask the same questions about music, and you'll see what I mean.

Collision course

There are nearly as many theories about the future of music as there are iPods in circulation – people offer praise, prayers, curses, and questions about sound quality, cost, access, artistic freedom, aesthetic problems, and god knows what else. At the end of the day, however, the commotion is about zeros and ones, the digits in digital technology. Music can be recorded on relatively inexpensive, artist-owned equipment, and subsequently sent from one place to another via the Internet. These very same things have been the core duties of the record companies that control most of the existing recorded music. The question, therefore, is – and believe me, people are asking it, all the time and loud – this: what is the social value of a company that lacks any core duties but protecting the profits it makes?

The average music fan's attachment to the iPod might go no further than the sensual appeal of its sleek good looks and alluring promise as it rests expectantly in one's hip pocket. But the iPod is currently the most visible, legal example of what is nothing less that a radical change in the fabric of popular culture. Twenty years ago music came on vinyl records neatly wrapped and inserted into carefully decorated cardboard containers. Vinyl was forever, until the late 1980s when the CD arrived, and soon it was forever too.

It took a moment, but consumers coped like champs, celebrating by purchasing CD versions – with bonus cuts – of every piece of vinyl, which was then stored in the basement. What's happening now is dealing a body blow to crate diggers, nostalgia junkies, compulsive collectors, and almost every American music fan over 30. Music – including the new album by your favorite band – will soon be arriving in our computers so that we will be able to hear it but unable to squeeze it firmly in our hands and possess it. In the overstuffed drawers of America, in the refrigerators, toy chests, jewelry and safe deposit boxes, wallets, purses, brains, bowels, and waistlines, having means, and has always meant, holding. Is there anyone out there who remembers the phrases "thinking outside the box" and "new paradigm," widely and wantonly used in cool brick-walled offices and the back room at Il Pirata back in the '90s? Dust off those words, because digital music is in the process of kicking out the brick-and-mortar jams and creating a new paradigm. Get up off your butt and force yourself to think outside the box – it's about time, and besides, change keeps a person young.

A lot of people are ready and willing, and they'll make out fine, most likely as Internet pirates – illegally downloading anything and everything they want and a lot of what they don't want simply because they can. And maybe – if they've been raised properly, or if the courts begin to hand out jail time for boosting music – they'll even pay for something at iTunes every once in a while. The changes can be hard to track; imagine how corporate America – still struggling to program the VCR - feels. Can't put yourself in their shoes? Well, I can, and here's the truth: it freaks them out, which is evident each time a gang of process servers descend on a middle school to hand out anti-piracy lawsuits courtesy of the RIAA. The enemy – sixth graders, Mexican peasants, WTO activists, all of them – aren't playing by the rules. The Iraqi army was supposed to wait in the desert like good, dumb natives for five seconds so U.S. troops could cut them into little pieces with all their cool hardware. In fact, the army of industry lawyers who fire indiscriminately into crowds of music fans – they nailed a 12-year-old girl from Concord a few weeks back – bring to mind nothing so much as U.S. troops stationed in Iraq trying to enforce an unfair status quo on their hosts. Once the genie is out of the bottle enjoying the convenience of online downloads, the democracy thing, a little justice, a little freedom, things change rapidly, and for good.

Keepin' it Real

There aren't many people close to music or the music industry who would disagree with the fact that things are changing and that they really need to change. You'll find nearly as many opinions, plans, and paradigms as people to forward them. The bottom line is that no one knows what is going to happen. When the future finally arrives, it's clear that one man will have played an important role in shaping it.

Steve Jobs has as much clout as anyone this side of Texas right now, and since he seems intent on expanding Apple's influence in the distribution of music – making him a major player – you hope he's up to the task, and I'm not talking about a business plan. He arrived at this year's MacWorld Expo bearing still-too-expensive mini iPods in a bouquet of colors than made me wonder if he dotted his i's with a smiley face. Still, Jobs is riding high and hard: the iPod has enormous cachet, and iTunes provides a graceful if limited interface. What's missing is music recorded beyond the reach of the major labels, which means the site has major problems. Hope is on the way – rumors are everywhere, and maybe one or two are actually true – as consortiums of indie and micro labels join forces to provide under-the-radar material to iTunes.

The RIAA has made a fair amount of music available to iTunes but at a cost so steep it keeps the price of downloads high. It's not hard to imagine that the major labels aren't anxious to share space on iTunes with their smaller competitors. Nor is it less than totally believable that the music industry as we know it is capable of being so terminally arrogant that it sits on the sidelines and watches itself slide into irrelevancy.

"All it would take," Jon Maples theorized recently, "is for a band to have a huge hit – a superstar kind of hit – without a label. And in the blink of an eye, the old order would be irrelevant." Maples, a one-time Bay Guardian managing editor, who worked in the trenches of the Internet world for years, is a terminal music obsessive whose passions have given him a unique feel for the enormous possibilities posed by the digital revolution. "What I think would be the worst thing," he continued, "is for Jobs to play it safe."

At Real.com (formerly Listen.com), the last man standing of the Bay Area's music dot-coms, there didn't seem to be much of a question about that. "Rhapsody is so much better than iTune that they should scarcely be mentioned in the same breath," Real.com staffer Matt Graves said.

I sat down, and with Graves explaining, quickly understood what he was talking about. While the company provides customers with an online store in the vein of iTunes, the real attraction is a Rhapsody, a subscription service that offers irresistible extras: reviews, original features about various artists, video, DVD, and "if you like"-style introductions to new artists. Real.com honcho Tim Quirk entered in midstream, and for the 20th time in the past couple of years, I saw the look of dreamer's determination cross his face, and listened as he went to work.

"Honestly," he began, "I can't tell you how far superior Rhapsody is." After thinking about it – not to mention checking out a few of the off-the-cuff opinion pieces e-mailed by music obsessive L.A. lawyer Bob Lefsetz – I agreed, but I didn't really care all that much. Lefsetz, whose missives have a kind of sawed-off feel to them, said it better than I did. "The problem with the music business," he wrote, in a column about Rhapsody, "isn't that people are stealing the tunes, but that the tunes...SUCK!"

Real.com and Rhapsody suffer because they don't have a high-profile media magnet like Jobs, and worse, because they poured their energy into their software, but only Apple has the iPod. And frankly, if the success of Apple, iTunes, and the iPod has anything to do with the high-profile status of Steve Jobs, rock and roll is finally dead.

Writing on the wall

On April 28, 1969, Columbia Records established a cultural low that stands today. As part of company efforts to better penetrate an explosive marketplace, they adopted the phrase "The Man Can't Bust Our Music" as a company motto. Twenty-five years later, American culture, in the middle of an unparalleled moral and ethical crisis, is digging a pit so deep as to render the "Bust Our Music" campaign nothing more than quaint.

At the Feb. 1, 2004, Super Bowl – 20 years after Apple launched the Macintosh with a now-famous commercial spot – the "Think Different" company's iTunes Music Store, in concert with Pepsi, remixed the long-ago Columbia campaign so clearly that the debt can't attributed to random accident. But instead of importing the original's essential appeal – its literary backdrop, fascist imagery, and simple, effective undercutting of the aforementioned – Apple did more than play it safe. Not only did it join forces with an old-guard ugly corporate giant (Pepsi has a bad track record), but it also recruited a handful of captured pirates and sold them to the other side.

Twenty underage targets of RIAA lawsuits for illegal downloading were hired (including one young woman whose pledge to get her music free, a nod to Apple-Pepsi's free download campaign, depends on wink-wink acknowledgment that piracy isn't over until the pirates say it's over) with East Bay celebrity punks Green Day, and the ghost of Bobby Fuller in the form of Green Day's cover of his 1963 hit "I Fought the Law (And the Law Won)" to promote, um, what? A scared-straight policy regarding illegal music downloading? Apple and Pepsi as rebel corporations? iTunes as a kind of digital halfway house – in loco parentis – for errant teens? Even the RIAA is behind this one, despite the reference to pirating; association head Mitch Bainwol told the Associated Press Jan. 29 that it shows that "The debate is not digital versus plastic, it's legitimate versus illegitimate." Bainwol, a man no one will accuse of visionary leadership, has a gift for obscuring the obvious.

Ask me, and I'll tell you Apple should've folded its hand rather than asking fraud-savvy consumers to deal another card in order to bet 20 hapless kids and Apple's rep as an industry rebel against the stain of getting into bed with Pepsi; think different, my ass.

The bottom line is that at this point, legal downloading has such a small chunk of the online action that it's a stretch to think shopping (shoplifting) habits can be changed. Kazaa, one of the most popular peer-to-peer sites, facilitated the sharing of more than a billion files. The price the music industry is paying for pretending the situation would disappear is that a few generations of American youth have large record collections and have never paid for a single song.

Encore

I spent last fall on sabbatical, many miles from the nearest record store. Early one morning, while reading an e-mail from an old friend, I remembered a concert we'd attended back in the day and was consumed by a need to hear Derek and the Dominoes studio version of "Layla." I was an iTunes Music Store virgin; I clicked my way through the front door, stumbled once or twice, and in a few minutes owned (for a mere $29.97) The Layla Sessions: The 20th Anniversary Edition.

At several points during the next three months, a couple of lines from Slick Rick's "Children Story" came to mind: "They did the job, money came with ease / But one couldn't stop it's like he had a disease." That was me and iTunes, except for the money, which went, lots of it. There's something special about record shopping at 2 a.m., the All Music Guide Web site open, my credit card on the desk in front of me. The experience was – for me, anyway – all about instant gratification. I like instant gratification, and I like iTunes, which should offer me a plaque with my name on it on its site.

Last week I called Mark Weinstein, part owner of Amoeba Music, and asked him if the online downloading had effected the company. "I doubt it," he said, sounding genuinely unconcerned. "The more people listen to music – no matter how they get it – the more music they want. That's just how it works."

Speaking just for myself, I think what he meant was that business is business and music is music. And if you've got music in your life, especially if it's a lot of music, things are alright. He seemed to have things in their proper perspective.

My perspective changed during my fall of wild downloading – most noticeable in the 2,500 albums I ripped onto the hard drive of my iMac and subsequently onto my 15 gigabyte iPod. When I want music these days, I head for the computer, not for the 8,000 CDs on the shelves I had built. I've decided to rip most of them, back up the files, and then sell most of the CDs. I hate jewel cases, and besides, music is something meant to be on your computer. It would be accurate to say that I experienced a paradigm shift, and that I can't live without my iPod. Music has never been better.


February 4, 2004