iTunes – An Analysis of a New Medium
“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!” – The Smiths, “Paint a Vulgar Picture”
A.K.A. iTunes for dummies, then WHAM-ZOW! historical extrapolations and analysis.
A subway train in New York City. A back seat of a Camry. A college dorm room. What do these three locations have in common? Hidden among each location are little white earbuds pervading the spaces, connected to an “iCon” of the new millennium, the iPod. Of course, this gadget wouldn’t be possible without the current largest music distribution platform in the world: iTunes. Established by Apple in 2001, iTunes has a near ubiquitous presence across the digital landscape in terms of its content distribution. In looking at iTunes current popularity, it’s easy to get lost in all the hype and forget how this new media technology developed. And although iTunes has many beneficial assets, it also has some pitfalls that need to be mentioned. This article attempts to address and analyze these overlooked aspects of iTunes. Despite some of its limitations, the platform overall is beneficial as a stable content distributor while the music industry struggles during a crisis.
As a piece of media history, iTunes finds its developmental roots from two sources; one of these was the personal computer, which proved vital in making iTunes what it is today. Beginning with the popularity of home computers in the 1980s and their advancements, computing opened doors to the dematerialization and acquisition of content within the home. And with the expansion of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, both of these developments laid the foundations for the acquisition of content online and its storage in the home computer. Today, the computer serves as the primary way to access iTunes; its presence is essential to the use of iTunes as both its point of access and its storage of content.
The other key element to the creation of iTunes was the creation of CDs, or more specifically, the era of mp3s that was ushered in after music became digital. As scholars have noted (Drew 2005; McLeod 2005), it was the record labels’ marketing push for CDs over vinyl in the late 1980s that created the new possibilities of digital music manipulation and content control that was never possible with analog sources. The new format of the CD enabled consumers to rip songs, create their own mixes, and upload music to the web, among other things. Thus, as McLeod notes, “the industry opened the door to the digital worlds, but it was dragged the rest of the way by the consumer-led file trading movement” (526). This shift towards a new era of immaterial digital content is another essential component of iTunes, as the distribution of digital content is its raison d’être. Without the new era of the mp3s, iTunes, quite frankly, wouldn’t exist as it does today.
One of iTunes’ key features is the iTunes Store, where users may easily purchase and download any digital content they desire. The iTunes Store in particular has many benefits, one of them being convenience. There is no need to leave one’s home to purchase the latest album release, rather, it can all be done online with minimal hassle and maximum content control. The purchase and subsequent download of a song straight into the iTunes Player illustrates the instant gratification of one’s digital content desires, a process now expedited by iTunes. The amount of content is also admirable in that the iTunes Store is almost inundated with it: the iTunes Store currently has over 13 million songs available for download, and that is just the musical content available. Besides the sheer amount of content, the iTunes Store also enables users to purchase music that is normally difficult to consume outside of the digital realm. Even if the music is obscure, out of print, or from across the globe, any iTunes user is able to circumvent these limits and purchase the music they desire, if in the catalog. iTunes facilitates the purchasing process of digital media content in providing all types of content that can be rapidly acquired by users.
Another feature to iTunes is how it strives to become an all-in-one platform for manipulating media content. All of one’s music, movies, TV shows, applications, and more are located in the iTunes Player on one’s computer, allowing for quick and easy enjoyment for all different types of content. The iTunes Player also allows its users to manipulate its content as well, such as creating playlists, burning CDs, and rating their favorite songs. Portability is also a benefit, as iTunes content may be synched to Apple prducts for casual use throughout the day. By enabling its users to manipulate their content, the iTunes Player allows users to fully satisfy their media content needs.
iTunes has another surprising asset, in that it actually somewhat prevents illegal downloading by attracting people away from torrent sites. In their research, Francesco Sandulli and Samuel Martín-Barbero find that “the main driver of the willingness to pay for online music is value.” (10, emphasis in original). Essentially, they conclude that “P2P users are being attracted to legal download services by catalogues of millions of songs, exclusive content such as exclusive songs or artist’s merchandising, and safe download environments” (13). This description of legal download services completely fits iTunes, being one of the legal music sites analyzed in their work (6). Thus by being a highly functioning platform for media content aggregation, iTunes acts as an attractive alternative to illegal downloading, something record companies are at least thankful for.
Despite all these benefits to iTunes, there are some pitfalls to the technology as well. One is arguably that a key facet of the iTunes Store is that for musicians to sell their music on iTunes, they still must work with an established distribution company. This continues to support the record companies, who Kembrew McLeod explains has had an exploitative music monopoly for the past century (523). McLeod illustrates that record labels were “able to secure [their] dominance because [they] controlled the means of production” (251). However, with the new technology of the mp3 and other digital media formats today, artists could ideally create and sell their own music without the need of a record company because “recording, production and distribution costs have radically dropped in price” (McLeod 521). However, iTunes appears to hinder the record companies’ downfall by requiring artists to work with an established distributor. This does not stop non-label artists from selling altogether; however, it does prove to be a closed door to the current largest music distributor in the world. In this way, iTunes seems to be a mediator between the old record companies and new media influences; though iTunes contains many new media elements, it keeps the tenet of distribution companies intact. New artists may sign up with a small indie company such as CD Baby and get their music on iTunes, but is seems unnecessary seeing as iTunes deals with non-physical, digital content. By insisting that artists work with a distribution company, iTunes perpetuates the last vestiges of the record companies’ manipulative monopoly over artists.
Another issue arises over the actually cost of the content distributed, in that it is too high. As stated before, “the major label system dominated the music industry because it owned the means of production and distribution” (McLeod 527). Record labels paid the costs of manufacturing and distribution and passed those on to the consumers. But now with digital media, these costs are non-existent, making the standard price of a song for .99 cents completely unreasonable. Although we may appreciate that our money spent goes towards our favorite artists, the artist actually receives “about 10 cents per song. The label takes 65 of the 99 cents” (McLeod 526). Again, there are little production costs associated with digital media, making the prices paid for the iTunes music by users and artists completely unreasonable.
Although iTunes creates a platform that allows for easy access and distribution to a huge amount of media, questions do arise from its model of distribution in how it affects the artistic works of the album. In promoting and allowing the purchase of individual songs as the main way to consume music through, iTunes contributes to what Rob Drew calls the “disaggregation of the album format” (534). Albums are no longer seen as pieces of popular art, but as another subsystem of distribution instead. And by selling individual songs, iTunes perpetuates this trend. There are even claims that iTunes violates the artistic integrity of the music by its promotion and selling of individual songs over albums. Pink Floyd has had seemingly endless legal trouble trying to not have their songs sold individually, which would violate their artistic intentions for cohesive albums. As a new, immaterial method of distribution, iTunes also creates a new model of content consumption, shaping not only how we experience art, but how it is made as well.
Finally, iTunes has one more trait that always seems to raise a few eyebrows: the dematerialization of collections. As noted earlier, iTunes functions as a way to purchase and store content without the aspect of the physical. As David Beer points out, traditionally “the physicality of the collection is an integral part of our relations with it and the identity constructions it facilitates” (76). However, iTunes is revolutionary in allowing its users to store massive amounts of content in minimal amounts of space. Despite this reconfiguration, Beer finds that collections, archived content holding emotional connections, still exist. He notes that “a music archive becomes a music collection when incorporated into the everyday mundane practices of individual agents” (81-2). In other words, people still create emotional connections to their digital content despite the lack of physical presence because they use iTunes daily. Through its trait of dematerialization, iTunes, along with other digital media, is reconfiguring these habits of collecting rather than destroying them.
As we have seen, iTunes has many complex elements intertwined with its existence, making it difficult to judge its entire impact on culture as it still develops. Though its system of distribution is very accessible and allows its users to manipulate content easily, traits emerging from its past media influences, it has over priced music for the amount of content and costs associated, necessitating distribution companies, and manipulating artists’ intentions, whether intentional or not. But despite these flaws, iTunes continues to play an important role as a ubiquitous, established music distributor. As the music industry is in a crisis and a time of change, iTunes acts as a stable distributor, making it vastly popular. It will be interesting to see how iTunes changes as the musical production landscape changes due to new media, making it ripe for analysis in the future.
Beer, David. “The Iconic Interface and the Veneer of Simplicity.” Information, Communication & Society 11.1 (2008): 71-88. Print.
“CD Baby’s Unlikely Alliance with Best Buy.” Morning Edition for NPR News. NPR. 2 Feb. 2006. NPR. Web. Transcript. 3 May 2011. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5184853>.
Drew, Rob. “Mixed Blessings: The Commercial Mix and the Future of Music Aggregation.” Popular Music and Society 28.4 (2005): 533-551. Print.
McLeod, Kembrew. “MP3s Are Killing Home Taping: The Rise of Internet Distribution and Its Challenge to the Major Label Music Monopoly.” Popular Music and Society 28.4 (2005): 521-531. Print.
Sandulli, Francesco D., and Samuel Martin-Babero. “99 Cents per Song: A Fair Price for Digital Music? The Effects of Music Industry Strategies to Raise the Willingness to Pay of P2P Users.” Journal of Website Promotion 2 (2007): 3-16. Print.
Random footnotes that belong…somewhere!
This truthfully clever phrase comes out of David Beer’s work (2005), to be addressed later.
It is important to note that although iTunes provides an array of different digital content, much of the focus will be in how iTunes affects music distribution and collections, as this is most prominent focus of iTunes and much of its scholarly work as well.
Although iTunes does advertise its other media content, music sales still seems to be the primary emphasis in the iTunes store.
It is important to note how the iTunes Player and the iTunes Store are inherently intertwined, as the iTunes Store can only be accessed through the iTunes Player. Both are inherent and essential to the structure of iTunes.
Such elements are the complete digitization and dematerialization of content, a culture of convergence where content may be experienced across multiple platforms (for instance, the iPod, computer…), etc.
Interestingly, this company that “allows musicians to get their work distributed nationally, at little cost” (“CD Baby”) was recently acquired by Best Buy.