A column about iTunes

At the time of going to press, rumours were flying furiously around about the iTunes Music Store finally making it to Australia on Tuesday of next week. If the rumours are true, by the time you read this, the Inner West’s phalanx of white headphone-toting iPodders will finally be able to legally download music through the software that comes with their stainless steel status symbols. This is momentous news for both the inner-city trendies and the computer nerd community. How momentous? Well, it’s almost as good as if your computer could make you a latte and play Red Dwarf trivia with you at the same time.

If you’re neither one of the Coke-bottle-glasses brigade nor a black skivvy-wearing iPoseur who hangs tough at the Glebe Pt Rd AppleCentre, though, you could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about. The iTunes Music Store is the world’s most popular way of legally buying music for your computer. In America, songs cost 99c, and over 500 million of them have been purchased since the service started two and a half years ago. Albums cost only $9.99, which, at current exchange rates, is less than half the $30 we pay for CDs. The songs are automatically copied to your iPod, and can be burnt onto blank CDs. In short, it’s the best way to prevent stealing music. Or at least it would have been if those telltale white headphones didn’t make it so easy for would-be music thieves to just mug iPod owners instead.

It’s been a long time coming, and fans have been disappointed before. There were apparently plans to launch it midyear, and Sony/BMG’s disagreement with Apple was cited as the reason for the delay. I think they should have pressed on regardless – the store’s potential lack of Shannon Noll and Anthony Callea songs is actually a feature.

Why’s it taken so long? Sweden, Austria, Japan and even Luxembourg now have their own iTunes stores. So I can’t understand why Australian record companies have been so narky about all this. On the one hand they constantly complain about how piracy’s hit CD sales, and on the other they make things impossible for the company that’s doing most to promote legal downloading. Sure, Sony’s got its own far more unpopular range of music players, and is probably trying to lock its music into them. But they need to look at the big picture. Because piracy is absolutely rife. It doesn’t just happen through the high-profile offenders like Napster and Kazaa. These days, you can borrow a CD off a mate and burn a perfect copy in a couple of minutes – or just let software like iTunes digitise it for you. Entire TV series can now be downloaded from the internet, and while it’s mostly smut and Star Trek for now, it can’t be long before this starts eating into DVD sales of good programmes.

But the iTunes store is priced so low that it may just save the industry – and not just the music industry. The American store now sells TV shows for a mere $2 shortly after they go to air. And while it seems more humane to force Desperate Housewives addicts to go cold turkey than to allow them to download their fix the next day, the bottom line is that people are paying for content that, whether by downloading or swapping videotapes, they previously got for free. Selling downloadable feature films – the most popular content for illegal downloads as people get faster internet connections – is surely not far away.

Even after years of the industry lecturing us on how it’s wrong to copy things, it’s safe to say that most Australians aren’t too fussed if it’s “just for a mate.” So another way must be found of extracting value from this content. The answer lies in making it more pleasant and convenient to buy legal content. Which is exactly what the iTunes music store does. So when it finally arrives, let’s applaud a victory for common sense. It will lead to the spread of legal, paid-for content in place of the pirated. It may also lead to the dangerous proliferation of Desperate Housewives video clips. But that’s a price I’m prepared to pay.

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