Feature Article
Apple's iTunes Music Store vs. Free Downloading

June 1, 2003
By Scott Lewis

I have been reading a lot about Apple's new music service, iTunes Music Store. I do not have a Mac, so I will try it out when the Windows/PC version of this service is available. I hope Apple ports its iTunes program to Windows in the process.

It seems there are a lot of people either all for this new service, or people that just think it sucks. From my observation, those against Apple's Music Store dislike it for one of three main reasons:

  1. The selection of music is too limiting.
  2. They claim the AAC format that Apple uses is inferior to the defacto standard MP3 format.
  3. They think 99 cents is still way too much to pay for a song, and $9.99 is too much to pay for an album.

One complaint I have not heard from any Mac users is that the service limits your usage of the downloads. You are allowed to copy a downloaded song to two additional Macs, you can burn songs to CD as many times as you want, but you can only burn the same "playlist" to a CD up to ten times. Keep in mind that once you burn a song to CD you can then use whatever software you like to "rip" the song into MP3 format and then copy that file around as much as you like. I think this is a very reasonable limitation. Only those that are hard core into burning, ripping and burning again are going to go through all that trouble to add to the piracy of music. Most people will use this system without thinking about it. And that is the key to a good copy protection system... it should limit you so little that you don't (or barely) realize that you are being limited. Good job Apple!

Since I haven't been hearing complaints about Apple's conservative restriction of use, let's just look at the top three complaints.

Song Selection

Apparently the service only has 200,000 songs. I have heard that this is probably a lot of the same cookie cutter songs that get played over and over on the radio. They don't even have Beatles songs in the iTunes Music Store.

O.K. There is truth to this problem, but I would hope that Apple is diligently trying to increase the songs to make the service better over time. Also, keep in mind that this service DOES NOT require a monthly subscription fee. You don't have to spend a dime to find out there are no Beatles songs. You can just buy what you want or go away. No harm, no foul!

I think it is fair to assume that the record labels are providing the limitations to the songs available. Hopefully if this is a success (and it seems to be with over 2 millions songs purchased in the first two weeks the service was available) the music industry will realize the advantage to a music service that minimized restrictions of use and does not force a monthly fee down our throats.

Let's hope the selection will improve, as we would expect of any first to market service like this.

Inferior Sound Format

I can't answer directly to this topic until this Windows user can buy downloads for himself. However, I can make a few generalizations based on my own ear and listening habits. For starters, I am NOT a audiophile guru. I probably can't hear the difference between very good and great quality in music. I spend a lot of time listening to my MXP 100 MP3 player loaded with 64 kbps MP3 files. I can make an educated guess that I will not be able to here the difference between Apple's AAC files and standard 128 kbps MP3 files.

Are AAC files really worse than MP3? For my ears I have to say, "who cares." I bet there isn't a lot of difference one way or another. Given the time I bet I could find examples of songs that sound better in each format. Sorry, I am copping out on this one. I think they will be good enough. I'll bet they sound better than the vinyl singles I used to buy.

Cost Per Song

So this problems with iTunes Music Store boils down to price. Is 99 cents too much for a song? Is $9.99 to much for an album?

About three years ago we sold our old house in preparation for building our current home. We initially moved into an apartment, and knew that it was a temporary situation. So we had to pack up A LOT of our stuff for long term storage.

During that packing stage I pulled out the box of 45 RPM singles I have saved since I was a kid. I looked through them and noticed two important things. First, I still love the same music I have always loved, because I had downloaded all but one or two of the songs I had once bought many years before. Next, most of the singles still had the price on them and all but one were between 99 cents and $2.49. I noticed that I paid $3.49 for one single. The majority of singles were priced at $1.49.

So, if $1.49 for two songs (one of which was rarely listened to) was acceptable then why isn't 99 cents for one song acceptable today? Those against the price refer to the fact that there is no manufacturing costs, no album art, no liner notes, etc. Well, I can tell you that very few singles in the old days came with art on their sleeves, but a few did. However, from what I understand you get the album cover as part of the song from Apple, and it displays in iTunes when you play the song. So much for the album art issue.

Next they complain about liner notes and lyrics. Again, no single in my collection has liner notes or lyrics.

That leaves the manufacturing end of it. Yes, when you download a song the people you download it from did not have to stamp out a piece of plastic or vinyl and ship it to a store, where the store received a percentage of the revenue for providing a shelf for you to get the song from. 

What about inflation. When I was a kid using my allowance to buy a single, $1.49 meant something. I can still remember going to the movies for that kind of money. (I am seriously dating myself now.) If we went strictly by inflation a song on a piece of tangible plastic should cost at least $4.

We also need to consider technology. Music is influenced by technology. Cassette decks used to cost hundreds of dollars, and are now very inexpensive. CD Players used to cost hundreds of dollars, and now you can get portable ones for 30 bucks. Even without going into the promise the music industry broke about the cost of CDs dropping after the investment they made to "retool," all technology items get cheaper over time. Cassettes are cheaper, blank CDs are cheaper, etc.

As I see it a percentage of the cost SHOULD be going to the artist. (We won't taint this argument with the music industry screwing its artist, otherwise we all should be massively boycotting buying music.) An equivalent percentage should still be going to the artist today. That alone implies that inflation needs to play some part in the cost of a single today, download or otherwise. Even if we want to taint this argument with artists being mistreated by their own employers, we still see quite a few mega rich artists. Clearly they are getting paid.

What this all boils down to is how much is a song worth, regardless of whether you remove a substantial part of the manufacturing process. Is 99 cents too much to pay. I don't think so. But I do think that 99 cents for every song is too much. 

Remember, I said that I have downloaded just about every song I originally bought as a vinyl single. I would not want to pay the same price for a 20-30 year old song as I would for the latest songs from today's artists.

99 cents is a good starting point, but there should be some kind of discounts for older songs were royalty payments are less of an issue. I can easily see old 60's tunes, especially where the artist is dead, should sell for no more than 10 cents to cover the minimal cost of dropping a file onto a server.

Now let's look at the $9.99 price for an album. Let's say you get 15 songs on an album. I know this is a stretch, but bare with me. Of the CDs in my own collection I would say that less than 30 of the albums have more than half the songs on one album that I really like. I have over 150 CDs currently (I lost count with buying and selling over the years). I can tell you that all the CDs I sold had two or less songs that I liked, or I wouldn't have sold them.

Let's do a little math. 120 CDs with less than half their songs considered "worthwhile" by me. That means 7 or less songs per CD. Even at the huge stretch that I liked 7 songs on each of those CDs that would only be $6.93 if I paid 99 cents per song. Is it fair to charge $9.99 for a downloaded album overflowing with filler songs. I don't think so. Since you are not even getting the media for this entire album I would think there is no reason to buy the album when you could just buy the songs that you actually like.

In the end I think 99 cents is fair, for current, popular music. Oldies and such should be discounted, and albums clearly need to have a bigger discount to account for the fact they are having you buy a bunch of fluff to get a couple of good songs.


As I said near the beginning, Apple does not charge a monthly fee. That is reason enough to try its service. I will. Hopefully they will consider adjusting the price for older songs where the artist made the big money already, and they will get a larger selection of music.

If it costs nothing to join and browse there selection, what's the harm in trying it out?

Rock On!