Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Nobody can stop the music

If proof were ever needed that the Recording Industry Just Don't Get It, Have Never Had It, and indeed shall Never, Ever Seem To Have The Sense To Get It, then one need look no further than the long delayed, keenly anticipated introduction of the Australian iTunes Music Store.

Poor Apple! Their experience with the music store overseas has by now definitely taught them that "if you lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas", and the probable reason Apple have an woo-woo phobia about their executives not being photographed is because the labels (those who would play ball, anyway) have given them a great big wedgie. I mean, a Dilbert-sized wedgie where your underthings are now flapping around your ears.

Why would I be so unkind? I've been looking forward to a legitimate means of buying music for my iPod since, well, my first one (I've had three, upgrading each time Apple upgraded their design). Welcome to the 21st Century, where advanced technologies allow us to dispense with archaic methods of distribution like physical shiny, circular disks sold from large, industrially decored music stores housed in shopping malls with exorbitant rents the cost of which is no doubt passed on to me as a part of the price. Why, with the costs of digital distribution amounting to a mere sliver of the physical costs of a CD plus the retail costs involved in wages, freight, hoarding, rent and so on, we could all look forward to recording companies seizing the initiative and offering really competitive prices, yes?

O, ho! ho! Actually, if you believe that then I should tell you that there are also tiny pixies inside your radio with a great range of impressions, but you knew that, didn't you?

Let's look at a couple of simple comparisons. I love Audiobooks, and I was pleased to note when I checked out the Australian iTunes Music Store that there was an audiobook section. From the word go, everything seemed so dear. "Hang on," I thought, "you're so used to browsing the U.S music store, remember these are Australian prices, that you can actually pay for instead of merely browsing", pressing your nose to the glass, so to speak. I picked something randomly. "Very Good Jeeves", by PG Wodehouse (under "Classics") Australian Music Store price, AU$60.99. Yep, you read that right. Over sixty dollars for an Audiobook! Gad! How much would I pay if I walked into Dymocks (a large Australian book retailer) and bought the same Audiobook? $19.95

Buying from a biggish bookstore is less than a third as much. Are they serious? Ok, I'm a geek. What about music that actual humans listen to?

Missy Higgins "The Sound of White" is listed as $19.99 at HMV's website. If I wanted to buy that album through iTunes I would have to do so song by song and would pay $21.97. Crowded House's "Recurring Dream" isn't available as a "set price" either, so I'd pay $57.46 to buy the collection through iTunes versus $22.99 at HMV. Even if I bought one CD from that set it's still 50% dearer at $32.11 from iTunes.

Most of the tracks at the Australian Store are $1.69. Tracks at the U.S iTunes Store are 99 cents. At today's exchange rate (75.1 AU cents to the US$) if pricing were equal then Australians should be paying only AU$1.32. That's a 28% premium on exactly the same music, which costs exactly the same to produce and distribute digitally. If this isn't an infraction of the AU/US Free Trade Agreement then I don't know what is.

Technology has moved ahead in so many ways in the last decades that its efficiencies have given us a quality of life scarcely imagined a century ago. I can pick up a device little bigger than a matchbox and talk to a friend in the UK. I can dispatch pictures and text to a colleague in Queensland to secure an international trade in Peru (via Denmark). We can sequence DNA with a device that, in one hour, replaces the manual work of a year. I can store, on my desktop Firewire drive, 400 Gigabytes of data, which, when I started in the computer industry a decade ago, would have cost as much as my entire house does now. But what happens when we bring the newest technology to the selection and delivery of TV, film and music? It costs more, and we get less. Against this backdrop of advancement and value, what do these anomalies signify? That the media distribution paradigms of record companies, TV studios and film houses are irretrievably broken, and that, in some cases the only solution would be for certain bodies like the RIAA to literally vote themselves out of existence, which I can't see happening anytime soon.

In an effective market where quality and demand freely allows commodities like media to find their own price point, technologies can serve to ensure that the chain of distribution does not impose a disproportionate tax on their success. When entire industries are based *solely* on archaic, unfair and greedy distribution models, then it is time for them to go.


Anonymous said...

For this very reason I have no remorse in downloading my music collections from peer to peer.

Anonymous said...

You're such a free marketeer! I'll make a libertarian out of you yet!