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The Internet was made to Deliver Music

The iTunes Store is not only the most successful online music retail store, it’s the most successful music retail store. Period. And while that’s an undoubtedly insane accomplishment for Apple, music sales have begun to decline as more and more listeners choose on-demand subscription services like Rdio and Spotify over the ‘buy once, own forever’ model of the iTunes Store. I think it’s not even worth questioning if Apple is aware of this movement. They are.

What is worth questioning, however, is just how much Apple cares that customers seem to be moving toward this other model. If you followed Apple during the earlier days of the iTunes Music Store, then you’ve probably heard a lot of talk from a special someone very high up in the company who strongly believed that people ‘want to own their music’.

iTunes is a lot more traditional than you may think.

Now, whether that’s actually true is questionable, and today’s evolving music landscape would probably beg to differ. Could it be that the infrastructure (networking, devices, etc.) when the iTunes Music Store first went live in 2003 wasn’t ready for a system that made it enjoyable, let alone feasible, to stream music on demand? Probably. Or maybe we were all too used to that ‘buy once, own forever’ philosophy that the iTunes Store shared with traditional music stores? I’d say so.

It turns out that one of the really brilliant things about the iTunes Music Store is that it’s obvious, almost laughably obvious. The basic concept behind the iTunes Store is that it’s a music store reimagined for the Internet. It’s a music buying experience in a very similar way to that of CD stores in the nineties, minus the physicality of a brick and mortar shop.

Almost everything that made sense about traditional music stores was brought over to the iTunes Store, and almost everything that didn’t make sense was changed. Basically, it was really well thought out, and that probably made it a lot easier for record labels to trust Apple initially.

While the iTunes Store is fundamentally a lot like traditional music stores, Apple wasn’t afraid to adapt the experience to take advantage of the brilliance of the Internet. iTunes made it incredibly easy to preview songs before purchasing—something that was either impossible or a royal pain in the ass when shopping at an old school music store.

iTunes was the first great way to legally enjoy music shopping on the Internet. But it's not alone anymore.

iTunes also, for better or worse, let customers purchase songs individually, which is something that made the original incarnation of Napster so freakin’ popular1, and I think it’s safe to say that this has completely changed the way that people buy and even make music today.

Internet is Made for Music 3.jpg

Over the course of the next five years, iTunes grew to become the massive phenomenon that it is today, surpassing Walmart in 2008 to become the biggest music retailer in the United States, and it all made sense. After all, iTunes was the first truly great way to legally enjoy music shopping and listening on the Internet.

But iTunes isn’t alone anymore, and the seemingly obvious business model and philosophy behind it is starting to be questioned amongst even the most mainstream of music listeners. That's because, like with iTunes, the concept behind the streaming music service also happens to be really obvious. It’s a really spectacular experience for listeners, and it’s still getting better.

My mom used to always tell me that what she really wanted was to be able to, in her own words, ‘call up’ any song and listen to it on demand. I’ve heard her, along with tons of other people, say that Pandora would be really great if it would just play any song at any time, and I think that concept is pretty obvious. With services like Spotify, it's finally coming to life, and I think that ‘customers’ are loving it.

But where this all falls apart—and I mean really falls apart—is when you start to look at the business model of these services, and most importantly how it impacts artists. I wrote a post about the impact that I’ve personally seen streaming services have on my music, and since writing that post almost a year ago, I’ve removed my record from those services all together.2 (Teaser: I’m coming back.)

Streaming services really fucking suck for independent musicians.

If you haven’t had the chance to read that post, I’ll sum it up for you: these services really fucking suck for independent musicians, and I can only assume that this is also true for artists signed to major labels. The problem is in the business model, and that’s something that doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon.

The way that these services make money, as I understand it, is that the two primary sources of income come from advertisers3 and premium subscribers. Subscribers usually pay about $5-$10 per month for the ability to listen to music offline or on-the-go with a mobile device. There are other perks here and there, but I don’t know them because I don’t use these services as a replacement to owning music.

I assume that this money firstly goes toward paying employees, then it’s used to pay off the crazy costs that must be associated with running servers, data centers, whatever. I have to guess that one of the last places this money goes is into the hands of the artist—in fact, I know this—and that’s pretty obviously not the way that it should be.

So while at first glance it would seem that these services are terrific for listeners, they’re not. Because one day, artists aren’t going to be able to afford to be able to make more music to listen to, and that to me points toward a business model that is fundamentally broken at a very low level. Do not be fooled into thinking that these services make it any easier for artists to make their art, because you’ll only be lying to yourself.

What’s scary is that the entire music industry seems to be moving to this model. Except for iTunes.

The iTunes Store is now one of the last standing continuously successful stores in the music industry. Isn’t it funny how iTunes—once talked about as a forward-thinking way to buy and listen to music—has become the arguably traditional solution to consuming music? It’s kind of nuts to think about, but it’s also really interesting to observe.

Steve Jobs, in an interview with TIME’s Laura Locke, said that the Internet was ‘made to deliver music’, and I think he was right.4

It's really easy to think that just because something is intangible, it's worth less than if you were able to hold in your hand.

It’s almost hard for me to remember what it was like to walk into a physical store just to buy, let alone listen to, an album of music. Probably because I was so young when the iTunes Music Store launched. It really did seem like an obvious step for music shopping and delivery, even to a kid as young as I was at the time.

It's kind of hard to argue against the notion that the Internet is a profound medium to deliver content. And as networking technology gets better, and as the people working on these projects get smarter, it’s only going to get better.

But with all of this improvement, we can’t forget to appreciate the business side of content delivery. A lot of people work incredibly hard everyday of their lives to create this stuff, and I think that we tend to forget that the content we love is worth something, and that something happens to be money in most cases.

It’s really easy to think that just because something is intangible, it is somehow worth less than if you were able to hold it in your hand.5 I think that way of thinking is immature, and it shows a pretty big lack of understanding of what goes into making this stuff. More importantly, it’s a completely unsustainable way of thinking, and in the long term, that’s going to be something that everyone—creators and consumers alike—will have to come to terms with.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the iTunes Store evolves, and whether the rumors are true that Apple is planning to embrace subscription-based music delivery. Even more interesting is going to be how they do it, and whether it will be smarter than what the rest of the industry has been working on. And smarter to me means smarter for all pieces of the puzzle: the listener, the distributor, the label (if they’re still important), and the artist.

For a company like Apple, one that has a good history with being very conscious of how a business model can directly affect the longevity of customer happiness, I have high hopes to say the least.

  1. Besides that it was free music.  ↩

  2. Having said that, I will be releasing my new record, CLAYE, on these services. I’ve decided that I’d prefer to fight with words, rather than keeping the music away from listeners who are unwilling to believe that my music is something that is worthy enough of their money.  ↩

  3. I personally find it to be a really sucky experience to have a gapless album interrupted by an unbelievably annoying audio advertisement from Progressive Car Insurance every thirty minutes or so. Maybe that’s just me?  ↩

  4. He was right that the Internet is a terrific way to deliver music, obviously not that it was literally made to deliver music. I’m not sure why I felt like I had to clarify this, but I did.  ↩

  5. I plan to write a lot more about this.  ↩

It's Time to Retire the 'Genius Bar' Name

When Apple decided to start opening up its own retail stores, it was considered a pretty ambitious move. For one thing, the company was still very much on the road to recovery, and the idea of putting up its own stores around the world seemed like a lost cause. But they did it, and the outcome has been tremendous to say the least. I think it’s safe to say that Apple would not be in the position it is today without the Apple Store.

If you’ve ever stepped foot inside of an Apple Store, you’re probably aware of the Genius Bar. It’s basically where customers can go to receive help with their purchases.

The Genius Bar launched in 2001 with Apple’s first retail stores, and the concept was not only welcome, but ahead of its time. It made dealing with Apple’s customer service a more personal experience, and if you were lucky enough to live close to an Apple Store back in 2001, it made the experience way quicker, too.

You even used to be able to just walk in without an appointment—something that would not fly today—to receive help with your product at any time. This is obviously not the case anymore considering the insane popularity of Apple products.

I like to think that the idea behind the Genius Bar name stemmed from Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign1, which also went live around the same time that the first stores opened.

Towards the end of the famous (and timelessly terrific, by the way) Think Different advertisement was this line: “While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.”

Photo by David W. Lee

Photo by David W. Lee

Genius Bars used to have these big black-and-white photographs honoring the people that the company admired. And while it was noticeably supportive of Apple’s advertising at the time, it was nonetheless honest, understated, and inspiringly modest.

Notice the lack of any Apple product photos or videos, or even any Apple branding. The decoration at the Genius Bar was completely devoid of direct marketing, and there was absolutely no implication that Apple was referring to its products as genius, but rather that the faces on this wall have inspired them to go out and create products that make them proud.

A lot has changed since then.

I still think that, as huge as the company is, Apple still has the same values that it did back then. And while those values may and probably are still there, they’re not as present in Apple’s stores.

It’s been many years since the faces of John Lennon and Martin Luther King Jr. have gazed down at Apple Store visitors, because those faces were replaced long ago with looping videos playing a dictionary of technology terminology. What a change.

Photo by Wally Gobetz

Photo by Wally Gobetz

I feel like that alone takes so much away from the ‘Genius Bar’ name. It’s understandable that Apple wouldn’t continue to support an ad campaign that ended over ten years ago, but that leaves me to wonder where the genius in the Genius Bar is.

I also think that the reputation of these stores is hurt by calling the customer support team ‘geniuses’. By looking at Twitter, or even talking to any non-geek out there who has had a personal experience with the Genius Bar, you’ll notice not only a lot of people with negative experiences, but a lot of people mocking the store, too. You’ll notice a lot of people who like to say, “you know, those geniuses weren’t really all that genius”.

And the fact is, they’re not.

I mean, sure, maybe some of them are, or maybe even many of them are—I don’t know! But in every experience that I’ve had with the Genius Bar (I’ve had way too many), I’ve always known more about Apple’s products than they do. And I’m no genius.

I’ve had geniuses misinform me (luckily I knew better) on a number of occasions, and even worse, I’ve had some really bad experiences with the attitude of these employees.

Last year, I had geniuses mock me for being picky about some (admittedly minor) defects in my brand new phone. And while it may not have been completely necessary for me to go back to the store for a replacement, that shouldn’t matter. If you just paid hundreds of dollars for something, you deserve to get something that’s perfect.2

I understand why some Apple Store geniuses act like this, though. Technology is complex, and very few understand how this stuff works, and that must be super frustrating for both the customer and the worker. Having said that, the purpose of these stores is to create a positive experience with customers, both current and future. These stores are supposed to put a face on Apple as a company.

But the face that I see when I walk into an Apple Store today is a face that doesn’t give a shit. They don’t have time for us. They don’t say hello or tell us where to go to get help. You just have to walk in and look for somebody in a blue shirt. They’ll probably tell you to wait, or they’ll send you off to blue-shirted chap halfway across the store who will also tell you to wait some more.3

If you’ve made an appointment for the Genius Bar and you have no prior experience of visiting an Apple Store, good luck finding out what to do when you get there. Usually, there is a single employee with an iPad standing in the back of the store who will check you in. I knew that because I follow this stuff, but I can’t imagine how that hide-and-seek game is a good experience for new customers.

The point is that the Genius Bar used to make sense. It used to be positive and honest experience that focused on Apple’s core philosophical beliefs, while subtly following in the footsteps of its advertising, and that was really cool. It used to be clear, helpful, and human.

But I don’t feel like that’s the case anymore, and maybe that’s just because of the experiences I’ve had with the bar this year. All I know is that when I leave the Apple Store, I don’t feel like I’ve been helped.

I’m always shocked at how sucky of an experience this must be for normal customers. They go in because they broke their phone, they get yelled at by a twenty-something-year-old in a blue shirt who’s arrogantly explaining ‘the cloud’, and they leave the store with that employee’s face as the face of the entire company, and that’s a really bad thing for Apple. Hopefully they can find a way to change that.

  1. There’s a video of Steve Jobs introducing the Think Different campaign, and it’s one of the more rare videos of him speaking. It’s really great, if you get the chance to watch it.  ↩

  2. The iPhone 5s turned out to be the worst phone I’ve ever owned, anyway, so maybe I should’ve just dealt with the defects. My phone would randomly respring multiple times a week, even while doing trivial tasks, like listening to music. This problem continued until March (eight months later!!!), when iOS 7.1 was finally issued with a fix for the bug. I also had buttons break, my headphone jack stopped accepting microphone input, etc. I went through five phones, and I wish I could say that my next phone won’t be from Apple.  ↩

  3. I’m not complaining about the wait, I’m complaining about the lack of transparency. I feel like I’m a burden when I come to these stores.  ↩

On Mozilla and Fighting Beliefs

I'm going to get so much shit for this, so for the sake of the discussion I'm going to first say that I whole-heartedly believe that any two people who want to marry, without a single doubt, should be allowed to marry, no matter where they are. It's just common sense to me.

But it's not common sense to Brenden Eich, Mozilla's co-founder and now ex-CEO, who served the role of CEO for the past 11 days, before he resigned (fired, probably) last night.

Since being appointed to CEO, both Eich and his company have faced what can only be described as an absolute shitstorm, with users revolting and badmouthing Eich all over the internet, and even other companies going so far as to protest Mozilla's business.

The reason? In 2008, Eich donated $1,000 to California's Proposition 8, which passed with 52% of the vote, making same-sex marriage illegal in California for years to come.

That sucks. Everything about that sucks. It sucks that we still haven't mutually agreed that every human being deserves the same set of rights, no matter who they love and where they love, and it sucks that there are still so many people like Eich who don't believe that all couples should have these rights.

The fact is, there are people like Eich, tons of them, and it would be pretty difficult to argue that 52% of Californians who voted in favor of Proposition 8 should immediately lose their jobs.

No matter how much we may disagree with Eich's beliefs, and no matter how much we may want to change them, they are his beliefs, not ours.

I've seen a lot of people arguing that Eich's stance on same-sex marriage completely contradicts Mozilla's core values, and that may be so. However, at no point over the past two weeks have we seen evidence that those values would be compromised simply because of his donation and personal beliefs. And we'll never know either, because we didn't really give him much of a chance.

I think that as a society it's going to become increasingly important that we learn to accept the beliefs of others, no matter how strongly we may disagree with them. That probably sounds contradictory—I know—because I'm proposing that we accept someone's belief in legalized inequality, but it's important that we still allow people the freedom of their own thoughts.

There is a line that has to be drawn somewhere, of course, maybe when somebody begins to physically hurt others, but in this case there was no direct physical harm committed. (I realize that this is probably debatable.)

I brought this up on Twitter yesterday, and I'm going to revisit the idea here hopefully without sounding too pretentious: I have a very strong personal belief that we shouldn't kill.

We shouldn't kill humans, we shouldn't kill animals, very simply we should not kill. But if I were to start a company tomorrow and I was looking for workers to hire, I wouldn't exclusively hire vegetarians. (I would exclusively hire people who have never murdered a human being though, because—well—that's a bit too much.) My point is, just because I believe strongly that I do not want to kill and eat animals, doesn't mean that I'll treat others any differently because they do not share the same beliefs as I do, because what would be the point of that?

They'll still feel exactly the same as they always have, and they'll also be out a job. Your disapproval in another person's beliefs doesn't solve your problem. It doesn't actually change their mind, it only silences their mind.

I wish that we could have been mature enough to give Eich a chance at running the company, and if there actually were any signs of changes to the company's values, it could have been handled from there. Instead of giving him a chance, regardless of our disagreements, we silenced him.

And until we learn to tolerantly disagree with people on things like this, we're not going to solve any of our problems. Because I don't think that you can successfully fight a serious problem by silencing beliefs that differ from your own, you can only fight by including them.

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Pop Music as a Startup

'Startup' is a painfully overused word. You're bound to hear it in almost every conversation about a semi-new company with a focused product and a small headcount, whether that business is even financially successful or not.

I find it kind of funny that by today's standards, Apple Inc. would have been considered a startup by the time it was a multi-billion dollar company. All of a sudden, maybe in the past ten or fifteen years, even a hugely successful company with a terrific product is now considered to be just a startup, and while I wouldn't say that it is an unusually insulting term, I do think that it is thrown around enough to make it kind of confusing.

If you look at the way people refer to a company like Twitter, a business with literally thousands of employees, millions of dollars in revenue, and a product that predates the iPhone, you might be surprised at how little credit it gets for creating such a scalable business.

The fact of the matter is that even Twitter is still considered by most as just a startup which begs the question, at what point does a business go from being a startup business to being a business business? That's worth thinking about.

Something else that's worth thinking about is that a business in the music industry is never considered as a startup business, even though what musicians do is so fundamentally similar to what tech startups do, which is selling product.

And I think that musicians could actually benefit from being called a startup more than any other business, because 'musician' is an incredibly vague term.

Oh, you're a musician? So, you mean you like to jam along with your favorite LPs when you get off from work? That's nice...

People don't get what musicians do because we're too uncomfortable to call it what it really is: business. And while we don't like to admit it, being a professional musician is as much of a business as founding a startup like Twitter or Apple, whether your efforts are successful or not.

If you talk to nearly anybody in the music business about how to be successful, they'll probably say something about the importance of record labels. They'll also lecture you regarding your 'social media presence', whatever that means. I'm going to focus on the record label thingy for the time being.

Looking at the artists in the Top 40, it's easy to come to the conclusion that having a record label is essential to a musician's success, because the great majority, if not all, of artists in the Top 40 are backed by these large, multi-billion dollar companies. These are companies with tons of people, tons of cash, and tons of power to make sure that the kind of people who should be listening to this song or that song do listen.

It's so easy to write off independent musicians, because the alternative works, and being independent usually doesn't.

Saying that a musician needs a record label to be successful is like saying that Apple in 1974 needed a company like IBM for its success.

The big problem with most independent musicians is that they don't know what they're doing, and why should they? They (hopefully) know how to make the music, but they often don't know at all how to run the business side of things, and most of the time they won't even acknowledge that what they're doing is even a business in the first place. Those who do see music as a business usually attach themselves to a record label in an effort to quickly outsource all of that 'devilish business stuff'.

So that works, except that most record labels suck, and of course they don't need to suck, but over time many of these companies' interests have become so scattered that they can often forget their purpose. It turns out that their purpose is incredibly simple, and it's a purpose that is shared with all professional independent musicians.

Record labels, big or small, are essentially doing what can be done by anybody: they're selling music. Anybody can do this, just like anybody can build a computer in their garage, market it well, and change the world. It's just like the kind of startups that we're used to.

For a culture that is so obsessed with the idea of startups, music is a pretty massive oversight, and saying that a musician needs a record label to be successful is like saying that Apple in 1974 needed a company like IBM for its success. Just as thousands of bands start small and in their parents' garage, Apple did too.

Unfortunately, the music industry is much foggier than the computer industry. Even as big as it is today, the computer industry is still in its age of exploration, where anything is possible, and that means that anybody with skill, an Internet connection, a great idea, and the best timing in the world can make the next Twitter. That's not to say that it's easy, but it is possible, and the idea that anybody can start something successful on the Internet is still socially acceptable and even encouraged.

And that's what I like about the word 'startup'. It makes making a business accessible, and accessibility is something that the music industry is totally lacking in almost every way.

We should never discourage anybody with a great idea from trying to be successful. The truth is that most successful artists have a record label to back them up, but that doesn't mean that you need one. You just need to make good music, find people who want to listen to it, and sell it. It's easier said than done, but it can be done.