September 11, 2003

File Sharing Wars: Version 2.0

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If, by analogy, we see the RIAA as a one-eyed (maybe blind) giant like Goliath and we see underdogs like Shawn Fanning (the now deified Napster founder) and Jesse Jordan (one of the college students sued by the RIAA this past April) as modern-day Davids, then Apple may just be this fable’s closest thing to Gandhi. Their message has always seemed to be, “Can’t we all just get along” — the musicians, the record companies, the fans, and the technology.

Since its inception, Macintosh has fought the battle against the PC at least partly by catering to artistically minded computer users, specifically musicians. With the recent plethora of laptop-toting composers, producers, and performers, the Apple PowerBook has emerged as the musician’s computer of choice (everyone from Jim O’Rourke to Cex to Kid 606 uses an Apple). Many of the modern editing software and digital synthesizers are tailored to Apples, and as the computer is fast becoming a studio and stage touchstone as integral as the guitar, the PowerBook is the veritable Stratocaster of this revolution. So, Apple is no stranger to the realm of music.

In the post-Napster world of music distribution, the war is still against the PC, but the acronym now refers to political correctness (at least as dictated by the RIAA). While many in the music industry are scrambling to either exploit modern distribution technologies (file-sharing stalwarts like Kazaa and Limewire) or stomp it out completely (the Philistine RIAA), few are seriously and realistically proposing ways of helping this mess evolve into a mutually beneficial arrangement. Mac’s iTunes is thus far the most feasible and appealing alternative to the current state of anarchic trading and absurd lawsuits, a climate that ultimately alienates the fans, the artists, and the distributors.

In April, while the RIAA was busy prosecuting undergraduates for hundreds of millions of dollars, Apple head honcho Steve Jobs launched the iTunes Music Store, which basically sells songs for $.99 each (adding up to roughly the price of individual songs on full-length CDs). What makes Apple the apparent “good guys” in this story are the relationships they’ve been fostering with independent record labels and individual artists. Apple has expressed a commitment to helping independent labels, and representatives from labels such as Matador and Sub Pop have already met with Apple to discuss possible partnerships. Bands like Dashboard Confessional are now top-sellers for iTunes. While mainstream artists are still a major part of Apple’s initiative, their attempts to befriend the indie crowd have been largely successful. In a Rolling Stone interview, Sub Pop boss Jonathan Poneman said he is “psyched” about their participation with iTunes, which pays the label about $.65 per song.

Even the musicians and members of the file-sharing community are supporting iTunes. In an interview with Magnet, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke expressed his endorsement of iTunes. In the words of one Soulseek user, “Apple has done the unthinkable by convincing labels and artists that making it easy for people to do the right thing is infinitely more constructive and lucrative than throwing money into a fight against the consumer that smacks a little too much of the drug war” (from the Soulseek message board).

So, Apple has stepped up to the plate preaching peace through iPods. Concerns about the looming death of the album aside, iTunes is looking like the people’s choice for the future of legal musical distribution.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas