iTunes, the MiniStore, and all that

As you’re undoubtedly aware, there have been been acres of words devoted to iTunes 6.0.2’s MiniStore—the small pane that appears offering recommendations related to the currently selected track in your iTunes library. Does Apple use it to harvest data about our music libraries? Could it be used to track illegal downloads? Should it be considered spyware?

As reported by my Macworld colleague, Rob Griffiths, Apple has pretty well cleared this up by not only proclaiming that no information related to the contents of your music library is kept, but now also asking your permission to switch the feature on. If you’re concerned about sending data to Apple, click the icon that hides the MiniStore and go about your business. Yes, Apple probably should have done this from day one. Whoops, it’s fixed. Now let’s move to the really important question:

Is it worth a damn?

In its current incarnation, I’d say “barely.”

When you select a track in your library with the MiniStore, the mStore displays links to the artist’s page at The Big Store (if such a page exists), a Reviews link, a link for gifting the music, a Tell a Friend link, a short list of other albums by the artist, and a Listeners Also Bought list. Should you select a track from an artist who isn’t represented at The Store (George Harrison, for example) you get a No Match listing, four new releases, today’s top songs, and today’s top albums.

My beef here is essentially the same one I have with iTunes’ Just For You recommendation feature recently introduced in beta form. And that beef is:

Tell me something I don’t know.

I get it that if I like Album A from Artist B, there’s a better-than-even chance that I’ll also enjoy Albums C, D, and E from that same artist. What I’d like is a stronger recommendation from an authority I trust (and what other listeners bought is little more than a fair start).

What may seem like a minor feature is, I believe, the Holy Grail of music services. With the wide variety of music available to us, the decline of commercial music radio, much of the music disappearing from MTV, and listeners becoming increasingly tied to specific genres through satellite radio, where do you turn to discover new music? Online music merchants—iTunes as well as subscription services such as Yahoo, Napster, and Rhapsody—hope that you’ll look to them and the communities they’re attempting to erect in order to learn about artists and music new to you.

The subscriptions services have a leg up in this regard because they’re closed communities. Anyone who pays their monthly fee to stay in a service’s good graces (and keep the music flowing) can share with other members playlists that include complete tracks. This is possible because you’re all eating out of the same pot—that music is available to anyone signed on so where’s the harm in sending it to those who’ve paid the price of admission? Long before iTunes began building its community features these outfits offered user ratings and recommendations and streaming radio channels likely to appeal to you based on the music you’ve chosen to subscribe to.

iTunes is making strides—customer reviews and ratings, iMixes, artist alerts, Tell a Friend, and the recently introduced ability to post a favorite playlist to a website you’ve created with iWeb. But I’d like more.

Because it’s an open community—one where I can’t share music—I understand I’m out of luck in regard to having radio stations customized to my tastes and it’s impossible for me to truly share my music with other iTunes members.

But more could be done. iTunes-promoted recommendations that go beyond the obvious (and yes, Apple, if it will help I’m willing to let you have a peek at my music library if you promise to not reveal its contents). A way to find and connect with other iTunes users whose tastes I trust. Forums for music geeks to gather, form bonds, and debate the merits of the music they enjoy. In short, I want to duplicate the experience I had in my favorite record stores all those years ago—a place to hang out, sample great music I haven’t heard before, and talk with people who understand what music can add to their lives.

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