Much of the
press coverage of and
hubbub about Apple offering DRM-free, higher-quality versions of EMI-catalog tracks through the iTunes Store has focused on the issues of, ahem, DRM and sound quality. But there’s another aspect to this story that hasn’t received much attention: The return of the album.
“Album?” many of our younger readers may be asking themselves, “What’s that?” Well, you see, it used to be that most music was consumed in the form of a series of tracks sold in a (sometimes) cohesive package called an album . These albums—distributed as LP vinyl records, 8-track tapes, cassettes, CDs, MiniDiscs, or, most recently, SACDs or DVD-Audio discs—each contained a good number of tracks (generally 8 to 12), and serious music listeners eschewed individual singles in favor of these complete works. In fact, albums used to be the primary medium of purchased music consumption. (Sure, there have always been 45s and cassette/CD singles, but they were never as popular as albums—perhaps in part because a single was often relatively expensive; if you liked more than one song off an album, it made more sense to buy the album).
Then the Internet came along. You know, “free” singles there for the taking from file-sharing services. Then came the
iTunes Store, where you can get—legitimately—nearly any song you might want. You don’t have to buy an entire album, or even an overpriced vinyl/cassette/CD single; you just pay the low price of 99 cents.
This was a welcome change for many music listeners. I don’t know about you, but as an avid music collector, I have far too many CDs I purchased based on one or two tracks where the full album turned out to be a major disappointment. With the iTunes Store (and other online music services such as
Rhapsody ), I could buy (or “rent,” as is the case with subscription services) just those tracks I actually wanted to hear.
But this new convenience wasn’t without consequences. The most significant? A considerable
decline in album sales, while single sales have increased dramatically. Granted, in many cases, that’s not necessarily a bad thing (refer to my comment about one-decent-song albums, above). But for artists who actually work hard to create good albums , rather than just one or two catchy singles, this new culture of single consumption has meant that fewer and fewer music buyers are experiencing the fruits of those labors.
(It goes without saying that the music industry itself also isn’t crazy about this shift; they’d much rather sell you an $18 CD, or even a $10 electronic album, than a 99-cent single.)
To be fair, people are still buying CDs. But I know more than a few people whose current approach to music purchases can be summarized as “If I hear a good single from an artist I don’t really know or like, I’ll buy just the single online. Only if there’s a new album from an artist I like will I buy the entire album, and then I’ll go buy the CD.”
So what’s all this have to do with the Apple/EMI deal? Taken together with the iTunes Store’s new
Complete My Album feature, these recent changes have altered the iTunes-music-buying experience in significant ways. Ways that provide considerable incentive for people to buy albums instead of just singles—and to buy those albums online.
First, the Complete My Album feature means that you can audition a track or two from an artist without “losing” that money if you later decide to buy the entire album. You bought KT Tunstall’s “
Suddenly I See ” on iTunes a couple months ago after hearing it on the radio; then, more recently, you bought
Black Horse and the Cherry Tree. This week you hear
Other Side of the World and you think, “Hey, maybe I’d like this album.” In the past, that meant buying the entire album, either through the iTunes Store or on a CD, effectively paying twice for the two singles you already purchased. Now you pay only the difference, which makes buying the album much less painful.
Still, I know there are times when I’d buy a single or two from an artist for 99 cents from the iTunes Store and later, once I decided I liked those tracks, I’d go buy the CD for the better sound quality and the DRM-free format. That’s where the iTunes Store’s new, higher-quality, DRM-free version of the album comes in. Now—as long as the artist is signed to EMI—you can “Complete My Album” with a 256 kbps version of the album unencumbered by DRM. It’s still not a CD, but it’s a heck of a lot closer; perhaps close enough that a good proportion of people will opt for the full-album download where they would have previously jumped in the car and visited their local CD retailer.
Finally, the pricing. Even though the premium versions of EMI tracks will sell for $1.29 vs. 99 cents for the lower-quality DRM versions, albums will remain the same price, generally $9.99, whether you’re buying the lower-quality or higher-quality version. So not only can you complete an album for the difference between the album price and the cost of the tracks from that album you’ve already purchased, but that’s the case even if you’re purchasing the higher-quality, DRM-free version of the album—that price difference will simply be smaller if the tracks you previously purchased were the $1.29 versions.
In other words, while each of these recently-announced iTunes Store features adds value for consumers, taken together they also provide an environment in which more people will want to buy—or, at the very least, not have as much of an aversion to buying—albums online.
I’ll be interested to see the sales numbers, assuming Apple releases them, of EMI albums vs. singles after six months. When I asked Apple if the company was expecting an increase in album sales as a result of these recent changes, I got a polite, “We’ll see what happens.” Let’s hope we do.
(As a side note, there’s also been a lot of talk about the $1.29 price of the “premium” versions of tracks, and the fact that you can upgrade eligible tracks you’ve previously purchased to the new, DRM-free, higher-quality versions for just the difference in price—in the U.S., 30 cents. But what hasn’t been noted is that this is the first time I can remember that the music industry hasn’t asked us to re -buy music just to use the latest format. Kudos to EMI and Apple on that point.)