Last night, in what I hope will become a family tradition, I took my daughter to her first fireworks show. She sat on my lap, wrapped up in her brightly colored woolie, with her hands pressed to her ears and a look of pure joy plastered to her cute little mug. And as the show progressed I looked at those around me and saw what I hope will be my future. Two parties over, a woman of responsible age sat with an older gentleman—he wrapped in wool much like my daughter—talking gently to him as each bomb burst in air.
I imagine that in 30 years, our roles will change and that gentleman will be me, tended by my daughter, enjoying the noise and blooms of color.
Which, naturally, leads me to Universal Music Group and iTunes.
According to Macworld UK, Universal Music has confirmed that it will not renew its long-term agreement with Apple and the iTunes Store. Instead, it will now sell its music in an “at will” arrangement—offering The Store what it likes, when it likes.
“And what exactly,” I hear you saying, “is the common thread in these stories?”
Maturation and the changing nature of influence.
At this point in my daughter’s and my relationship, I’m the leader. Bedtime is when I say it is. She eats what I cook. I take her hand when we cross streets. I hover close by when she nears the deep end. I wrap my arms around her and reassure her when an unexpected skyrocket explodes.
History has demonstrated that as she grows and I age, that relationship will change. She’ll gain more power—the right to choose her activities and hours—while my ability to dictate the actions of her life diminishes. I expect there will come a point when our mutual desires to control her life will result in conflict. Of course she’ll win. She must. If we work this right—and I live long enough—she may swap our current roles. Like the couple I saw last night, she’ll take me to see the fireworks and ensure that I’m properly bundled.
Now to Universal. Early in the iTunes Store arrangement, Universal and the other major music labels doted on Apple and its efforts. “Ah, isn’t that cute. They want to sell music for their tiny machines. Okay, li’l Apple, here’s some digital music to play with. Don’t get dirty!” Helping Apple along was no great burden. This downloadable music stuff was just a sideline, after all, and one that the record companies had shown little interest in (or ability to do on their own).
But, as will happen, The Store grew and matured and the market changed. CDs weren’t the big deal they once were. And with that maturation came Apple’s ability to dictate terms. “I know,” said The Store to Papa Universal, “that you’d like variable pricing for each song we sell. But this works really well for us and our customers seem to appreciate the convenience. So, if you don’t mind, we’d like to make this decision on our own. Oh, and here’s your check for $200 million. We’ll be back by midnight, promise!”
And while Papa was more than happy to cash that juicy check each year, he began to realize that his role in this relationship was changing. Little iTunes had grown up in a very short time and now had the size and power to say, “No, I don’t want any friggin’ cooked carrots. I’m going out drinking with my friends and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. Stay home and watch your Lawrence Welk reruns and I’ll see you later… maybe.”
We’re not quite to the point where iTunes is willing to walk out the door forever nor Universal ready to change the locks. That may come later. For now, the Universal/iTunes relationship is in that awkward phase where iTunes is demanding to keep the freedom it’s earned and Universal is desperately trying to maintain control by grounding it for two weeks—allowing it out only to attend school and cut the lawn.
We’ve all been there. iTunes, representing youth and change, will continue to grow and gain influence. Universal and the other majors have had their day of unlimited power and influence, but that day is coming to an end. The question that remains is how they will deal with this inevitable future. Adapt and remain relevant? Or become increasingly cantankerous and isolated.
When I’m eventually confronted with this kind of change, I know which I’ll choose.