Thursday, February 10, 2005

Popular Musiks

I just recived my iPod Shuffle, on the same day I had an epiphany: Napster-To-Go's rental model of music doesn't suck.

It hit me this morning while I was driving to work, listening to the CD of forgettable pop I created from iTunes downloads. And I was thinking that paying 180 bucks a year for renting an unlimited amount of music was actually not that a good deal, because the thing with Napster-To-Go is that when you stop paying the 15 bucks a month, everything you downloaded stops being playable. Over. Gone. You stopped renting and you got kicked out. You don't get to keep your stuff like iTunes lets you at a buck a song.

And then I thought "Like my iTunes are these keepsakes?" Not really. They aren't losslessly compresed from the original masters, they aren't in the FLAC format. They aren't even encoded at a high Variable Bit Rate encoded with a floor of, say, 192kbps. No, it is an average 128 kbps encoded AAC. My keepsakes are my CDs, the music I have carefully encoded and now archive the originals of. These iTunes? This is not encoded into perfection for the ages, this is music I expect to have to repurchase at some form again when there is a format shift.

Yes, format shifts have become a fact of life, and I think iTunes will be susceptible to it hard. In a way I am renting from Apple to: to keep devices authorized to play the music I bought -- and I can't authorize more than 5 devices at a time or so -- I need to network a device with Apple's service for a key. My music still depends on another company, and its software, and its licensing. So far its software is great, but it is only one company. The stuff I buy there is most likely not my last and final purchase of this music.

Well in that case, 180 bucks a year to try everything I could possibly want to try just doesn't sound that bad. With Audiogalaxy I used to select to download everything from an artist or group,overnight, listen to it by day, and keep the one or two things I liked. A far superior way of selecting that just getting 30 second previews like on iTunes, where I do feel some of those previews have misled me. Napster-To-Go would be like that; I could check out a massive amount of new music on my portable device wherever I am, without worrying I may mispurchase. I could really get to know a lot of new stuff, with repeated listenings. Get into a whole catalog. Then I can choose what I really want to keep, and when I let my subscription lapse for some reason, buy those items in a more permanent form. Which might not be easy or economical if what I like is just one song off a whole CD. But hey, that is what iTunes is then for.

It's all trade-offs, balances. The new millenium has for now has brought us what I was afraid it would bring: new headaches of not just having to navigate formats like CD and LP and tape, but rights and restriction packages. There are trade-offs. It is just that I realize that Napsters trade-offs aren't as bad as I thought because their main comparison, iTunes, is actually not as guaranteed futureproof as we'd all like to think, neither in format nor in licensing.