Why I haven’t bought anything from iTunes

As yet, I haven’t bought anything from the iTunes Music Store. This isn’t due to the lack of choice in the UK store (an improving situation) but due to the medium itself. It’s not that I don’t believe in the digital format: I have 8Gb of mp3s sitting on my iBook and iPod, but almost all are ripped from my own CDs. Even the DRM doesn’t bother me too much (although it should – Jeremy explains) and nowadays so-called CDs are coming with ‘copy protection’ built-in (I refuse to buy them – don’t get me started on how Europe has been duped into being a testbed for CD-crippling techniques). The reasons for my ambivalence to iTMS are threefold: value, tangibility and information.

iTMS is not necessarily a cheap way to buy music. An average album of 11 tracks would cost ?8.69 from iTMS; local independent record shops sell CDs for less than this, particularly back-catalogue albums. Admittedly a chart CD album would cost about ?12, but for your money, you get a physical item storing a higher quality format from which you can freely create the same (or superior) product to that on sale at iTMS. And that’s the rub: sound quality aside, I can’t get my head around not getting something physical for my money – the artwork, the jewel case, the sleeve notes, the CD itself. The same principle applies to the vinyl I still buy – vinyl pressing quality is at an all time high, particularly with the increase of double and triple disk albums (as a rule, less music pressed onto one disk increases quality) and they often come in fabulous gatefold packaging – there’s no denying you get more for your money (4 square feet of artwork as opposed to 1 square inch with an iTMS download).

So perhaps iTMS isn’t aimed at album buyers, but designed more for dipping in; maybe replacing the singles buying habits of old. I still buy a quite lot of singles: those by the few artists I collect, those by artists that I’m less keen on but like a particular song, and those by artists who are new to me but come recommended. Based on these habits, I could buy from iTMS and save a bit of money (79p as opposed to ?2.99) but an important factor (to me) in the music buying experience is removed – the element of surprise presented by the two b-sides which you wouldn’t be able to buy from the iTMS because they don’t sell singles.

More fundamentally, however, when compared to a bought CD, a music file downloaded from iTMS has a disturbing paucity of information about the track – pretty much all you get is title, artist, album and date. City of Sound recently highlighted how this shortcoming affects original jazz recordings:

The basic lingua franca in jazz – of information around composers, sidemen, album sleeves and recording dates – is being diminished – replaced by ‘artist’ and composer and a thumbnail. Sleeve notes, fabulous artwork are gone. And falsehoods are introduced – album date is a classic.

Consider this comparison at harlem.org between the information contained on a single original record label from a 1950s Miles Davis single with that available via ‘Get info’ on the corresponding file from iTMS. No contest.

cover of Surrender by the Chemical Brothers

The same issue affects contemporary music just as much as it does 50s jazz. Hip hop artists often collaborate in production as well as vocals, and samples are used liberally; the associated credits are missing from downloaded tracks. Many ‘dance acts’ such as Chemical Brothers, Leftfield, Death In Vegas and Mr Scruff rely on guest vocalists and musicians. For example, the Chemical Brothers’ latest album, Surrender, features a plethora of important artists. From the CD sleeve credits:

Track 1 features samples from Nicole’s recording ‘Make It Hot’. Produced under license from Elektra Entertainment Group by arrangement with Warners Special Products. Track 3 vocals and guitar Bernard Sumner. Features additional vocals by Bobby Gillespie. Track 5 features vocals by Noel Gallagher. Track 6 contains a sample from the recording ‘Asian Workshop’ by James Asher, licensed courtesy of Studio G. Track 7 features vocals by Hope Sandoval. Track 8 contains a sample from the recording ‘Earthmessage’ licensed courtesy of Amplitude. Track 9 contains a sample from the recording ‘The Roof Is On Fire’ by Rockmaster Scott and The Dynamic Three, licensed courtesy of Danya Records Ltd. Track 11 features vocals, guitar and piano by Jonathan Donahue.

It’s vital for the integrity of music that these credits somehow remain in the public domain. It’s also important for the business – I bought two albums on the back of enjoying Surrender and finding the vocalists in the credits (Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue).

So my issue isn’t with iTMS per se – if I were to buy music online (and I’m sure I will sooner rather than later) that’s where I would head. That said I do have problems with music in a solely digital form. iTMS and the record labels could help the situation by providing more track information with downloads (there’s loads of scope in ID3) and by offering sleeve notes for download with album purchases. I’ll probably get over the value and intangibility thing, but not supplying the full credits is to deny the downloading public an integral part of the music package.