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Why iTunes Has Bands on the Run

By Charles Haddad Maybe I was wrong. Maybe established bands such as Metallica should fear Apple's iTunes Music Store. Longtime Metallica fan Marc McCoy, a graphic designer in Pittsburgh, wrote me that he would have bought just two songs off the band's new St. Anger release rather than the whole CD if he could have. Writes McCoy gleefully, referring to the coming PC version of the music store: "When iTunes for Windows rears its head, we'll see who's in control."

McCoy isn't alone. In the deluge of e-mail I've received about my last column few had any sympathy for bands such as Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who refuse to release their music to iTunes (see BW Online, 7/16/03, "The Chili Peppers' Sour Grapes over iTunes"). They fear buyers will buy individual songs, breaking up the artistic fabric of their albums.

These bands aren't without their supporters. About a third of my mail called my critique wrong-headed, a disservice to the bands and popular music. "Album rock is still alive and strong," writes David Schrimsher, a commercial lender in Huntsville, Ala. "Isolate the songs, and the message is lost."

JUKEBOX JURY. Yet many declared that the day of album rock had come and gone. Writes John Grubb of Baton Rouge: "File-swappers took care of that. The bands are just too blind to see it." Grubb and Schrimsher represent the opposing sides in an age-old argument. It's a fight that dates back at least to Michelangelo, who insisted his famous statue of David wear not even a fig leaf, much to the horror of the Pope.

At the heart of the debate is this question: Who should decide what's art, the artist or the public? The Chili Peppers and Metallica say they -- and they alone -- should decide how fans should listen to and keep their music.

Increasingly, that's rubbing fans the wrong way, if my mail is any indication. Wrote Chuck McGinley, an electrical engineer from Boston: "Let people sample the works of an artist and then make their own decision."

DISTANT WAILS. In the hands of listeners such as McGinley, Apple's (APPL) iTunes is a tool of liberation. It gives them the freedom to pick and choose, and, in essence, make their own compilations from favorite tracks. And that's just what many of those who wrote in told me they were using iTunes to do. In fact, the opportunity to compile personalized play lists and track selections may be one of the service's biggest draws.

Fans of iTunes represent an unstoppable force. Who wants to keep all those CDs if you can carry around 1,000 songs on an iPod and easily expand that library through the Internet? Not many I suspect. Nor is this growing army of Internet-savvy users going to stop at music. Not too far in the future an iVideo and perhaps an iTome, for downloading literature and audiobooks, respectively, will be available.

Already, I can hear the distant wail of writers and producers. But they better get used to it. People now expect to pick and choose. They've been doing it close to a decade with online versions of newspapers and magazines. Resistance will only embolden more pirates in Napster-like attempts to outflank the news and entertainment Establishment. What evidence shows that all the lawsuits have slowed music pirating? Sales continue to plummet -- 25% this year alone -- and the music industry blames illegal downloading.

SLIPPED DISKS. In truth, no good reason exists to resist the new technology of online sales and portable music. Apple's iTunes will no more kill CDs than vinyl killed radio. It will, however, reposition CDs in an ever-growing galaxy of music formats. My guess is that CDs will still be the choice of those who are willing to pay a premium for a higher-quality listening experience.

Downloadable music pales in comparison to CDs in terms of the quality of the sound. "MP3s are not how I want to purchase music," writes Kyle Jones. "Subtle details in the music are completely lost."

I suspect that plenty of other audiophiles feel the same way. Downloadable music will climb to the apex of distribution, pushing down but not replacing the formats that have come before it. What the Chili Peppers and Metallica need to do is embrace the new format and portable players, bending this technology to their artistic will. After all, a lot of rock groups took to albums as an artistic riposte to the tyranny of Top 40 radio.

I'm sure Apple would be only too happy to help these bands to figure the mechanics of such a new format. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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