iTuned out

Healthily skeptical reader BS writes to challenge my e-optimism about sg downloadables:

Do you really think that sg fans are ready for downloadable music, much less iTunes? It has taken 15 years for them to fully accept CDs, so what makes you think they are ready to convert to yet another format? Have you considered the miniscule percentage of music buyers that are both downloaders and southern gospel fans? Your suggestion of a sg download site, at first glance, is a good idea. But here’s where the issue arises…Suppose a collective of sg labels starts a digital download store. Since Apple doesn’t license its DRM technology, the sg download store must use Windows Media format with DRM. Since you, like most music consumers, chose the iPod and iTunes over lesser-known-but-superior devices and services, you are unable to use said sg download store.

Interesting and important questions these. To which my first response is, it’s kinda chicken and egg. Nobody buys sg downloadables because nothing is there to download and nothing is there to download because no one buys downloadables. Sure, sg fans are notoriously backwards and technologically challenged, a good 10 years behind the rest of the world, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for innovation. And in this case, in addition to making lifelong friends of technologically advanced sg fans by getting into the online music business, there’s the added incentive of potentially increasing sg’s market share and definitely expanding its exposure by creating a demand for downloadable sg - factors that didn’t exist in the “debate” about whether to start selling cds alongside cassettes or cassettes alongside lps or 8-tracks or whatever. Which brings us to the issue of format conversion: for people who use downloadables regularly, there’s much more of a continuum between cds ripped into mp3s or FLAC files and downloaded music files purchased online, which makes it much more likely that cds and (downloadable) music files will coexist alongside one another much longer than cassettes and cds have or will. That is, people who download music still often buy cds, whereas cassette buyers rarely purchase cds and vice versa. So, yes, I think there are merits in moving toward new media distribution and sales of sg. My enthusiasm for iTunes as the vehicle for delivery, at least initially, has nothing to do with brand loyalty: I don’t own an iPod, don’t even regularly use iTunes, and don’t own a Mac (well, that’s not true … I have an ancient Powerbook in the basement but I’ve not used it for years … and while we’re clearing things up, for the record, I refuse on matters of principle to use Wal-Mart’s new online music service). But I do listen to a lot of music files on my home system, and I think music files is where music distribution and sales is headed whether sg comes along now, later, or not at all. The smart money in this race is ultimately, I think, on open-source products and services, which is why I’m drawn to the Rio Karma music player over the iPod (it’s cheaper, smaller, and plays not only proprietary formats like Apple’s but also mp3s and FLAC files). But none of that makes me think it’s necessarily wasting resources, encouraging market fragmentation or narrowing consumer choices for sg to take advantage of Apple’s existing infrastructure as a way of catering to more technologically savvy sg fans and introducing sg to wider audiences. Apple dominates the online music business right now, and it makes perfect sense to jump on the Apple cart. And, as BS reminds me in a follow up message, the first place to start is (like I said a while back) for sg types to start educating iTunes editors and managers about sg.

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