The Chili Peppers' Sour Grapes Over iTunes

By Charles Haddad These guys call themselves rock musicians? Where, I ask you, is their sense of storming the Establishment ramparts, of thumbing their noses at authority? Instead, by refusing to let Apple (AAPL) sell their music online at the new iTunes Music Store, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are leading a vanguard in the wrong direction. They might as well put their clothes back on.

Of all the iTunes holdouts, the Chili Peppers, with their longstanding popularity and reputation for artistry, are perhaps the most respected. Others include bands spanning hip-hop to metal rock, from Linkin Park to Metallica. All of them fret that they would lose creative control if they let Apple sell their songs individually on iTunes. "Our artists would rather not contribute to the demise of the album format," Mark Reiter of Q Prime Management Co., which manages the Chili Peppers, Metallica, and several other artists, told Reuters recently.

TOO MUCH FILLER. It's a bogus argument that makes these bands sound like shills for the music-industry's suits. After all, most individual artists and groups lost that kind of control when they signed up with a big label. For listeners, the album format has all too often been a tool of oppression.

Sure, some bands, including the Chili Peppers, do work hard to craft albums whose span of titles are consistently good. But under pressure from their label, most artists and groups combine three or four quality songs with filler, a strategy that lets the industry justify the $15 to $20 price tag for CDs.

Such thievery sparked the rise of downloadable music, generating an opportunity for pirates using file-sharing networks such as Napster and KaZaA. Pirating music is neither legal nor right, but it's an illegitimate response to a legitimate problem. Now, Apple has seized Napster's fallen banner and is taking the digital-music revolution mainstream.

Here's how Apple's iTunes online music service is changing the music business for the better:

It lets users listen to music before buying it. What a concept, right? Just try that in any of the big music stores. You'll find the only tunes they'll let you sample are from CDs the music companies pay to have prominently displayed. Yet, you wouldn't buy a book without sampling at least its first couple of pages. So why shouldn't you be able to do the same with music. At iTunes, users can listen to as much as 30 seconds of any song.

Users can compile their own albums. With iTunes, you can pick and choose from among 200,000 files (growing by the thousands weekly). You can buy a whole album or just several songs at 99 cents a pop. That's not inexpensive, but my guess is that the price will fall as download volume increases.

What's really important here is that you can buy what you want, rather than just what labels and the bands have decided you should have. No longer do you have take the fat with the meat -- and pay $15 or more for a CD that has only three songs you like. Sorry, Chili Peppers, but this doesn't necessarily mean the death of album rock, just bad album rock. A package of great songs that work together will still sell. Just look at the evergreen appeal of the Who's Tommy or Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.

The labels may be forced to change. If filler no longer sells, will the music industry continue to compel bands to produce it? Maybe, just maybe, bands and labels will start improving the overall quality of pop music. (At least I can dream.)

Apple's new way of selling music is attracting a growing audience. In its first eight weeks, iTunes sold more than 5 million songs. Nearly half were purchased as albums, the Chili Peppers will be glad to hear. But given that 50% was of individual songs, buyers are clearly embracing the pick-and-choose approach.

And I predict that sales will jump up another notch when Steve Jobs & Co. releases a Windows version of iTunes later this year. Apple's iPod digital-music player already works with PCs, but compatibility will take a big leap forward with a Windows' version of Apple's iTunes music-management software (see BW Online, 7/2/03, "How Apple Spells Future: i-P-O-D").

CLEAR THE WAY. While off to a bang-up start, iTunes is far from established. Although all of the Big Five labels have signed up, several important independents -- such as blues and folk powerhouse Alligator, world-music specialist Putumayo, and punk label Kill Rock Stars -- are still holding out. Plus, iTunes represents only a minuscule portion of music sales overall. The last thing this movement needs is a gang of whiney counterrevolutionaries, who'll only embolden other holdouts.

In truth, opposition makes little sense. Even some execs from the biggest labels have signed on to iTunes. Says Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris, one of the album format's inventors: "iTunes is pushing us into the future of how music is produced and consumed."

It's time for the Chili Peppers and other holdouts to face the music. Bad album rock is dying, and no one -- least of all paying listeners -- should want it kept on artificial life support. 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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