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Drink up me hearties, yo ho: the case for piracy

The fact that I’m still referencing Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat three years after it was required reading in my ENGL 398 class means, unfortunately, that I was wrong: ENGL 398 wasn’t completely useless.

Tiered pricing and why it sucks

Back in January, Phil Schiller (the keynote guy at Apple, in Steve Jobs’ absence) announced a couple changes to the iTunes music store. The first one, which I covered, was to remove all DRM (supposedly) from each song in the music store. The second one, which is really only starting to appear in the last few weeks, is tiered pricing.

Great news, right? Phil seemed to think so at the time. He thought that the $.69 songs would balance out the $1.29 songs, and that most songs would remain at $0.99, mostly because music companies weren’t up to going back and retroactively repricing each song.

Let’s take a look at today’s top 30 downloaded songs:

Out of 30 songs, 5 are $0.99. But that’s not a big deal, because there are songs that are $0.69, right? As Ars points out, turns out that music companies aren’t interested in discounting music.

A couple things here. First, is it really worth the music company’s time to make songs $0.69? As we’ve seen, not many are that price anyway, and the ones that are are rarely downloaded anyway. If someone’s searching for that song, that $0.30 isn’t going to give them incentive to buy it – they’ve already made up their mind that they want that song (for whatever reason) and they’ll pay $0.99. The record companies know this – the only way $0.69 songs could really come into play is for promotions, and in this case record companies like to discount the entire album to encourage users to buy the entire album rather than individual songs.

Now back to the $1.29 songs. If you remember, way back when iTunes Plus was first announced, iTunes Plus songs cost $1.29. This was a trade-off for the record companies – they make more money per song but face a greater risk that the song will be pirated or illegally distributed. As iTunes Plus matured, Apple realized that $0.99 was a fair price for a DRM-free song, and so they dropped the price and made all songs $0.99 and record companies could choose whether or not they wanted to participate.

Then in January, Apple announced that DRM was gone. Now if you’re a record company executive, what do you choose? DRM-free and $0.99, or DRM-free and $1.29? For songs that are selling fast (like “Boom Boom Pow” by Black Eyed Peas…wow.), $.30 is a 30% increase in profits. Why would they not take it?

I think Apple screwed up. The iTunes Music Store became successful because each song was $0.99, and research has shown that people want to pay about $1 for a song (except you filthy pirates) – $1.29, especially in troubled economic times, is a lot. By instituting tiered pricing, Apple stood up for the record companies, not the consumer. If iTunes is going to be charging $1.29, they should be distributing FLAC files (or the Apple equivalent), which are completely lossless and have no built in DRM or identity management.

That said, Green Day’s new album “21st Century Breakdown” is excellent, and I bought it off iTunes for $11.99. If you’re going to buy the full album, it’s still a pretty good deal. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the record company wants (“why download the single when you can download that song and 15 other songs you don’t like for $10?”). In terms of acquiring music legally, it’s record companies 1, consumers 0.

DRM-free downloads for everyone!*

Everyone seems to be really excited about Apple finally announcing that songs in iTunes will now be DRM-free. I’m not.

To start, let’s review what DRM is. DRM, or digital rights management, is a nasty little bugger that prevents you from listening to songs that you don’t have rights to listen to. Additionally, it prevents you from listening to songs that you feel you DO have rights to listen to (because, you know, you BOUGHT them). Apple’s iTunes Store has had DRM since its inception, largely because the labels (understandably) didn’t want one person to simply buy the music and then share it on KaZaa for everyone to download.

A couple years ago, Apple introduced “iTunes Plus”, a special upgrade for some songs that would supposedly have no DRM, and better sound quality. Initially, these special songs were $1.29, $.30 more expensive than the normal song. A couple months later, Apple announced that the iTunes Plus versions would be available at the normal price for artists who chose to release their songs like that.

Then, conveniently, for you, me and everyone who had ever bought a song before, we were offered a chance to “upgrade” our previously-downloaded songs to iTunes Plus at the low low price of $.30 a song (and $3.00 an album). What a deal, right? So now, Phil Schiller (just think of him as Steve Jobs plus a couple hundred pounds and a lot less charisma) comes out an announces that the entire iTunes library would soon become DRM-free, and that the same deal would apply for every artist: you could upgrade your existing library for about 30% of what you paid for it.

First of all, what is this crap about making us pay an extra 30% for a song we’ve already bought? That song is MINE. I bought it. Apple is fixing a “mistake” or imperfection with the system, and we’re expected to foot the bill? That’s absolute garbage. For someone like me, who has made quite an investment in the iTunes Store, 30% of your money spent to upgrade is no small figure (for me, it’s $106.78), and there’s no way to do it in pieces either: it’s one-click, and poof, the upgrade occurs.

I guess that means it downloads new copies of each song? That’s a brilliant move. A couple years ago there was a piece of software called the Hymn Project that was available for free and would strip all your downloaded music of its DRM, leaving you a completely anonymous, free MP3 file. In typical Apple fashion, instead of using what is out there and let the problem solve itself, the Hymn Project got served with a DMCA takedown, and here we are, a couple years later, and iTunes gets to serve over 100 billion new song upgrades.

But wait, you say. You don’t have to upgrade, do you? It’s a completely optional purchase, your existing music works. I guess you could say that, for a while. But instead of seeing this as Apple just spreading the musical love (Steve Jobs would play a certain Beatles song about friends right now), I’m seeing this as Apple downsizing, and not wanting to worry about DRM anymore. Sometime in the future, not this year, and not next year, Apple will release an announcement that there’s a brand-new iPod that will only work with DRM-free files, not the ones that you and I downloaded until this keynote. That’ll force you to upgrade, or lose your music.

Why? Because as consumers, we will. What’s the other option, buying it all again?

I’m definitely a proponent of buying your music, but I cannot stand how many hoops I have to jump through for doing the right thing. People who illegally download MP3s don’t have this issue. They also don’t have the issue of not being able to play their natively in Linux, or on my XBox 360.

Here’s the message: if you want people to do the right thing, don’t punish them for doing so. Make the upgrades free. If something like this happens again, I’ll either take my business elsewhere or I’ll just start downloading music too.

(And P.S.: it’s not completely DRM-free – according to Slashdot, iTunes Plus files still have personal identifiers which prevent you from sharing safely. While this issue is not as reprehensible as the others I mentioned, it’s a problem that we have to put personal information in files that do not require them. Hymn Project didn’t have this problem, so clearly the technology exists.)

And Apple: please, please, please, fix iTunes. All it would take is testing on one or two Windows machines every once in a while to determine that the performance makes iTunes unusable. When you have better programs such as Winamp, Songbird, and even WMP performing better, it’s no wonder you’re having problems getting people to buy music.

A startling revelation

So normally, I bring my trusty iPod video to work. It’s to keep me entertained, keep me busy, and keep me focused. And plus, the rest of the development team brings theirs too, so peer pressure. Today, however, I forgot my iPod.

I went to the next best thing, Yahoo! Radio. (I can’t believe this is the next best thing. Please, somebody invent something better than this.) For those of you who don’t know, Yahoo! Radio is basically free streaming music online. There are a bunch of different “stations” to choose from, but they try to push you to create your own station so it can mold to your tastes. As I would find out, though, the taste-molding leaves much to be desired.

So I fire up my “custom station”. First song that comes up is “Spilt Needles” by The Shins. It’s a good song, one of my favorites on my iPod (in fact, it just misses my Top 40 Played playlist). Maybe today won’t be so long after all.

Next song: *N*Sync. SKIP. Britney Spears. SKIP. Rihanna. SKIP. (And Yahoo!, I explicitly remember telling you I’m not a fan of this new urban music, what the heck are you thinking?) Usher. SKIP.

I’m fed up at this point, so I go to one of the pre-chosen stations, the “Classic Rock” station. I didn’t skip another song for at least two hours. I got home tonight and downloaded like 10 new songs. And it was then that I came to my startling revelation:

What the heck have you people done with popular music?

For every Maroon 5 of this generation, I guarantee you I can find at least a Bachman-Turner Overdrive of the “classic rock” generation. My point is that today, music is wildly worse than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

And I think the reason is simple – people like mediocrity. That’s why MySpace, the iPhone (any Apple product, actually – they may look sexy but they can’t do half the stuff other products can do), Hannah Montana, American Idol – it all sells.

Do yourself a favor: tune into some classic rock on Yahoo! Radio. It’s free, it’s great music. If you’re as lucky as I am, you’ll get a couple Creedence Clearwater Revivals in a row, or maybe experience the epicness that is “Free Bird”, or maybe see a million faces and rock them all with “Wanted Dead or Alive”.

P.S. Yes, I know I have an iPod, when I just said it was mediocre. Well, I stand by it. See this entry for some more criticism, or ask me how much I hate iTunes. I have an iPod because at this point, no one has done better at selling mediocrity to the record labels. The iTunes Music Store has all of the music.

Here I dreamt I was an architect…

Hello blogosphere! I bet you thought you got rid of me, but never fear, my faithful (or obsessive, in some cases) following. Lots to catch up on, so hopefully my fingers don’t get tired – there’s a lot of stuff to talk about.

  • I’ll start with some personal news, involving my ballpark tour thus far. I took a somewhat long-awaited trip to Ohio University this weekend, and thus unexpectedly went to a game at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinatti, OH.

    I say the visit was somewhat unexpected, because as you all may recall, Cincinatti was not on my to-visit list when I made the list back in March. However, given its close proximity to Ohio University (at least somewhat) and inexpensive tickets, I could hardly pass up the opportunity.

    Getting to Cincinatti was somewhat of an adventure, thanks to our fearless leader (ahem, Frankie) but we got there and the stadium looks very nice and new from the outside:

    Great American Ballpark

    The view from our seats was also nice:

    Great American Ballpark
    As nice as the stadium looked, something about it didn’t quite strike the right chord with me. Maybe it was the obnoxious (and dumb) Cincinatti fans, maybe it was the old fashioned organ music playing constantly in what is a very new ballpark, or maybe it was the fact that the Indians simply weren’t playing very well. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say the Great American Ballpark gets a solid 6. Nonetheless, a good time was had by all and some more pictures have been posted.

  • I have a suggestion for the people at Apple, particularly those making iTunes.

    One of the coolest features (in my opinion) of iTunes is the ability to generate Smart Playlists, ones which are automatically populated based on rules that you set. For example, one of the preset Smart Playlists is the “Recently Played” playlist, which creates a playlist of all of the items played in the last two weeks.

    But say, for example, you wanted to have all items played in the last three weeks. All you would do is right click on the playlist and click “Edit Smart Playlist”. You get this interface:
    iTunes Smart Playlist

    You can filter by date last played, rating, play count, whatever you want. But what the Smart Playlist feature basically boils down to is the ability to query the iTunes database. For example, the SQL query for the screenshot above (more or less) is:

    SELECT [songs] -- TOP 25 -- not needed here
    FROM TableOfSongs
    WHERE (UNIX_TIMESTAMP() - LastPlayedDate <= 2*7*24*3600)
    ORDER BY LastPlayedDate

    Before really discovering this feature, I made a playlist about once a month featuring my favorite songs at that time. But the last playlist I made was in August 2007, because I created a “Random Favorites” playlist which looks a little bit like this:
    iTunes Smart Playlist

    Notice the “match any” criterion. What I really wish is that there were more options, because as it stands right now, I can only have PlayCount > 5 OR (UNIX_TIMESTAMP() - DateAdded) < (1 * 7 * 24 * 3600) OR Rating = '*****'. What I'd really like is the ability to have PlayCount > 5 OR ((UNIX_TIMESTAMP() - DateAdded) < (1 * 7 * 24 * 3600) AND Rating = '*****'). You can't do that with the current tools, and while that's a meaningless example, if I were given the tools I may never have to create a real playlist again.

    Editor's note, 3/31/2013: I'm replacing these screenshots because the originals no longer exist, but since 2008, many of these features have been added.

  • Hillary Clinton is still alive - not only alive, but alive and kicking. The primaries in Kentucky and Oregon are tomorrow, and most experts expect that Clinton will win Kentucky while Obama will win Oregon. And "Operation Chaos" continues.

    Clinton should really drop out unless she wins Oregon tomorrow - meaning that she should simply drop out. She's hurting Obama, whether she likes it or not (and secretly, I think she enjoys the fact that she may not win the election but she'll still decide who is elected). But we'll see.

  • I saw Iron Man over the weekend, and let me just say this: I was floored. I totally did not expect that movie to be as good as it was, although I did figure it might give me a quote of the day:

    Army: Is it true that you went twelve-for-twelve with the Maxim Girls last year?
    Tony Stark: That is an excellent question. Yes and no. March and I had a scheduling conflict but fortunately the Christmas cover was twins.

It's still way too cold for the month of May - here's to global warming, everybody!

Update: Fixed the SQL to match.

Global warming can kiss my…

Isn’t it too late in the year for it to be this cold? According to the spyware-laden, ever-annoying Weather.com, the average for this time of year is about 45 degrees. Today’s high? 35 degrees. At least it’s sunny. Better save the snow for 10 days from today, Opening Day against the Chicago White Sox! On to the links then:

  • Our favorite Cupertino corporation, Apple Inc., is in talks with the major record labels to create a one-time premium alternative to iTunes, allowing a user to download all they want for a one-time fee. Can you say cha-ching? The thinking behind this logic is that the average user buys 20 songs on iTunes, meaning that charging a $40 premium on top of the purchase of a new iPod is a win for Apple.

    There are two things wrong with this statement, the first is that I’ve purchased over $300 worth of music from iTunes in the last 18 months. If I get access to a plan that allows me unlimited access, I think I’d pay up to $150 on the spot and I’d still beat the system.

    The second problem with that is that Apple assumes that removing a per-song fee will not change users’ downloading habits. Let me ask you something: if you go to a restaurant like Don Pablo’s or Max and Erma’s, do you usually get dessert? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. I don’t, because normally I’m full and paying $5 for a small piece of cake turns a $10 meal into a $15 meal pretty quickly. An extra piece of cake when I’m already pretty full isn’t worth a 50% bump in the check (at least). However, if I go to a place like Hometown Buffet, not only will I get dessert, I’ll usually get three. Why? I’ve already paid for that dessert whether I eat it or not; why not enjoy it?

    The same goes for music. If I have the unlimited plan, any questioning I have about “eh…will I really listen to ‘KISS: Live In Detroit’ enough to purchase the entire 5-disc set?’ If I’m paying $40 for it, probably not. But if I’ve already paid once…wait for it…keep waiting…

    You pull the trigger of my…. LOVE GUN!

  • Barack Obama gave a speech on race and the influence it’s had on this campaign. I’ve read and watched it; probably top five of all speeches I’ve heard in my lifetime. Without coming out and saying it, Obama essentially said it was ridiculous that race was even an issue in this race, and he’s completely right.

    But he’s missing another aspect of diversity: the role religion still has in politics is pretty sad. “But Jimmy,” you say, “how could you say that after supporting Mike Huckabee?” I think religion is pretty unimportant when it comes to choosing a President. Ultimately, you’re not voting for your God, because if God were running for President I’m pretty sure he’d win every time. You’re voting for the person and how he will run the country. If that doesn’t make any sense, I’ll put it another way: I would have still supported Mike Huckabee if he wasn’t Christian but was still the same person. Of course, your religion generally tends to define who you are, so it’d be very hard for Huckabee to be the same candidate without his religion.

    A more relevant example is the allegation that some have made that Barack Obama is a Muslim. My response to that is: so what? What’s he going to do, call up his buddy Osama and say, “hey, I’m on the inside, they’re trusting me with everything! We’re so in!”? Of course not. The view that all Muslims are terrorists is ridiculous in this day and age.

    When you’re electing a president, you shouldn’t elect someone who follows the same religion as you because they follow the same religion as you. You should elect someone who will defend to the death your right to follow whatever religion (or lack thereof) you want to follow.

  • I realize as I type that that I’ve never typed my interpretation of “one nation, under God” in a place that everyone can access; at some point, I’ll have to do that.
  • Onto the wide world of sports. The NCAA March Madness tournament has begun, and right now I still have no idea who’s won any games. I find that I really don’t care this year, for whatever reason. My pick is for North Carolina to win it all, but I haven’t filled out a bracket. “March Madness” seems like its getting dangerously close to “April Fever”, doesn’t it? Every year it seems to start later and later. Why is this? Why can’t basketball just go quietly into their offseason like the rest of the sports? NBA playoffs last like a month and a half, and March Madness keeps getting later and longer. Basketball is, to me, nothing more than a filler between the end of football season and the beginning of the baseball season.
  • I have been watching more of the Cavs games lately, and I came to a realization. You know that guy LeBron James? He’s pretty good.
  • Both Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey especially pitched well last night. Dear Mark Shaprio: Take advantage of the lack of starting pitching around the rest of the league and please, please, please trade Cliff Lee to someone who is desperate.
  • Onto the quote of the day:
    Just remember, when you control the mail, you control… information.
    Newman, Seinfeld

    If George is the best sitcom character of all time, Newman has got to be in the top three. How anyone kept a straight face when he was in the room during shooting is beyond me.

Finally, I’m looking for a new travel coffee mug. I’d prefer one that is mostly metal (I’m not a big fan of plastic) and one that’s constructed well enough to not let any coffee drip out inadvertently. I’m willing to pay considerable cash for it. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Just kidding, one more thing. I’m noticing that I’m getting viewers from all over the country now, but I’d like to know more about who’s reading this blog. So if you’re reading this blog and you like (or hate) what you read, leave a comment somewhere with your first name and location.

Until next time.