Charles Arthur On Technology

'Apple needs the independent record labels more than they need it, because they'll do just fine, thanks, through the normal sales channels'

So at last the European flavour of the iTunes Music Store has been launched - and after a week of its being open, people are already asking: exactly where is all the music?

So at last the European flavour of the iTunes Music Store has been launched - and after a week of its being open, people are already asking: exactly where is all the music?

Although Steve Jobs stood up and insisted there were 700,000 tracks, the same as on the US site, the reality is that number is the total across all three sites - UK, France and Germany - each of which has only about 300,000 each, with some overlap. If "piracy" is iTunes's principal competitor, there's some way to go to match the choice over on the dark side.

Now that we have all the online music stores we're likely to need for the next few years - with Napster and all the OD2 front-ends having got their act together - it's time to consider quite what, if anything, this is going to do to the music industry, and which of the sites will survive in the long term.

Apple has the benefit of simplicity: its iTunes Music Store is brilliantly integrated into the iTunes program, which is a free download, and also comes with the iPods that Britons are snapping up in droves. Napster has begun pushing promotional CDs into Dixons stores. The OD2 sites (such as mycokemusic.com and bignoisemusic.com) suffer from not having a well-known name in front of them; OD2 would probably do better than the 500,000 songs it sold in the first half of this year across Europe if it just got its partners out of the way and sold stuff in its own right.

Now, the expectation of everyone is that the iTunes Store and its brethren will lead to the death of the album. I wanted to write this while listening to "American Pie" (you know, about the day the music died) by Don McLean. But it's available on the iTunes Store only if you buy the whole album - not as a single track. I think established artists will increasingly choose not to let their songs be cherry-picked. Radiohead got sick of performing their first huge hit, "Creep", and as a corollary of not wanting to be identified by a couple of standout tracks, won't allow their songs to be sold piecemeal online. I suspect The Darkness will rapidly tire of being tied to "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" - if they last long enough. But for rising artists, selling individual tracks will be the way forward. The problem once they're a success will be how to change their stance without annoying us.

However, high-street shops need not shudder just yet. Jobs claims that the US online store has grabbed two per cent of the total US market in just a year. I suspect Europe will take off much more slowly, for three reasons: fewer people have high-speed connections to download songs; musical tastes are often more eclectic - we go for a wider range than dominates the US charts; and Britons especially will go a long way for a bargain and to avoid paying any premium.

While people were meant to faint dead away at the lowness of the iTunes prices (79p each rather than the 99p or more of other sites), if you're considering buying a £7.99 online album, compare it first with a site such as Amazon. The Amazon CD will frequently work out at about the same price (buy a stack of them, and you'll not have to pay shipment, so you'll sort-of save). And the sound quality will be higher.

It will also have all the tracks - another wrinkle to beware of in your online buying. If you've got the iTunes Store handy, look up "Kamakiriad", by Donald Fagen (one half of Steely Dan): on the UK site, if you buy it for £5.53, you won't get track 7, "On the Dunes". At least one reviewer at Amazon UK says that track merits close listening, but you'll not hear it through the online store. And that's a pattern repeated again and again.

True, the Amazon CD costs £7.99, but "marketplace" sellers attached to it can match the online price. I don't know whether OD2 or Napster sell that missing track 7, or even have Fagen's back-catalogue. Do you want Faithless's new hit "Mass Destruction"? It's on Oxfam's "Big Noise Music" site, but not at Apple's. How about Queens of the Stone Age's "You're So Vague"? No, only got four of their tracks. Carly Simon's "You're So Vain"? No. Something from Blur? Only their first album. Muse? Just their first album, of four. And there's nothing from the Virgin label.

The absence of the independent labels - who don't like Apple's terms, which they say would tie them for the next three years to a fixed payment below that of the five major labels - gives the iTunes Music Store a serious momentum problem. In the US, independents are a tiny part of the business; over here, a quarter. Apple needs them more than they need it, because they do just fine through the normal sales channels. Steve Jobs would be unwise to sacrifice customers' interest on the altar of a few pennies. Think of the iPods you'll sell, Steve.

All the sites offer buy-to-keep downloads: but Apple offers only this "store" metaphor. OD2 also offers streaming (for 1p per track), while Napster offers a "subscription" - grab a bunch of tracks and sample them, and buy those you like. Both the latter are hugely attractive, because they're essentially radio without the annoyances of DJs and commercials. Apple has underestimated the role of the "happy accident" in our enjoyment of music. I would have liked to buy the track that was the backing of an iPod ad; but I couldn't catch its name, or find it. I don't necessarily want to buy everything I hear (though I'll have it if it's free, a behaviour that the file-sharing networks promote), and I can't tell by listening to 30-second snatches if I really like something.

Jobs insist that people aren't interested in subscriptions, where you pay forever to listen to a song; I'd agree, but that's not quite how Napster works. He says people aren't interested in streaming; that's an exaggeration. Perhaps Apple doesn't have the technical resources to sort out a subscription system, though it could knock together a streaming system in a week or two. If it doesn't widen its offerings, both musical and technical, then last week's launch may turn out to be one of the biggest missed opportunities in years.

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