Friday, September 14, 2007

9.13.07 SOMETHING IN THE AIR

This article was originally published in the 9.12.07 issue of Metroland.








Last week’s Apple announcement was pretty stunning in a lot of ways, even if it didn’t include any announcement of the digital release of the Beatles catalog, which we still hear is coming.

For one thing, the new big iPod “Classic” has a 160 GB hard drive, big enough to hold, according to Steve Jobs, 40,000 songs. OK, 40,000 anemic sounding MP3s that will give you a headache, but, still, let’s think about this for a second. You’ve already laid out a fairly painful $300-400 for the iPod. Now, let’s assume you follow the rules and feel that the only moral choice for populating your new iPod is to buy songs through legitimate retail channels. Like, say , the iTunes store! OK, big assumption, but follow me here. Songs cost, at least for now, $.99 each, which seems like a fine price for a song. But to fill up your iPod, you’ll be running up a $39,600 tab on your Visa card.

Have you ever walked around with $40,000 in your pocket? Me neither. Do you think you would be comfortable walking around with $40,000 in your pocket? How many parents out there have heard this: “Mommy, I lost my iPod,” or “Daddy, I dropped my iPod in the toilet”? Oy.

Of course, these super-capacity iPods aren’t really about music. They’re about movies and TV, and the idea that people really will want to watch stuff on a dinky screen. The jury’s still out on that, and so’s the market. NBC television just pulled all of its content off the iTunes store over a pricing squabble, and downloadable movies are still an open question. Me, I prefer watching on the 50” plasma screen on my living room wall, but in reflective moments I’ll concede that the dusty old 25” Trinitron was really just fine.

Probably the most significant thing about last week’s Apple announcement was the introduction of the new WiFi enabled touch-screen iPod, which has all the bells and whistles of the instantly-iconic iPhone, except the phone. Watch out for this.

There was a lot of noise made about the announcement that these things were going to be tied in with the WiFi systems at Starbucks—if you take your iPod to a Starbucks, a new button will appear on your screen, and if you like the song that’s playing over the Starbuck’s sound system, you can push that button and buy that song right there and then.

Which is pretty sexy and cool. And ultimately stupid, until you realize that it’s the tip of the iceburg. Consider the following. A week ago, there was a lengthy feature in the New York Times Magazine with Rick Rubin, the Buddah-like producer of everybody from the Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash, who was recently named president of Columbia Records. Rubin predicted that the future of the music business wouldn’t involve selling music—that people weren’t going to be buying disks or files or anything. Rather, Rubin described a world where everybody’s music came literally out of the air, through wireless subscription services—what digital maven Jim Griffin years ago christened “The Celestial Jukebox.” All the music ever made will be available everywhere to you for a subscription fee, maybe a modest surcharge on your phone or cable bill, with the music delivered via wireless broadband networks. A president of a major record company says we’re headed this way.

Now consider this: earlier this week it was announced that Apple is sniffing around the FCC’s wireless spectrum auction, looking maybe to grab a piece of the sky, and the first and biggest stop towards the ability to host a wireless phone company. Or a wireless music delivery system that’s always on and always accessible to that little wireless Apple receiver in your pocket. It’s not like Apple doesn’t already have the music library, coded up and ready to go. And it’s not like subscription services for music streaming are far-fetched—Rhapsody and the “new” Napster have been offering them for a couple of years now. But not with the panache, not with the hardware, not with the marketing muscle and brand loyalty that Apple has.

Until now I figured these subscription deals were doomed to failure, that people wanted to “own” music, not just have access to it. But I’m from a generation that coveted the drive to the record store, the big cardboard record jacket loaded with images and information, the smell of the vinyl, and the sound of the needle slipping into the groove. These things all seem so quaint and distant and antique now. Almost ridiculous. The future, I think, is in the air.

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