The Digital-Music Mosh Pit

A new wave of Web innovation is finally challenging Steve Jobs’s empire of cool.

There is order to the madness. If you accept as an article of faith (and I do) that the existence of digital media means everything will eventually become available everywhere for a price that will approach zero, you can start connecting the dots. I’m currently faced with an arbitrary choice: if I want to walk around with my music in my iPod, I have to interface with the closed iTunes system and purchase songs at 99 cents a pop (or, for non-major-label offerings, go to eMusic.com); if I want to enjoy new music, learn about music from people who’ve built cool user pages, and generally share in the communal joys of critical discrimination, I have to leave iTunes and sniff about online. It is surely only a matter of time before that problem is solved. Indeed, a new peer-to-peer file-sharing service named SpiralFrog (backed by EMI and the Universal Music Group) is planning to offer free, advertising-supported download services. It will be portable but will not work with your iPod. (Kazaa, which recently promised to stop allowing illegal music and video downloads, is apparently also exploring a similar ad-supported service.) It’s unclear if this free music will work on the newly launched Microsoft Zune, which is trying to end-run the iPod by offering wireless capability. It allows users to share music files on the go with other Zune users who are within wireless range. This is less sexy than it sounds, since the music you share disappears after three days, and Zune’s other features, including its online digital-music store, offer no real advance over iTunes. Sales have been slow.

If past is prologue, SpiralFrog and Kazaa, too, will come up short. But all these failures are in the service of a dynamic evolution. Someone—and that someone is likely already at work on the key advance—will figure this out. One next step could be a move by the labels to make more pay-per-download music available without restriction, meaning that once you’ve purchased a song, you can do anything you want with it, currently a no-go on Zune or iTunes. Unrestricted MP3 sites could play VHS to iTunes’s Betamax. However it occurs, though, the execution of a widely used free and free-flowing music download and sharing system is surely imminent.

Is it possible to conceive of a moment when the iTunes/iPod system is no longer dominant? Like console games and cable and satellite TV, iTunes/iPod has been a stunningly successful execution of a closed, or “end-to-end,” system. The iPod is, obviously, a triumph of design, and it exploded onto the music scene because it offered reasonably flawless, intuitive execution (and, to the intellectual-property owners, flawless digital- rights management) at a time when illegal file sharing could not only crash your computer but destroy your hard drive. Yet it is also a triumph of ideology. Steve Jobs has successfully positioned Apple as “getting it,” damning the insufficiently Hipsterville Windows masses to lives of monochrome drudgery—the Mac-versus- PC TV ads being only the most blatant expression of Apple’s bid for a social conformity of ironic T-shirts, studiously asymmetrical coifs, and an iPod nano in the outside pocket of your Manhattan Portage messenger bag. Never mind that your $399 iPod video will not let you transfer music back onto your (or any other) desktop.

Apple also remains the beneficiary of a network effect that makes iPod’s nearly 80 percent market share self-propagating. Once you’ve sprung for the nano, bought the $3,000 computer to sync it to, downloaded $500 worth of music, purchased a Coach carrying case and a cool iPod camera attachment, bought the thingamajig that allows you to stream your iPod through your car radio, and watched your iPod video on an airline that offers it compatibility, you can barely conceive of decamping to an entirely different system with strange keystrokes and a whole new set of technical glitches.

Still, services like iLike and Hype Machine offer the first compelling conceptual challenge to Apple’s closed-end system, threatening to upend its virtual Williamsburg of cool. We are at a moment when the digital-music experience is moving from a linear to a dynamic model: the many telling the many what they like, hate, and want others to hear, and providing a communal experience that re-creates digitally some of the reasons we fell in love with music in the first place. This places Steve Jobs in the awkward position of selling the passing pleasures of dissociated loners moving about in their iPod bubbles when a musical carnival is breaking out all around him. (All eyes will, per usual, be on Jobs this month at the Macworld Expo, when he performs his annual product unveiling—rumors are of an integrated cell phone/iPod.)

As for me, I already find that I’m not missing my iPod, which recently broke, on cue, after only a few months. An office mate hooked me up with an iRiver Clix, an ingenious little two-gigabyte MP3 player that’s as functional as my old iPod—and actually gets stares on the subway. It syncs nicely (if laboriously) with my computer’s Windows Media Player, and suddenly I’m shuffling in and out of thousands of songs on the fly—including that Modeselektor remix of My Robot Friend.

Michael Hirschorn is the executive vice president of original programming and production at VH1.
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Michael Hirschorn is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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