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Arguing iTunes

Michael Hirschorn does us a great service by unearthing a handful of interesting, cutting-edge digital-music sites (“The Digital-Music Mosh Pit,” January/February Atlantic). One gets the sense, however, that Hirschorn puts his zeal for what’s new and what’s next ahead of considerations that are more fundamental to music lovers and explorers.

First, Hirschorn seems more enamored with new ways to discover music than with what the product delivered by these new services actually sounds like. To put it bluntly, most of the songs that stream through Pandora and Last.fm suck. I’m sure that has something to do with the iffy provenance of each audio file, and the fact that the bytes are piped through a thicket of intermediary networks, routers, and systems and get squirted out through cheap sound cards cabled to poor-quality speakers. I’m equally sure that, over time, the delivery technology will improve. But, given the inherently poor audio quality of the MP3 format, I wonder how much we can ever really expect.

Second, Hirschorn is unduly hard on iTunes. I guess you could call iTunes a “closed system,” as he does. Except that you can download any track off any RedBook-conforming CD into your iTunes library by clicking a couple of buttons. Except that you can share any protected AAC track you buy from the iTunes Store with anybody, regardless of platform, by burning it to a CD. Except that iTunes gives you an elegant, peerlessly simple way to find, sign up for, and manage podcasts (a communally based technology that is growing faster than a thousand Last .fms). When you actually look at all the ways that iTunes syncs, links, and accommodates old technologies, competing formats, and different platforms, I think it’s quite inaccurate—and a little unfair—to call it “closed.”

Joel MaHarry
Santa Monica, Calif.

Michael Hirschorn replies:

Joel MaHarry makes some good points in his letter, particularly about sound quality. MP3 quality certainly isn’t up to snuff by traditional standards, but one of the implicit trade-offs of the digital era is swapping quality for choice and customization. People seem willing to watch low-quality video on the Web, for example, if they can watch what they want when they want it. Also, for most forms of hip-hop or rock, the difference in quality between a digital track and an album or CD is nugatory. For classical or jazz, I’ve been using the Olive music server, which allows you to digitize your CDs using high-quality “lossless” formats like FLAC.

I do not dispute MaHarry’s argument about the intuitive beauty of the iPod/iTunes system. It is, indeed, a swan among ugly ducklings. But it is also an enemy of choice and discovery, and it places undue burdens on users who want to freely use music they’ve purchased through iTunes. Forcing users to burn music they download from iTunes onto a CD before they can share it with others or load it onto another music platform is hardly a graceful solution. Indeed, critics have argued that Apple put such hurdles in place in order to build a monopoly position in digital music.

However, it’s worth noting that since my column went to press, the labels have dropped a number of hints that they will be releasing more music in the unrestricted MP3 format. And in February, Steve Jobs himself issued a remarkable open letter acknowledging the shortfalls of the closed system and saying that iTunes would sell songs in the unrestricted MP3 format if the labels would make them available.

Debating Starbucks

Virginia Postrel, in her paean “In Praise of Chain Stores” (December Atlantic), makes what she thinks is the bold claim that “stores don’t give places their character. Terrain and weather and culture do.” But she neglects to consider that environment—including stores—acts on people. People accustomed to pursuing their needs blindly in big anonymous stores end up looking like anonymous integers in a world market. The chain store leads to the chain person.

Still, Postrel is right about one point: Having Starbucks in every spot of the world makes it easier to move from place to place, as the coffee shop is always “home away from home.” A friend just moved to Paris from New York, knowing nothing about France. It was not too radical a move, she said. They have Starbucks! Was she going to learn the language soon, I asked? Oh no, why would that be necessary?

Karin Badt
Paris, France

Virginia Postrel replies:

Only someone with absolutely no powers of observation would think Paris and New York—or, for that matter, Los Angeles and New York, or Dallas and New York—are the same merely because they both have Starbucks. These days, however, such insensitivity is apparently a mark of the bored sophisticate. In vain, we stubborn Anglo-Saxon empiricists expect evidence for wild claims like “People accustomed to pursuing their needs blindly in big anonymous stores end up looking like anonymous integers in a world market.”

Besides, not every difference is charming; ask anyone who has ever suffered through a painfully slow Parisian grocery-store line. The store is just as anonymous as a Wal-Mart Supercenter, but the cashier is far less efficient and friendly. A little more competition could do wonders for service quality.

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