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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

Apple's Online Music Store: Plenty of Soul, but, Alas, not much Class

In case you missed it, Apple Computer has started an online music store to work with it's iTunes music program.  Of course, if you are a Windows user, you probably missed it, because iTunes, while free to Mac OS users, is not available for Windows, a bit of a marketing mistake on the part of Apple I think (they promise Windows version by the "end of the year").  However, for those of us sufficiently blessed to have access to OS X and iTunes, the iTunes Music Store is pretty slick technology. 

To Serve Music

Apple has done a logical thing that the RIAA can't seem to get its members to do (they're too busy suing poor college students).  They saw that people wanted the convenience of downloading music from the Internet and made it available with immediacy and at a somewhat reasonable price. Unlike other online music services, there is no monthly fee associated with access to the Apple Music Store.  Instead, you pay as you go for whatever you download and then have the right to that music for your personal use. 

Individual tracks cost $.99.  Albums are in the $9.00-$30 range depending upon the amount of music they include.  iTunes allows you to listen immediately to what you've purchased, to download tracks to your iPod (Apple's mp3 player), or to burn your music onto a CD.  iTunes provides a simple browsing and searching mechanism and even plays a 30 second preview of any track that's available for purchase.  In usual Apple style, a lot of work has been done to create an elegant and useful interface which is immediately accessible to the average computer user.

An Instant Hit

Apple announced the iTunes Music Store (that's its official name) on Monday, April 28 via one of those Steve Jobs shows held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.  In the week that followed, Apple sold over a million tracks, including a large portion which was album sales .  I doubt that they can sustain that sales pace, but there's no doubt it indicates that the iTunes Music Store is a hit with a large group of Mac users.  They had about 200,000 tracks at the store's inception and over 100,000 were purchased in the first week. Apple states that this demonstrates that the store serves a "breadth of musical tastes" -- well, not that broad.

Going Shopping

When I saw the announcement about iTunes and the music store, I decided to give it a try, or at least try to see if it would be useful.  As a sometimes composer of art music (when I'm not busy wrestling with computers), my musical tastes range from Andy Narell to Zemlinsky.  I decided to see if some of my recent purchases were available from the iTunes store. 

It had been a long time since I'd listened to Alban Berg's violin concerto and I only have it on LP (an ancient analog technology which used a vinyl storage medium).  I'd bought a CD recording of the work recorded by Anne-Sophie Mutter as the soloist with James Levine conducting (Polygram).  I tried to find it on iTunes by searching within the Classical genre.  No luck finding the Violin Concerto.  No music of Berg at all.  What about other composers from the second Viennese school?  No Webern.  No Zemlinsky.  Starting to panic.  A hit on Schoenberg.  Two albums which include Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder" but nothing else of his considerable output (you'd at least expect to find his romantic pre-atonal "Verklarte Nacht"). 

Well, if Berg is too extreme for iTunes, I decided to see if another recent purchase of mine was represented.  It is an album with the violinist Gidon Kremer playing the music of Astor Piazzolla ("Tracing Astor", Nonesuch).  No Kremer.  One track in "Classical" by Piazzolla, but not what I'm looking for. Just for a sanity check, I decided to see if the iTunes store had my other recent purchase.  They did indeed have tracks from the Dixie Chicks' album, "Home", but not the entire album.  Thank goodness I'm not totally outside the musical mainstream.

Taking the "Class" out of Classical

In poking around the iTunes store, I found numerous omissions within the Classical music selections.  Plenty of Tchaikovsky, but no Gliere.  One track of Glinka.  One track of Borodin.  Plenty of Ravel and Debussy, but no MacDowell or Griffis, their American impressionist counterparts.  No Boulez (well, nobody actually listens to Boulez).  One track of Berio.  No Varese.  One track of Penderecki.  No Lutoslawski.  No Stockhausen.  One album of John Cage's piano music (that one was a surprise).  Only one title by Janacek (anybody see "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"?).  Only two works by Bruckner.  Plenty of Vivaldi, but no Corelli.  A couple of tracks by John Adams, but nothing by Philip Glass or Steve Reich (the latter two having had quite a bit of crossover success in the non-virtual world).  OK, I could go on all day.  Time to stop.

There are other oddities in the Classical genre section as well. I can buy the third movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 2 as performed by Artur Rubenstein (I have him on LP), but not the first and second.  If I want the whole work, I have to buy the whole album which also contains Brahms's Piano Concerto no. 1.   Both are beautiful works, but Steve Jobs specifically said I shouldn't have to buy the whole album from his online music store.   I don't know of many serious Classical music listeners who would buy just one movement of a complete work.

A Reflection

Perhaps you've never heard of some of the composers who I mention above.  They would be discussed in any comprehensive music literature class (or at least, should be).  I guess that's part of my problem.  This store is intended for the U.S. market and Americans are rather illiterate when it comes to art music, or as we relegate the entire category: "Classical" music.  I can't blame the American public, but I find Apple's online store akin to an online art store which offers works of Andy Warhol and Leroy Nieman but nothing of Jackson Pollock or Alexander Calder.  On the other hand, perhaps I should congratulate Steve Jobs for being so in tune with American culture.