I just went back and reread Steve Jobs’ letter about the future of music. Jobs’ clout is amazing. The letter is two weeks old and people are still talking about it. But amid all the blather no one has focused on what I think is the critical issue about iTunes and the labels: It’s not DRM that is keeping iTunes from selling more music. –a sharing limit of four friends for each song allows for a lot of music sharing – it’s that the sound quality of iTunes music stinks.
Sound quality? Yep. When you download music from iTunes you don’t get CD quality music, you get a digital file that has been squished within an inch of its life. A typical CD contains about 800MB of music. Buy the same music on iTunes, and it’s only about 80 MB. Indeed, there is a whole industry devoted to compressing music so that listeners don’t notice the difference between the squished thing and the real thing.
Five years ago Jobs gambled correctly that this 10:1 compression was the best of all worlds: The music wasn’t CD quality but better than radio and certainly good enough to be played through headphones on an iPod. Meanwhile, the music files themselves were small enough to be downloaded quickly and not take up a lot of precious storage space.
But that was back when a 5gb iPod sold for $400, when most didn’t have broadband connections at home and when the idea of playing iTunes music through crappy iPod headphones seemed like a luxury.
Today, $400 gets you a 60 gb iPod that holds your entire music library. And instead of just being happy we can listen to our music on the bus to work, we also want to plug our iPods into our fancy stereos. That’s where things start to break down. Play iTunes music through quality speakers and you quickly realize you’d rather listen to a CD.
So why after five years and a flurry of hardware and software innovation that is a marvel to watch, hasn’t Jobs done anything to fix this? After all, you can rip your music – as I have – using Apple’s so called lossless technology, and it sounds just like the CD. But you can’t download music off iTunes that way.
Does Jobs think consumers won’t pay a premium for it? I doubt it. I don’t buy music off iTunes now because the quality is lousy. But offer me CD quality music on iTunes and I’d pay $1.50 a song.
No, I think Jobs’ deal with the labels keeps him from offering consumers what they want either because there are glitches with using Apple’s DRM technology with CD quality downloads or because the labels in their misguided way believe they will make more money having us buy physical CDs from Amazon than digital music from Jobs.
What does a guy like Jobs do when he can’t immediately negotiate himself out a jam? He gains some leverage by, say, reminding the world what a bunch of stupid, greedy bastards the labels are. I think if you want to really understand the motivations behind Jobs’ memo, you would do well to start here.