Universal Records Fucks Up Bad


Do not fuck with Steve Jobs

Here’s a hall-of-fame dumb decision, extreme even for an industry that specializes in hall-of-fame dumb decisions: earlier this week, Universal Records announced that it wouldn’t be renewing its contract with the iTunes music store. That doesn’t mean that music out on Universal won’t be available for sale on iTunes anymore, but it does mean that the label can jerk all its stuff from the store with virtually no notice. I’m pretty sure that even this company wouldn’t be dumb enough to yank all its music off of iTunes just to win a fight, but stranger things have happened. The fact that they’re doing this during the same week as the iPhone hits stores and its avalanche of hype reaches its peak is just mind-boggling. Of all the record labels left in existence, Universal is probably in the best possible position to make a power-play like this; with all its subsidiaries, it’s definitely the biggest of the major labels. And iTunes sales still only make up a fraction of the music sold in this country, but they’re just about the only sector of music sales that is actually doing better now than it was a year ago. That makes iTunes one of the most important music stores left open, just behind Best Buy and Wal-Mart. And here’s the thing about iTunes: it doesn’t need to exist. Anyone computer-savvy enough to buy music from iTunes could just as easily download that same music from any number of illegal services, and yet we still buy this shit out of some misguided loyalty or because we’re afraid of accidentally downloading a ton of viruses. Anything that makes it harder for us to buy shit from iTunes is just that much more likely to send us to download this shit for free instead.

I pretty much only buy music from iTunes anymore. The service is a long way from being perfect; I lost a whole bunch of music earlier in the year when my computer crashed and I hadn’t backed my hard-drive up. All the downloads come with that infuriating device that only allows you to play them on a few designated machines. The store still doesn’t, for whatever reason, carry a whole lot of music that it really should carry, and the ongoing hoopla about the failure of Apple to come to some agreement with the Beatles continues to overshadow way more important issues, like how I still can’t use it to buy Pretty Hate Machine or The War Report. Part of Universal’s beef with iTunes is that iPods still won’t play any music that comes from other online music retailers, though that’s pretty much still a nonissue when virtually no one uses non-iTunes online music retailers. With all its problems, though, buying music on iTunes is just about the most pleasant way to do it these days. The website is easy to use, and the music is fairly priced. They’ve got a lot of stuff available. There aren’t any record-store clerks to look at you weird if you’re buying Kenny Chesney. The big box stores are cheap, but their selections are usually pitiful, and their stuff is so out-of-order that I usually can’t find what I’m looking for even when they have it. And as great as independent stores can be, they’re usually a lot better for one specific genre than for any sort of aimless general-interest browsing. People in New York are especially screwed when stores like Kim’s and Other Music charge an average of what seems like $16.99 for every damn thing. Compared to every other available option, iTunes just makes sense, and that’s probably why Universal doesn’t like it.

Practically since iTunes started, labels have been trying to prevent the service from charging its base price of 99 cents for every song. The labels figure they could be able to make more money by charging more for certain songs, and maybe they’re right, but Steve Jobs won’t budge, which is awesome. Even the most expensive albums on iTunes are only like $13.99, which is still a totally reasonable price. And since there’s none of the overhead involved in the manufacture of actual physical artifacts, that money is virtually all profit. The store’s existence seems like a win-win for both the labels and the people who actually buy the music. But record labels hate it when they can’t control every single aspect of music sales, and that’s what’s at stake here. Record labels have become used to suing college students and grandmothers for illegal downloads; they’re not used to going up against a company bigger than any label, one with the will and the power to say no to them. Apple makes it impossible for these labels to engage in the price-fixing chicanery that sent so many of us running to download music in the first place as soon as the technology became available. Now, it seems, they’re willing to sacrifice whatever customers they have left because they can’t get everything they want. What a bunch of fucking babies.

For more than a century now, the music industry has persistently panicked at almost every advance in its technology: player pianos, phonographs, radio, recordable cassettes. And now its drive to charge prices beyond what’s totally reasonable is causing it to endanger whatever goodwill it might have left. If every major label followed Universal’s lead, maybe they’d have some leverage against Apple, but I’d be amazed if that happened, and this business decision is only going to look dumber and more shortsighted as its consequences continue to register. I know I’m a music critic and not a financial analyst, but news like this pisses me off to no end. If the music industry does completely die off, it won’t have anyone to blame but itself.