19 Dec 2006

Damascus Road

When the Australian iTunes store launched in October last year, I'd assumed, we all assumed, that the New Zealand store could not be far away. After all, couldn't they just use the same store? Apparently not. All year we heard rumours: all the local artists are on Sony, who haven't signed up, so there's no point opening, we're too small a market. All this time Apple, in their usual inscrutable manner, denied the existence of any New Zealand store.

Fast forward to the start of December this year. Amid great fanfare, lo, the New Zealand iTunes store was brought to life. They even brought the vice president of iTunes in to announce it. If the president of iTunes ever gets shot, this is the guy who takes over and here he is, right there on Campbell, telling us how lucky we were. An early Christmas present.

And it did sound like a good deal. At $1.79 a track, all those albums I'd been waiting to buy were calling. You know, the stuff you can't buy at the Botany Downs Sounds. Stuff that's not Britney. I waited for a couple of days, then logged on, credit card in hand, ready to buy a couple of albums only available in physical form as a highly-priced Marbeck's special import. Minor problem - the albums I wanted weren't there. OK, I thought, they've just started. Teething troubles. Two million songs must take a long time to load in. But I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It's not like they would actually have to load the store, just connect to the servers in California and... where was the music?

A rumour over the next few days: they still have to sort out some rights issues. But that didn't ring true. Searching on artists only brought back a handful of albums, often from different parts of their careers.

Then another rumour: massive problems with the NZ iTunes store. Huge disaster. No details, but Apple are working on it and it'll take absolutely ages to fix.

All this time, Apple stayed silent as the moon. I kept waiting for an article in Computerworld to confirm what seemed to be happening. Nothing.

iTunes was an early Christmas present. But it turned out to be from your dodgy uncle Eric. Came in a box that made you think it was a football, but it turned out to be a used lotto ticket with a fish and chip order written on the back.

And that's where we are today. The iTunes store still seems to have only a fraction of the two million songs advertised. Certainly nothing I want to buy seems available. I never thought my musical tastes were that obscure.

Problem was, I'd gotten all excited that I could finally buy the music I'd been holding out for. And when I couldn't, I got frustrated. Worse, I've become known as one of those mac guys, an Apple lover. Sure, I like Apple just fine. Our household has a couple of iPods, an iMac, a crusty old iBook that still works well. So now everyone was asking me what was up with the iTunes store, as if it were my fault. Maybe, partially, it was. After all, I'd been telling everyone for months that soon we'd all be in the promised land of iTunes, listening to music beyond our imagination.

I still like the idea of digital music. And I still think the best thing about online music stores is easy access to the more obscure stuff. You know, the long tail and all that.

Over on the Public Address forum, talk turned to alternatives. And there was one: emusic.

Emusic is slightly different to iTunes - you have a subscription, which allows you a certain number of downloads a month. But those downloads are bona fide no DRM MP3s. They'll play anywhere, on anything. One catch is that emusic has mostly small labels, independent artists. If you really do want that Britney album, these aren't the droids you're looking for. But if you like, you know, actual music well, welcome home.

I must admit, I'd heard about emusic before, and disregarded it. It's all indie music, I'd thought, and I'm not really into it. Except I was looking at it the wrong way. It is indie, in the sense that you won't find artists still tied to major labels. But there are still well known names here*. I'm planning on getting that new Tom Waits album, along with catching up on some Badly Drawn Boy and Bruce Cockburn.
First thing I downloaded was the Chris Whitley album I didn't already have, but the big hit so far is Richard Thompson's 1000 years of popular music. And that one, oddly enough, contains the first Britney track I've ever purchased.

A basic subscription to emusic will set you back about NSD$15/Month. To put that in perspective, that's 30 tracks for $15 dollars. 30 tracks on iTunes will set you back NZD$53.7. And a couple of weeks ago, I thought that was cheap. It gets better though - you can download 25 tracks absolutely free. If you email me and let me recommend you, I'll get free tracks too.

At first I was skeptical that I'd want 30 tracks every month. Surely I'd run out of new things to listen to. Perhaps. But from what I've already downloaded, and from the size of my "to download later" queue, it's not going to be anytime soon.

I'm sure Apple will eventually fix the NZ iTunes store. But don't bother telling me. I'm already home.

* Just in case you think the names I've listed are still too 'indie', how about:
Ray Charles
Elvis Presley
Bob Dylan

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