Saturday, December 18, 2004

What A Million Songs Means to Me (The Fable of Kazaa II)

by Tom Bozzo

Along with the enormous success of the iPod, Apple has been reporting decreasing intervals between 50 million download milestones at the iTunes Music Store, where the inventory now consists of "more than one million songs."

To see how far along Apple is with the iTMS library, I popped over to the home of the CDDB, the virtually unstumpable (I've tried and failed) database whose integration with iTunes spares users the need to enter track names and other CD metadata. As of yesterday when I visited, they reported these statistics for the CDDB contents:

Database Statistics
CD's: 3,275,101
Songs: 41,895,777

So, with rounding and a couple heroic assumptions, Apple has on offer something like 2.5 percent of all songs released on CD. The accomplishment is simultaneously impressive and problematic.

For someone with tastes in moderately to very obscure alt-rock like this (the answer to the VRAQ (*) of what's playing in my car)...

...browsing the iTMS has been an exercise in disorientation, as the alternative section contains scores of artists I've never even heard of, and apart from a few curiosities (The Wake?), there isn't enough in the catalog (yet?) to foster digital "librarying" of beloved vinyls for use in a prospective Pod or other applications.

As for the mystery artists, I am simply starved for information, and so all music retailers — iTMS and likeable locals alike — suffer as I am neither unable nor unwilling to spend my entertainment budget on recorded music in principle. This is why, in a pure navel-gazing exercise, I find that while Stan Leibowitz [PDF] technically could be right that conveying information about CD contents via free samples (authorized or not) or other means could reduce music sales (other things equal), my intuition is that he's wrong. (**)

In addition to offering sample sound clips, iTMS offers Amazon-style 'listeners also bought...' links. These would be more useful but for serious "micronumerosity" (***) problems in the esoteric sections of the store: not enough people have purchased tracks from The Wake to reliably tell me what might make a good accompaniment to a download of, say, "Talk About the Past."

Might I suggest Momus' "The Hairstyle of the Devil"? No, not on iTMS yet.


(*) Very Rarely Asked Question, as Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber amusingly puts it. At his VRAQ page, Farrell notes that he likes the Boo Radleys as an example of "psychedelic pop," to which I say, "cool," as the front item in my stack of 45s is, in fact, the Boo Radleys' "At the Sound of Speed" (on psychedelic colored 'wax'). A second psychedelic pop example would thus be interesting, if to a narrow audience.

(**) Loosely put, removing uncertainty about the contents of an album can make you more or less willing to pay for it, which (generally) pivots the demand curve. The effect, then, depends on the location of the pivot point. Choose the right point, and contrary to the argument of Mark Cuban and others, free sampling reinforces rather than offsets the substitution effect from unauthorized downloading. But music sales per capita are not so high (4 albums per year in the U.S., according to Leibowitz) that I'd assume that the representative music buyer is saturated with information.

(***) A coinage of Art Goldberger's, meant to convey the gravity of the issue of small sample size to the academic community by means of a polysyllabic term.
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