I usually ignore the update notifications that iTunes pops up everytime I reopen it, because I expect them to eventually drop some digital-rights hammer on my music collection and render it inoperable. (Kind of like what Microsoft apparently plans to do with its future Zune player.) It will start to doing some unrequesting “analyzing”, going through all my songs one by one, and then boom, none of them will work without some kind of certification. That’s probably unduly paranoid, but at some point it seems inevitable. Eventually music players and subscription services will dominate the music industry (this article in today’s WSJ about the innovations of Apple’s digital music player rivals gives a peek at the future), and the idea of collecting music may become as moribund as collecting pogs. It’s hard to imagine not claiming a sense of ownership over music, but it wasn’t so long ago that the best people could do was own sheet music. Music must have meant something very different then; it was always an activity rather than ambient wallpaper or a passive hobby. So attitudes toward music are clearly very malleable and responsive to distribution technology. Future distribution may make music more like on-demand cable TV, where we pay monthly to check in and hear something new whenever we want to, or it may merge seamlessly with satellite radio. Once ownership of some tangible product is undermined as a motive for buying music, the stage is set for a resurgence of the significance of radio. What is the difference between radio and subscriptions to massive music libraries, anyway, other than who picks the songs? Most people want some one else to do that work anyway. I imagine the subsciption services will offer playlists to download as well as individual songs.
Anyway, I broke down and upgraded to iTunes 7 last night, mainly because I was enticed by the promise that I could have the iTunes store get all the missing album artwork for me. Of course I had to log in to the store and let them store a credit-card number—but I took the bait; it seemed a fair trade and I like seeing the covers. Apple has obviously decided that pushing album art is important to the next phase of digital music’s takeover. Not only does the promise of all that free art get more customers into their database, one click away from purchasing media, it also brings the experience of digitized music ownership one more sensual step closer to accurately simulating the collecting experience. The new iTunes lets you browse your collection by album cover, which makes a surprising difference in terms of how I understand all the junk I’ve got on my hard drive. The program even has an option that lets you flick through a virtual shelf of “albums” with mouse clicks, letting you see all the covers lined up neatly next to each other as if they were mounted on a vertical Rolodex. It’s a still a little clumsy, but it definitely seems like a move toward a whole new paradigm for computerized music consumption that attempts to provide consolation for the loss of the fetishized object. Next some enterprising entrepreneur will get to work scanning the back covers.
Update: The program is extremely buggy for Windows and I’ve had to rollback to iTunes 6. Look at pretty covers while browsing isn’t worth my computer freezing up every time a new song comes on.