The metaphors we adopt and discard are important when it comes to understanding how we make sense of the environment of the internet. Remember when we used to ‘surf the information superhighway’? Thankfully now we just sit at our computers and ‘use’ websites, or are, at the very most, ‘on’ them. “Do you use Facebook?” “Are you on Twitter?” “Did you see that on YouTube?” “I don’t use LinkedIn (but they still keep sending me emails every day).”
And yet spatial and transportation metaphors abound when it comes to online retail. If we want to buy a book, we ‘go to’ Amazon. Websites ‘take you to’ their store. Email sales messages ask us to ‘visit’ so that we can buy stuff.
Breaking that spatial metaphor is the key central innovation of the iTunes Store (the iTunes Music Store when it launched, but they’ve diversified). Yes, you’re still paying money online and downloading music from the internet in exchange for that money paid – but you do not go anywhere to do so. The store is on your desktop. It’s right here. Part of the player.
“Shall I go download it from Amazon?”
“No need, I can get it right here on iTunes.”
Fundamentally the transaction and the mechanics of the process are virtually indistinguishable – except for two important things. First, you had to ‘navigate’ to a website. And second, if you download the music from “elsewhere”, you still then have to import the music into iTunes, if that’s your music player (and it is most people’s).
It’s no wonder that the iTunes store is so phenomenally successful. I can not only buy music without leaving my house – I can buy music without leaving my music player. Faced with that kind of simplicity and the frictionless purchasing that results from having an iTunes account already tied to your credit card, the miracle is that it’s not more successful than it is.
Say what you like about them – but we appear to like shopping malls, as a culture. Having a device that enables us to visit those shopping malls from the comfort of our home feels like progress to us. What Apple have done with the iTunes store is to remove the need to visit. The shopping mall is now right here, right now.
Of course, they’ve made some pretty good self sabotage attempts by deliberately breaking their products (restrictive digital rights management), stocking low-quality goods (insisting on low-resolution files – though AAC is measurably better than mp3 encoded at the same low rate), and moving all the shelves around so we can’t find what we want (some appalling user interface decisions on certain upgrade versions) – but even so, on the whole, it seems like the one thing Apple simply cannot get wrong no matter how hard they try.
The overarching logic and design of the iTunes store has had some unintended consequences for music retail: the predominance of the individual track over the album sale. The characteristics of the environment and the deliberate removing of all points of purchasing friction has led to the musical equivalent of grabbing a candy bar because it happens to be right there.
“How did that song go? Oh wait – I have iTunes open – I’ll just grab it.”
To suggest that iTunes has been a positive or negative force for the Music Industry is to first believe that there’s such a thing (I don’t happen to) and second to believe that it matters (likewise). The iTunes Store is not something that happened to the music industries, the software application industries, the magazine, film, book and television industries – but instead represent a (now rather established and settled) shift in the context within which those industries operate.
And now it’s been here for ten years. Normalised. Embedded in the culture with a range of accessories, gadgets and devices that require that we use that same environment, and for which we can, without effort or pause for reflection, simply purchase new sounds, activities, and entertainments.
Not only that, but the ease of use and seamless, convenient integration also drives the hardware sales which, of course, is where the real margins lie. If it wasn’t quite so profitable and popular, you’d almost be forced to conclude that music was nothing more than the bait in this setup.
But ten years is three lifetimes in internet years. A measure of something which, almost like email, is so seamlessly integrated into our daily lives that for it to suddenly go away would be unthinkable.
It turns out we quite like having a shopping mall on our laps.