A sure fire way of getting hits and comments is to be critical of Apple, so here we go. Apple’s press conference yesterday (I won’t put any links in, just visit any tech blog, nay, any website on the World Wide Web and you can read about it) unveiled Ping, their new social network service where you can “Follow your favourite artists and friends to discover the music they’re talking about, listening to and downloading.”. They also trumpeted loudly the simple to use privacy tools of this system because Apple are renegades against the system and men (/women) of the people.
Well, here, loyal reader, is the rub – you can only follow your favourite artists if they are on iTunes, you can only follow your friends if they are also iTunes users and, by the way, iTunes is only really any good to you if you consume music using Apple’s hardware. The fact that everyone is thrilled about this shows how phenomenal Apple are at what they do – iTunes is pretty good, iPods are brilliant pieces of kit (especially if you’re not bothered about your music sounding like you’re listening to it through a particularly thick pillow), but it worries me. It worries me because Apple now have a potentially very significant hand in the promotion/marketing/discovery of music, the distribution of music and the means by which music is consumed. Given that music is a cultural artefact, a vertically integrated (near) monopoly of this nature cannot be good for diversity and innovation within that artefact.
Let me be clear, I’m not worried about this because it’s Apple and they are evil and horrible, I think they’re probably quite nice. I’m worried about it in the same way I was worried about EMI, Sony-BMG and the like dominating the entire music value chain. Let’s be honest, even though some of their dominance has been crippled by the file-sharing revolution, they still have a pretty significant hand – but in many ways the Apple dominance is even stronger, at least there were 5 of the ‘Big 5’ record labels, both in terms of legal downloads and hardware sales Apple’s individual control is much greater (80% or more market share?). A single company having so much control over the success and failure of music artists is a huge threat to diversity – and we know Apple have been pretty ruthless on their app store with people they don’t get on with – woe betide any artist that similarly pisses them off and gets booted out from the iTunes closed shop. Concentration of power is a bad thing wherever it is concentrated.
What Apple have done brilliantly thus far with iTunes and iPod is create some high exit barriers. If all of your music collection is in iTunes it’s very hard to switch away from iPod – read some Amazon reviews of other portable media systems and see how many people give a low mark to the hardware because it won’t integrate with Apple’s software (because Apple won’t let it, not because there is something wrong with what Sony or Cowon have built). It’s brilliant strategically. Now they’ve taken the next step back in the ladder – if you are relying on a social media system built and (to some extent) controlled by Apple for discovery and interaction around music it becomes even more difficult to break away. Many people will be happy with that system and as with all Apple things I’m sure it will work brilliantly – but a closed shop like this is an undeniable threat to diversity.
Whilst many people (including, no doubt, Sir Paul’s bank manager) are very upset about the Beatles STILL not being on iTunes, the dispute with Apple records is a positive in the context we are discussing. The logical next backwards step in the chain to become a fully vertically integrated behemoth is for Apple to start producing music as well. Founding a record label will always be very difficult for them unless they hive it off from the Apple brand completely.
So am I right to be worried about this? Are my suspicions about Apple driven by my contrarian nature clouding my judgement or is Apple a big hulking monopoly with the potential to impose an iron grip on the music we come to know and love?