Prince’s Musicology store, licensed WMA files, and Apple’s iTunes Music Store

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes, Microsoft, Music, Technology
April 6th, 2004 • 6:53 am

As a long-time Prince fan, I am obviously excited by the prospect of being able to purchase new music directly from the artist’s own web site. The Musicology music store has now become a reality. (In previous years, membership of the NPG Music Club did give you access to a number of music file downloads, but it was a subscription-based model and not a store. Most of these files are now available as album downloads to those who weren’t subscribers through the store, which is also accessible to non-subscribers.)

As a Mac user, however, I am obviously disappointed that the store is based on Microsoft’s proprietary Windows Media Audio licensing technology. This has already led to rather heated debates between Windows and Mac users on the Club’s member forums. To the Club’s credit, they have taken pains to explain the rationale [membership required] behind their choice of technology, and I am afraid that it makes sense for them at this point in time.

In a nutshell, the problem is that Apple’s own licensed AAC file format (used for music files sold through the iTunes Music Store) is just as proprietary as Microsoft’s licensed WMA format. And the difference between the two, from the perspective of the independent artist, is that Microsoft allows third-parties to use the technology to develop their own music store. If you want to use Apple’s licensed file format, however, your only choice, as an independent artist, is to sign a contract with Apple to sell your music through their iTunes Music Store. You cannot set up your own independent store.

It is quite understandable that, as an independent artist who has long fought to free himself from contractual (and unfair) obligations with major record labels, Prince is not particularly interested in Apple’s approach. Obviously Apple takes a significant cut on each and every sale. Of course, Apple needs to cover the costs of setting up and maintaining the iTunes Music Store and, by signing with them, the artist doesn’t need to cover the cost of setting up and maintaining a web store himself. But this system obviously creates a dependence — and the same old problems that artists have had to endure with major record labels during the last century are still present: there is a “middleman” that takes a cut, you have to go through this middleman to sell your music, the middleman has some control over how your work is presented and made accessible, etc.

The bottom-line is that, if Apple really wants to compete with Microsoft, it needs to make the licensed AAC file format technology available to third-parties so that they can set up their own music store independently from the iTunes Music Store. Otherwise, independent artists such as Prince will tend to use Microsoft’s technology instead, and it will become the de facto standard.

For Mac users, the problem is compounded by the fact that Microsoft’s support for the WMA format on the Mac is so poor. You can play licensed WMA files with the Windows Media Player (version 9, for Mac OS X only), but you cannot burn them on CD or transfer them to a portable music device. In addition, the Windows Media Player for Mac OS X does not support file names longer than 31 characters, which creates all kinds of problems for Mac users who are not aware of the limitation. (The “.wma” suffix gets truncated if the file name is too long, etc.) Finally, in the case of the licensed WMA files from Prince’s Musicology store, the way the license to play the files is acquired is very buggy. You are forced to set Explorer as your default browser, and even then, you’ll have to go through two application crashes before you can actually play the files properly.

In addition, Microsoft makes no mystery of the fact that it won’t bother to provide better support. The Read Me file for the Windows Media Player for Mac OS X states quite clearly:

Although it is usually possible to play protected files by using Windows Media Player 9 Series for Mac OS X, in some cases you may encounter one of the following issues:

– The Player displays the error message “Cannot open the file. Verify that the path and file name are correct and try again.” In this case, verifying the path and file name will not solve the problem.

– A Web page is displayed that informs you that you should upgrade to a newer version of the Player. In this case, you already have the latest version of Windows Media Player for Mac OS X, so upgrading will not solve the problem.
In both cases, there is no way to resolve the issue, and you won’t be able to play the file.


And in the case of WMA files that do work, if you want to really enjoy the music by putting on a CD, you actually have to “cheat” and use a third-party piece of software such as Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack Pro to capture the sound stream as you are playing it and save it in a more Mac-friendly format — even though you own perfectly legal copies of the song files.

In other words, right now playing music files such as the ones sold through Prince’s Musicology store is a royal pain in the neck for Mac users — but the blame is shared between Microsoft and their poor Mac support and Apple for not making the licensed AAC technology available to independent artists. Since we can’t really count on Microsoft to reverse this trend (they have little interest in improving the experience for Mac users), the ball is in Apple’s park. If they don’t do anything, the AAC technology and the iTunes model will end up being marginalized like the Mac platform itself, no matter how many iPods Apple sells.

In order to survive in the digital age, Apple’s technology needs to be not just user-friendly, but also creator-friendly — i.e. artist-friendly. (Of course, this doesn’t address the core issue behind all these difficulties, i.e. whether any form of digital copy protection is effective again piracy and can provide the adequate balance between user-friendliness and creator-friendliness…)

6 Responses to “Prince’s Musicology store, licensed WMA files, and Apple’s iTunes Music Store”

  1. Warren Beck says:

    I rather think that Apple’s survival depends on its providing a better product for the end user, who will pay for its use through a variety of mechanisms, including hardware and software (i.e., music downloads) purchases, and not in making it more available to artists or content providers in a way that conflicts with making money for Apple. If the end users want Apple hardware and software, and they seem to at this point, the content providers will line up and conform their business models so as to participate. There will always be other options for the content providers, and it is not necessary for Apple’s model to be so welcoming that it fits for every artist. At this point the iTunes music store (iTMS) is delivering something like 25 times the download rate of competing services. If Prince wants to use .wma, great. I think the advantage of the iTMS for the end user is in its interface to a wide and growing spectrum of artists; it will always be possible for the end user to access individual sites. I agree that it is inconvenient for the end user, however, to have to deal with two mutually incompatible file formats.

    Pierre, maybe you should deal with the Prince tunes by running Windows XP under Virtual PC (I haven’t tried this, but I’ll bet you can…), route the sound back into your Mac (at the very least with a patch cable but probably via software with a Mac app), digitize the stream (perhaps with GarageBand?), save it to Quicktime format, import it into iTunes, and rip it again into AAC or MP3. I am not sure whether this is legal (IANAL); I am sure that it is a pain for an end user to have to execute such a path. It would be better for the end user if Apple would just license the WMA technology only so as to provide file conversion to AAC.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Warren: I don’t really agree with your point about forcing “content providers” to line up and conform by selling their stuff through the iTMS. You need to remember that artists are a strongly independent-minded bunch, and are entitled to business models of their own. Plus there is the issue of international support. Where is the Canadian iTMS? The European iTMS? By setting up shop themselves, artists can decide who their audience is, and not let a computer company decide for them. All Apple has to do is to let third-parties using the licensed AAC mechanism. After all, this will be just as effective as the iTMS in increasing the sales of iPods, which we all know is what Apple really wants to do.

    As for Virtual PC, I tried — but even on my dual 1.25 GHz G4 with 1.5 GB of RAM and nothing else running on the computer, playback in the Windows Media Player under Windows XP is choppy. It’s unusable.

  3. Warren Beck says:

    Pierre: I agree completely with your points about artists and their right to set up whatever kind of online business model they want. My point above was solely about whether Apple’s survival depends (as you put it) on loosening its grip on the AAC protected-file format. I think that it is not necessarily clear that Apple will directly benefit from doing that. It might benefit if a wider use of AAC would result, but I argue that the iTMS already trumps individual artist sites at any imagined level of use _in the United States_. Now, the market in Canada and Europe is not polarized by iTMS yet, and Apple needs to get its licensing problems settled quickly if it wants to capitalize on that market before another vendor wins out.

  4. michaelb says:

    Pierre, Apple does not own the licensing for the AAC format.
    “AAC was developed by the MPEG group that includes Dolby, Fraunhofer (FhG), AT&T, Sony, and Nokia?companies that have also been involved in the development of audio codecs such as MP3 and AC3 (also known as Dolby Digital). Apple simply adopted the standard.”
    “Apple Computer has incorporated MPEG-4 AAC into QuickTime 6 and iTunes 4, as well as the latest version of its award-winning iPod portable music player.”

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    I am pretty sure that Apple owns the licensing for the licensed AAC format it uses for the iTunes Music Store, i.e. the AAC format with “FairPlay” copy-protection technology. That’s the format I am referring to, not the regular, unprotected AAC.

  6. ExDeus says:

    Warren: Currently there is a void that needs to be filled. AAC is widely available under MPEG4 as a compression codec, but the issue of DRM is really at the heart of the matter. Microsoft has essentially the only other technology providing DRM, and they are licensing it to third-party providers (licensing providers, content providers, etc). That makes WMA the ONLY choice for anyone other than Apple, whether independent or major player. While the iTMS has been considerably more successful than the others of the bunch, it seems it can mostly be chalked up to visibility, first-mover advantage, and tie-in with the iPod. If they want to keep their slice of the pie, that’s fine. It will continue to grow as awareness is increased about what is/is not illegal file sharing, and what the legal purchasing options are. But as online music distribution becomes even more commonplace, they will see their slice dwindle. Alternatives will surface that are seen as direct substitutes (where now it perhaps has an edge over Rhapsody, Napster 2.0, etc), and the market will balance out. The question is, does Apple want to operate in their corner of the Internet, competing head-on with many other similar services, or does Apple want to secure a place in its revenue stream by acting as a licensor, collecting residual fees from many if not most of its competitors. There is a demand for AAC with DRM for protected content — and Apple has a choice to make: To make AAC-Fairplay an iTunes technology, or to make AAC-Fairplay a standard around the globe. History has demonstrated — licensing is the key to creating a standard. When was the last time you used a Betamax VCR? VHS was licensed at the right time, in the right way.

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