Washington Apple Pi

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iTMS FAQ (iTunes Music Store Frequently Asked Questions)

by Craig Contardi

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

What is the iTunes Music Store?

It’s Apple’s entry into the business of selling music online.

How many songs are available?

At the rollout, there were 200,000 songs in the library, far from a historically complete collection. Apple has added a couple thousand songs each of the past 5 weeks since the store opened on April 28th. Some albums are only partially available (i.e. they are missing tracks). On the other hand, Apple has secured exclusive rights to a few dozen songs by artists such as Bob Dylan, U2, Live, Sheryl Crow, Coldplay, and several others. The most glaring artist omissions are the Beatles and the Rolling Stones’ entire catalogs. On the other hand, there are 51 Elvis Presley albums available in whole or part, and the iTMS is the first place that the Eagles songs have been available for download.

iTunes Music Shop opening page

The opening page of the Music Store changes constantly, and new selections are added all the time.

How much does it cost?

Individual songs are 99 cents, most albums are $9.99, or less if they have fewer than 11 tracks. Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule.

Such as?

There are various ways record companies have inflated whole-album prices. Some albums are not sold on a song-by-song basis; others are only sold by the song (so you pay 11.88 for a 12-track album), or have one “anchor” song that cannot be bought except as part of an entire album.

There are a handful of companies already offering digital music downloads; what’s so great about Apple’s store?

The “competition” breaks down into two categories: the subscription based services and the peer-to-peer networks. iTMS is completely different than either. Subscription services charge a flat monthly rate for varying levels of service, but you end up only ‘renting’ the songs. As soon as you cancel your subscription, any music you have downloaded runs the risk of becoming unplayable. Peer-to-peer networks are Napster and its progeny, essentially file-swapping software that usually acts in wanton disregard for intellectual property rights and copyrights. In exchange for letting anyone rummage through your computer’s hard drive, you get the opportunity to do the same to theirs. Not only do you contend with the “bad karma” of stealing (to quote Steve Jobs), you also experience a “Forrest Gump” moment because like the box of chocolate, you “don’t know what you’re going to get” in terms of sound quality. You also run the risk of bringing malicious code into your system that would otherwise be stopped by a firewall.

Apple’s offering is unique in at least three ways: It is the first time that all five major record companies have come together in one place; there is no subscription fee; and each and every song for sale has a full-quality 30-second preview available at all times. I believe Apple was able to succeed in launching the iTMS because they have initially restricted their customer base to the less than 5 million U.S.-based users of Mac OS X. This, along with the digital rights management (DRM) discussed later in this FAQ, ameliorated much or most of the concerns the five major record labels had about rampant music piracy.

Are the songs in MP3 format?

No. Apple has chosen Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) as the format for all the songs on iTMS. AAC is part of the MPEG4 standard, and was developed by Dolby Labs who owns the licensing rights. In addition to being marginally better than MP3 at a given file size/data rate, it also allows much better control of who is authorized to use a given song.

iTunes Music Store try again selection

If you experience a problem downloading songs you have purchased, this menu selection will "try again". The Author let his disk space dwindle to nothing during a download and needed to invoke this capability.

The marginally better quality, according to Apple, means that every song can be encoded at 128kbps, roughly 1MB for every minute of music and an eleven-fold savings in file size from the original, uncompress audio file. 128kbps is the most-often cited file size for MP3 files intended for play on portable devices, as it is “good enough” for most people’s ears in the relatively noisy environment of an airplane, a commute, or with non-audiophile headphones. Apple claims that since AAC is superior to MP3 at the same bitrate, 128kbps equates to CD-quality for most ears on most consumer-level equipment. My personal observation, with 36-year old ears that have taken an auditory beating, is that the claim rings true. All 43 tracks I have downloaded sound just dandy; in fact some sound better than the CD versions I already owned, possibly because the new versions were taken from better masters.

Exactly how does one make a purchase?

Leveraging off the online Apple (hardware and software) Store, you can use the same account in both places. Credit card, address, and other pertinent information is stored in your Apple ID, and with a single click you can buy and download any of the 200,000+ songs. If you prefer, as I do, to be a bit more methodical or plodding in your purchases, iTunes gives you the option in the preferences panel to employ a “Shopping Cart” where clicking on a song or album simply adds it to a queue of songs ready for purchase. When ready, clicking on the “Buy Now” button at the bottom of the Shopping cart page will initiate the download of all purchased songs and charging of your credit card.

Does that mean if I buy 15 songs in “1-Click” mode, I will see 15 charges on my credit card for $.99?

No (fortunately). If you choose to remain in “one-at-a-time” purchase mode, and buy 15 songs over less than a 24-hour period, all 15 are aggregated into a single transaction on your credit card statement. I do not yet know if multiple shopping cart purchases in a 24-hour period are combined in the same way (as I have not received the first credit card statement yet).

What are the system requirements, beyond Mac OS X ?

The requirement is a credit card with a U.S. address, Mac OS X 10.2.5 or later, a connection to the Internet (broadband recommended), 256MB RAM (recommended), and iTunes 4 or later (a free download from Apple’s website). Quicktime 6.2 (free download) is required to fully exploit the AAC capabilities of iTunes 4. Apple intends to expand iTMS to Microsoft Windows clients later this year, and is working toward opening the service to the rest of North America and the world at some unspecified point in the future. The latter intention is dependent on music industry cooperation, since the copyright laws are different in other countries than the U.S.

iTunes Music Store feedback

From the main iTunes Music Store menu, you can click on "Requests & Feedback" and submit either (but not both at the same time).

What about the extras that come with a tangible CD purchase, like liner notes?

At present, all you buy for your .99 or 9.99 is the digital file(s) containing the music as well as a medium-resolution image of the album cover. Unlike a regular CD, you need to supply the physical media upon which the music is stored (be it a CD-R, hard drive, or inside a portable music device such as the iPod). If you’re a fan of liner notes, you should factor that into your decision whether to purchase from the iTMS or not.

Why would anyone buy an album on iTMS for $9.99 when [insert big-box retail chain here] sells it for $11.99, and sometimes for the same $9.99 on sale?

Here are what I see as the advantages of iTMS.

1. You can pay less (maybe a LOT less) for just the songs you like off an album, and you get the album art with single-song purchases.

2. You get immediate gratification because your purchase is downloaded right after you click to make the purchase.

3. You can shop 24/7… in your pajamas.

4. Apple has not indicated any intention of running time-limited discounts/sales, so you need not worry about not getting the best deal possible.

5. You’re helping Apple’s fiscal bottom-line, as roughly 1/3 of the purchase cost is kept by “our favorite charitable organization”.

6. Although it is dependent on the record companies digging their master tapes out of cold storage, there is a much higher possibility of seeing rare, out-of-print albums for sale on iTMS than in standard retail stores because of the cost commitment to stamp thousands of physical CDs. If you happen to own these kinds of albums and were counting on them as part of an investment portfolio, you may not see this as a good thing.

iTunes Music Store shopping cart

In lieu of one-click purchasing, you can select "Shopping Cart" from iTunes Preferences and the "Buy Now" button changes to "Add Song".

Can you freely copy the songs you purchase?

The file itself is not copy-protected, but does have usage-protection which Apple has labeled Fairplay. You can do the following:

1. Play the purchased song on up to three Macs that are authorized by you.

2. Burn a song to an audio CD unlimited times, but only 10 times for a given iTunes playlist. Add or delete a song to the playlist, and the counter reverts to zero.

3. Transfer a purchased song to and from an iPod unlimited times. This is important if, like me, your music collection exceeds the capacity of any iPod Apple has yet made. You can freely shuffle your purchased songs into and out of the iPod without concern about being “locked out”.

4. Backup the purchased song (in native AAC format) to CD or DVD as many times as you like. The file is tagged with your Apple ID and name, and will only play on your authorized machines.

5. Use the song in any other iLife application (iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD).

You cannot do the following, at least not as of June 1st:

1. Transfer ownership of a song to someone else.

2. Purchase a song as a gift for someone and assign initial ownership to them (unless you go to the questionable length of creating an Apple ID under their name but with your credit card info.)

3. Burn a purchased song directly to MP3 (iTunes tells you it is unable to do so). The workaround is to burn to audio CD (AIFF) format and then re-import the song, which introduces a slight reduction in fidelity because of the need to re-compress the song. It’s also enough of a pain in the neck that many people won’t bother, and will just buy an Apple iPod so they can listen to the AAC version directly.

What can you do if the song or album you want is not available?

There is a hotlink at the homepage of the iTunes Music Store to submit recommendations for a particular song, album, artist, or a general suggestion. While you do not get a direct response, it is read by the store’s staff.

How’s the iTunes Music Store doing?

Apple announced 1 million song downloads after one week, and 2 million after 16 days, but has not reported sales levels since the middle of May. Nonetheless, the rest of the industry is all abuzz now about the idea of successfully selling music via the Internet, and rival companies are posturing themselves to compete with Apple. I’ve seen heavy airplay of iTunes Music Store commercials on CNN, and have had officemates approach me expressing their frustration that it’s Mac-only. However none of them intend to buy a Mac as a result.

What if you have a problem with your download?

While Apple clearly states that all sales are final, the newsgroups which I regularly read indicate that the iTMS customer service staff has been willing to work individual issues in a very consumer-friendly manner. If you have a question about the audible quality of any song, even before you buy it, they will listen for themselves and let you know if they agree there is a problem. Responses to email inquiries have been timely.

Also, I failed to watch my hard drive space closely and initiated an album download when I had no space left on the volume where iTunes stores its music. I scrambled to move files to other volumes as the download began, and managed to get all but one song to properly download. At the end of the album download, iTunes warned me that “one or more tracks did not properly download” and that I should try again later via a specific menu command. Since the problem of free space had been resolved, I followed their instructions immediately and the final song transferred down just fine. It was impressive to see how well Apple addressed such an issue.

Anything else worth mentioning?

What questions remain unanswered in YOUR mind?