Sunday, January 29, 2006

Thank God for iTunes!

(a modest hope for the continued importance of money)

We have grown up to expect an orderly world, and – much though it has to commend it – the internet is disrupting that order in downright uncivilized ways. Regularly I hear talk that the old structures are being overturned forever, and it fills me with sadness and dismay; but it may not be too late.

Take the iTunes Music Store and its worthy competitors. The growing success of these systems in returning us to a world of paying for what we want to listen to has proved that the stabilizing influence of money is not yet a thing of the past. It is of course right and proper that those upon whom the livelihoods of musicians are dependent should be remunerated for the vital work they do: holding meetings, repackaging compilations and suing copyright infringers. Nobody could disagree with that. But there is an overriding reason for sustaining the rule of the dollar, which shouldn’t be forgotten: the balance of power between the haves and the have-nots. Since the French Revolution, those with access to society’s wealth have taken succour from the knowledge that their position – no longer ordained by God, as in the barbaric days of feudalism – now stems from their intrinsic worth as citizens of an equal and free civilization. Their superior position is their human-given right.

One measure of this all-important justification of all-out power is the depth to which we may immerse ourselves in culture. From frequent visits to Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s excellent musicals to an extensive collection of Dire Straits DVD-Audio disks (not to mention the hardware necessary to really appreciate their nuances), the full swath of mankind’s creative output has always been the playground of those with the most important positions: bankers, politicians, generals, advertising executives, televisions stars, lottery winners, etc. Those with less vital occupations – heath workers, for example; farmers, even – have naturally found their access to culture properly restricted by lack of funds.

The rise of peer-to-peer technology seemingly put paid to that. First it was Napster and its successors, which effectively removed all natural constraints on the quantity and variety of music that could be heard by the lowliest worker, even unemployed person!, provided they had access to the internet. (Some US States have commendably, if belatedly, moved to partially reinstate that particular barrier – which was being flattened by free access programmes in several cities – by banning the proliferation of such networks. A move others have been painfully slow to emulate.) Now that Bittorrent has done the same for movies, we may wonder how long it will be before other cherished institutions of privilege – healthy eating, housing, warm winter clothes – are undermined and ultimately, heaven forbid!, shared out with a similar disregard for the proper order of things.

So I applaud iTunes in pioneering the paying model for online music, and for leading the way with video too. And while I do not contest claims that – with DRM, obscure formats, overcompression and lack of choice - the offerings from Apple’s and their competitors’ sites are inferior to what can be had for free elsewhere, I see it as a healthy sign that the cultural connoisseur, with more money than sense, is still very much alive.


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