January 3, 2005

iTuned Out

Several months ago, on our anniversary, my wife broke our "no gift agreement" and gave me a small gift card for iTunes, which many of you know as "the online music store transforming music sales," and what I know now as "the music store I will never use again."

Let me explain.

Fast forward to Christmas 2004, where my wife's parents generously gave us the nifty new Creative Zen Micro, a MP3 player equivalent to the iPod Mini. I'll likely comment later on the Zen itself, which I've so far found to be a zippy little player with some nice sound, though I wish the software were as nice as iTunes (a minor complaint - it works just fine). A few days after Christmas, I installed the software, charged my batteries, and ripped a few CDs to test out the player.

I've never been a huge MP3 collector; entering grad school somehow quashed my music appreciation inclinations, so while I had been a frequent concert attendee during my undergrad and high school days, most of my music in grad school consisted of a collection of jazz CDs on repeat as I smoked several packs of cigarettes through triple-all-nighters writing papers or cramming for exams. Grad school is many things, but it certainly isn't good for your health or your hobbies.

In this overly indulgent story, I will also foreground the fact that I'm generally a responsible computer user. I read the fine print, generally pay attention to how websites are set up, and so forth. But maybe I've gotten lazy, because I only partially grumbled when I wanted to use my iTunes Gift Card the other day only to discover that they wanted my credit card just to create an account. I'm just not comfortable with that. But I offer it up anyway, because I want some music to play on this nifty new player.

Yes, those of you in-the-know see where this is going. I sign up, find the Pixies album I want... and click "buy." Are you sure? Yes, I'm sure. Let's move to checkout. I expected the normal routine - the music was in my basket, and during checkout, I thought, I could enter my gift card number for payment.


The music began to download, and the $9.99 went straight to my credit card. Now, I'm sure I probably should've RTFM ("Read the Effin' Manual"), but given that almost every online shopping trip is the same, I suppose I might be forgiven for thinking about consistency in designing online experiences and interfaces. At that moment, I was merely annoyed - I didn't want to spend the money, but that just meant that a little mistake opened up the door for more music (after all, I still had the gift card to use, which I figured out how to redeem in order to add the amount to my account).

Until I tried to transfer my new Pixies over to my Zen. Nothing doing. I remembered in months past I had ripped some CDs to iTunes, and then converted them to MP3 from iTunes' format. So I tried converting the Pixies. Nothing doing, again. Apparently, any music actually downloaded through iTunes cannot be converted, and can be played only on certain supported players, such as - *gasp* - the iPod. Copyright protection.

And that, my friends, is the sum of my experience with iTunes. Now, I realize that I'm probably missing something, and I hope someone shares if I am, but does this mean that anyone who makes their music library out of iTunes music downloads is forever beholden to the iPod as their primary portable music player (not accounting for those who'll burn the music to a CD and play it in a portable CD player)? And how does this make the hippiepinkodownwithMicrosoftBeFree Apple any less controlling than their Gatesian counterparts?

Can we please all just come up with one standard?

Posted by Jason at January 3, 2005 6:01 PM | TrackBack

Yep-- .m4a won't convert in most players. Some will do it-- WinAmp (the bought version) is one of them. Sony tried a similar racket with their atrac format for use with minidiscs (which also worked with .mp3's). They dropped it this year.

This isn't just constrained to music-- digital movie files have the same problem (.mpeg, .div, etc.). All are just looking to lock in the format of choice with the player of choice-- theirs.

Download.com has convertors for .m4a. Just search for 'em.

Posted by: marc at January 3, 2005 5:24 PM | Permalink to Comment

DRM--this sort of thing is Cory Doctorow's bread and butter.

How absolutely maddening, Jason. Seems like Apple is going out of its way to squander consumers' good will these days (did you catch L. Lawley lamenting about how hard it was to find decent tech support for her new Airport Express?)

Posted by: kari at January 3, 2005 8:19 PM | Permalink to Comment

Burn your Pixies to CD from iTunes. Then rip the tracks back as mp3s.

...I know..I know...

Posted by: G Zombie at January 3, 2005 8:37 PM | Permalink to Comment

Psst. Hymn rocks.

Posted by: vika at January 3, 2005 9:39 PM | Permalink to Comment

Thanks for the ideas everyone. "Burn to CD" - does that actually work? I figured that somehow they'd transfer the DRM along with the burn?

Thanks Vika for the link. I'll check that out asap.

Kari - I did see Liz's post. I think Macs are beautiful, but I want to tinker with my stuff too much to buy their hermetically sealed products (insert nod to Stephenson's _Command Line_ here).

Posted by: Jason at January 3, 2005 11:17 PM | Permalink to Comment

Yes, the DRM allows for (I think) 5 burns to CD: anything you buy can be burned 5 times.

I think that for anyone with some *NIX skills, Macs are not really that hermetically sealed. My understanding is that if you open a terminal window in OS X, you can access your iPod just like any external hard drive and transfer files, bypassing any restrictions that the iTunes interface imposes. And, of course, there are apps out there that allow you to do the same.

Posted by: G Zombie at January 4, 2005 9:39 AM | Permalink to Comment

So, I burned the CD, and just ripped it back out. What a ridiculous song and dance.

Thanks for the help everyone.

And George, I agree - I think that the latest MacOSs are pretty nice, with unix in the background. I wish WinXP had a quick command line like that (and I don't mean their DOS emulator; I've long since forgotten my DOS commands).

Posted by: Jason at January 4, 2005 10:19 AM | Permalink to Comment
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