Christmas, 1981. I am a new husband and I am broke. I am driving around Smyrna, GA, trying to think of cheap but meaningful presents for my wife, when I hear Mac Davis sing “My Bestest Friend” on the radio. The song’s mixture of humor and humanity, romance, and friendship captured something I wanted to say. I pulled over to a local record shop and bought the single on impulse, spending the last money I had in my pocket. Good call. Over the years, “My Bestest Friend” became “our song.”Unfortunately, some time in my graduate school days, the recording industry made a concerted effort to get all of us to switch over from vinyl to digital recordings. In an effort at premature planned obsolescence, the local shops stopped selling needles for our phonograph and for want of a needle, our music library was lost. We didn’t hear our song for a decade.
When we discovered Napster, one of the first songs I downloaded was “My Bestest Friend.” I left a note on the computer for my wife to read through our playlist and see what I had found. It’s hard to make surprising romantic gestures after 20-plus years of marriage, but this one hit the jackpot.
These experiences came back to me as I read some of the hoopla surrounding the launch of Apple’s iTunes service, which the recording industry is billing as its legal alternative to Napster. iTunes gives you 99-cent downloads of any of 200,000 songs from five different music companies. According to some reports, half a million iTunes are being downloaded every week, suggesting that the service has found its niche with consumers.
There are lots of reason to be excited about iTunes, which, by all reports, has a diverse array of music, allows consumers to buy only the songs they want, is well indexed, and is easy to use. So far, it is only available for the Macintosh; PC users can’t even access the playlist.
Breaking the legal logjam, iTunes is enticing a range of other major media companies, including Microsoft and America Online, to get into the download business. Everyone is acting as if iTunes were the ideal substitute for Napster. But iTunes abandons Napster’s most valuable aspect. No, Metallica, I don’t mean free music. I would gladly have paid a monthly subscription fee for a legal version of Napster, and I ended up buying a high percentage of the albums I sampled. Perhaps for teens, Napster’s appeal was the ability to stretch their allowance a little further. But as Napster’s consumer base expanded and diversified, it began to include a lot of fortysomething geezers like me. Industry statistics confirm that aging baby boomers buy more CDs each year on average than their offspring. And for us middle-aged users, at least, Napster was about something else.