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Apple's iTunes Plus No Longer Adding Up

I got a $25 iTunes gift card for Christmas, but four months later I've only spent $6 of it. I have no idea when I'll use up the rest.

I haven't uninstalled iTunes or hawked my iPod. The single greatest improvement Apple's made to the the iTunes Store since its 2003 launch, iTunes Plus, seems to have gotten stuck in limbo. These downloads come without any "digital rights management" usage restrictions and offer better sound quality than standard iTunes downloads.

This initiative had a good six months of progress after its launch last May. Apple greatly expanded the selection of these DRM-free tracks, from 300,000 to 2 million, and also dropped the 30-cent surcharge on individual iTunes Plus song purchases, bringing them to the same 99-cent price as regular iTunes downloads.

As the Plus selection grew, I happily paid to upgrade some of my old iTunes purchases to Plus quality, at 30 cents a pop (a fee unchanged by the price drop) and looked forward to liberating the rest of my iTunes Store downloads in this manner.

But the "Upgrade My Library" button in the iTunes Store hasn't found any available upgrades since the middle of December. I haven't seen any further increase in the selection of new iTunes Plus tracks. Apple's last press release to even mention that phrase came last October. Yesterday, company spokesman Jason Roth wrote the company had no other updates on the subject.

This isn't all Apple's fault. All of the major record labels besides EMI have steered clear of iTunes Plus in what seems to be an effort to boost Amazon's DRM-free, MP3-download store, along with other no-DRM outlets, and thereby ensure that Apple can't have the music-download business to itself.

(That, however, still leaves numerous independent labels that sell their work without DRM on Amazon but do not do the same on iTunes.)

Either way, this leaves me stuck. Why should I spend a dime on a DRM-locked, lower-fidelity iTunes track when--at some point--I'll wind up spending another 30 cents to upgrade it to Plus? Why not wait until I can get a DRM-free, higher-fidelity copy at the same price?

As a result, I've only been buying iTunes Plus downloads from Apple. And with the limited selection of them, it may take me a long time to exhaust that $25 credit on my account.

I feel like I'm in a tiny, cranky minority here; Apple says it's now the biggest music retailer in the U.S., so it doesn't seem to be hurting much. But what about the major record labels themselves? By holding out on Apple, they're missing the chance to rake in money on iTunes Plus upgrades. With all the complaining these guys do about the state of their business, can they really afford to leave that kind of cash on the table?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 22, 2008; 11:34 AM ET
Categories:  Music  
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Comments

I tried to go about things the same as you Rob with my iTunes gift cards from Christmas. But then I got tired of waiting and realized life is too short to be worrying about getting an album or two of music without DRM.

Next year I'll just make sure to ask for Amazon gift cards.

Posted by: Shawn | April 22, 2008 12:06 PM | Report abuse

I agree -- I can't seem to get through an iTunes gift card I received. I can't understand why anyone would buy DRMed tracks from iTunes when you can buy DRM-free tracks from Amazon. I guess most people don't care about DRM, or even the minimal amount of inconvenience of downloading the Amazon applet is too high a hurdle.

Posted by: mizar | April 22, 2008 12:30 PM | Report abuse

I recently (with some guilt, felt like I was being 'disloyal' to iTunes), started using the Amazon MP3 Store on my iMac.

Not because of the DRM issue, but simply because Amazon has some albums that aren't available via iTunes. Also, Amazon prices some MP3 albums at $8.99 and some singles at 89 cents, and I save money that way.

I don't illegally download music; I have bought each item on my computer. I am fiercely opposed to DRM. But for me, the primary issue is availability and price.

I have about 90 songs that I can convert to DRM-free, but that's about .005 of my collection so it never seems quite worth the bother.

Posted by: NW DC | April 22, 2008 12:40 PM | Report abuse

I don't think DRM is that much of a hassle. One can burn the tracks to CD (a good idea for back-up). It would be nice to see Apple recoding all of its tracks for the higher bit depth.

BB

Posted by: Fairlington Blade | April 22, 2008 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Yep.

The record companies are corralling us right where they want us, by denying us the sale of their materials the way we (and Apple) would prefer (ie, DMR free), through our sale venue of choice.

Apple wants to sell every song on their site at a higher quality, without DRM, and at a premium price. And I would pay it in a flash. But the record companies want to strong-arm me away from my sales outlet of choice.

Back to stealing, for me.

Posted by: A | April 22, 2008 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Wow, Rob I couldn't agree more. I just downloaded Hot Chip's Made in the Dark since it is a +. I also do not want to download a song then pay to upgrade it, so I still have a card or two left. I also found that the digital booklet is simply a pdf for Made in the Dark. But much like the lack of anything new in Safari, I now notice that the Plus songs that I bought constantly update themselves when I connect my iPod. I am thinking about going back to buying physical releases again. Will Plus just burnout or fade away ?

Posted by: umm.huh | April 22, 2008 1:23 PM | Report abuse

To poster A; that is the most ridiculous comment I have ever read; "back to stealing..."

So I guess if some other item you want, for example a Polo shirt, is not at your retailer of choice, then you'd steal that too. That makes absolutely no sense.

Think before you post.

The record companies are not "strong arming" you. The records companies, for business reasons need to ensure that itunes is not the only game in town, so they should be able to select who they want to "Sell" their music. Besides, how do you know that they don't have a better financial arrangement with Amazon that encourages them to provide some DRM-free content to amazon.com exclusively.

Bottom line, there is LEGAL DRM-free content out there, whether it is on itunes or amazon.com, you as the consumer should be glad it's now available and stop whining because it's not at "your sales outlet of choice". Geez, it's just a click of your mouse, it's not like you have to drive 20 miles out of your way to get to amazon.com versus itunes to make your purchase.

Posted by: Tony | April 22, 2008 1:41 PM | Report abuse

I wish whoever gave you these gifts had given them to people more deserving and more appreciative of them.

What a fuss over nothing...you guys need to get a life.

Posted by: Jon T | April 22, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

I am right there with you Rob, its iTunes+ or bust for me. I have really come to like the amazon downloads, DRM free and cheaper to boot; and I have found myself on more than one occasion buying up every album they have on sale for $7.99. How can you beat that?

And now that you can't get episodes of the office through iTunes, this $30 gift card is just going to sit around longer and longer.

Posted by: DudeAbides | April 22, 2008 4:56 PM | Report abuse

i agree w/ you Rob,
i don't understand either. back in the old days of physical media-vinyl, there were the big chains & the local shops & everyone was able to get what ever music they wanted, both the big guys & the little guys... i know of a couple of folks who got a start in the music biz back then thru working in the warehouse of a "Jobber". Campbell's, Quaker & every other TD & H sells their wares @ the local small grocery as well as @ the Meijer, Kroger & Jewell chains, so why won't the Labels do that w/ the music- they say they want flexible pricing, but what they really seem to want is to control Apple/iTS which they don't own, nor developed & NBC went so far as to "demand" a part of iPod revenue. truly brazen. i can imagine them being laughed out of the room asking for a cut of Sony 'cause their shows are played on Sony TVs & Recorders.

btw-i use my gift cards for movie shorts to play on my iPod Nano. i prefer to swap CDs w/ friends, since we mostly like Jazz. something we've been doing since the 70's when we used Cassettes to make copies.

Posted by: dk jones | April 22, 2008 5:47 PM | Report abuse

I don't have the gift card problem, so I see no reason whatsoever to buy non-Plus songs from iTunes when I can get DRM-free versions from Amazon or eMusic. I would have bought Plus versions from iTunes out of loyalty, but if they aren't coming, why wait? And eMusic seems to be growing as iTunes is putting less effort into music and more into--I dunno, movies, I guess, which don't interest me.

Posted by: BW | April 22, 2008 5:48 PM | Report abuse

I have the same problems. I now only buy DRM-free tracks from iTunes. The big labels are missing out on soo much money. I would be bankrupt if they all had DRM-free music on iTunes.

Posted by: Brian | April 22, 2008 7:11 PM | Report abuse

OK, this is what I think!

Who gives a damn about the Record Companies, i-Tunes, Amazon et. al.?

Do you think they really care about the consumer? If you do, you're a fool!

They all want it their way, or no way.

The Record Companies are shoving crap down our throats, and are calling it music. It's Bull****! Then they claim that the lack of music sales is due to pirating. More Bull****! They require that all digital downloads have DRM - to protect their crappy property. Still more Bull****!

i-Tunes and other download sites called them on all their Bull****, and now they are crying again... "We will take our ball and go home!"

Now i-Tunes and other retailers are being held hostage by the DRM game. In the mean time the consumers are suffering! I refuse to buy anything from these childish companies until they get their "Bull****" together!

Is there anybody else who thinks it is starting to stink in here?

Posted by: Fed Up | April 22, 2008 8:21 PM | Report abuse

Ditto here. I just was given an iTunes gift certificate, that I can't find things to spend on that I want in iTunes Plus. I have too many media players that can't play Fairplay to spend money on Apple DRM.

Posted by: David | April 22, 2008 8:47 PM | Report abuse

I don't have a problem buying DRM'd tracks from iTunes. The quality's good enough and no other contenders come close to my iPod Touch so the downside is only hypothetical - certainly not worth compromising for.

McD

Posted by: McD | April 22, 2008 9:27 PM | Report abuse

I've definitely been buying more songs from amazon due to the DRM issue. My new gig is bookmarking songs I hear on my Pandora account. It has a link to Amazon or iTunes to buy that particular song. Invariably, iTunes still has a significantly more songs available.

Posted by: Mike | April 22, 2008 10:42 PM | Report abuse

Buying music in lossy formats strikes me as a step backwards. 128 or even 250 kps AAC files, the kind offered by iTunes, are admittedly pretty good, but to move from CD-quality sound (1411 kps aiff format) to something inferior doesn't feel like the right direction to be moving in, even taking into account the slightly lower price for individual iTunes tracks.

I confess I use iTunes to listen to samples of tunes from albums I'm curious about, and when I find something I like, I call my local record store and order it through them. I end up with a physical CD at the highest quality sound, which I can rip for my computer, iPod, etc. in a lossless format.

Apple should commit to offering their music in Apple Lossless format, which is usually somewhat smaller than the same file in aiff. Lossless is what the name says: in compressing the file, none of the sound data is squeezed out, as it is in iTunes' 256 kps AAC. I know a great many people would appreciate the opportunity to get their music in lossless format, and would pay reasonably more for it ($1.50 per track?).


Posted by: ojfm | April 22, 2008 11:53 PM | Report abuse

Here's why DRM is a bad thing:

http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20080422-drm-sucks-redux-microsoft-to-nuke-msn-music-drm-keys.html

You only have access to music as long as Microsoft (or whomever) decides you should have access to your music.

And before you start saying this is about piracy, keep in mind something very simple:
In this example, it's not the pirates being screwed by microsoft, it's the legitimate music buyer.

And by the way, this isn't a scenario where MS is going out of business, they simply decided they weren't going to let you have access to your music much longer. What happens in a few years if Apple decides to shut down iTMS and the authorizing servers are shut down? It raises some uncomfortable questions for the people foolish enough to have a significant investment in DRM'd music collections. Used CD's are looking pretty good right about now, eh?

DRM is very anti-consumer. Never forget that.

Posted by: Ombudsman | April 23, 2008 3:48 AM | Report abuse

First, I don't steal anything and don't want to.

I recognize that the music companies want an alternative to Apple or just one big seller that might dictate terms. But if they do it in a way that hurts me the consumer, for example, I prefer Apple iTunes, then I too need to punish them (the music companies). The best way for me to do that is not use Amazon, so while it may be cheaper now, in the long term, if the music companies get their way, it won't be. So I avoid Amazon.

I just do without much music, other things to do, read books, play golf and endless other things.

Posted by: Paul | April 23, 2008 11:05 AM | Report abuse

I fully agree that the major record companies are being very foolish by not letting Apple sell DRM free, higher bit rate music. (To me the higher bit rate of iTunes Plus is more important, and I agree that Apple Lossless would be the ideal format).

But there is a second problem -- why are there indie labels that are still not available in iTunes Plus format? Surely that is something within Apples power to fix? Examples of such labels include Kill Rock Stars; Champagne School; Anti, Inc.; etc. etc.

Come on Apple -- you can do much better with the indie labels!

Posted by: Ted Todorov | April 23, 2008 12:03 PM | Report abuse

I won't buy digital music files unless they're CD quality or greater. Maybe I'm in the minority, but CDs make much more sense. Permanent storage, best sound quality, convertible into multiple portable formats, better artwork & packaging than 20 years ago, etc.

Good music should be an investment, in my view, not an impulse buy.

Posted by: 1,411 kbps | April 23, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse

I'd pay for Apple Lossless or FLAC download files, but not MP3s or AACs.

Question to the group: are there any Apple Lossless codec programs, besides iTunes? I like FLAC because you can customize the encoding process, but iTunes gives you no options for Apple Lossless customization.

Posted by: Lose Less | April 23, 2008 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Hi everyone, I am here to help you!

Dont' stress over your iTunes credits. I'll be happy to send you my email address and you can simply gift your credits to me.

Why? Think about it: No more agonizing over those horrible, DRM-laden, low bit-rate iTunes tracks. No more searching and hunting for Plus tracks from your favorite artists only to be disappointed. In fact, you'll be free to eliminate iTunes, sell your iPod on eBay and buy several third party mp3 players with the money you make. The choice is yours.

After shedding yourselves of useless guilt-laden iTunes credits, and those pesky unused gift cards gathering pocket lint and taking up valuable space next to the Starbucks, movie theater and Home Depot gift cards, you'll finally be free to head over to Amazon and buy buy buy your favorite tracks and albums at discount prices. What could be better? You'll breathe easier, calmness will come over you, and you'll feel good about yourself. Emotionally, spiritually and physically.

I'm here to help. Act now. Simplify your life.

Oh, and this blog is silly.

Posted by: design-o | April 23, 2008 1:56 PM | Report abuse

It must be clear by now, with iTunes becoming the number one music seller, that the record industry is loosing control of their distribution channel. This will only get worse for them, not better, as they seek to find someone else to stand against Apple. Amazon, might be that "someone else", but then you're forgetting that there are now millions of users buying iPhones, that require iTunes to work, and at least hundreds of thousands of Apple TV customers, that require... you guessed it iTunes to work.

It's an integrated whole. A point that most of the folks here in the comment section, and the author of the article miss. The integrated whole, or iPod, iPhone, Apple TV, MAC, and iTunes is so much better than any piece-part solution offered by some random combination of Microsoft, Amazon, and the record company of your choice, that it's laughable.

There is a reason that Apple now has almost 30% of the smart phone market (compared to less than 5% for Microsoft) less than a year after the iPhone's launch. It's building upon an integrated Whole.

Let's face it, until people like Amazon, Microsoft, and a host of others start to deliver something that gets even close to the completely integrated delivery that Apple provides, this is a silly discussion. Buy an Apple product, look at the way its packaged and delivered, then ask yourself how long it's been since you saw any product, even a Ferrari, that was as well packaged and delivered.

It's an integrated whole.

B

Posted by: Beau Vrolyk | April 23, 2008 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Just for clarity, did you mean to say "hocked" instead of "hawked" in your article?

Posted by: rkusa | April 23, 2008 2:52 PM | Report abuse

What I find most interesting about the record labels attempts to divest power from Apple by only offering the largest DRM-free catalog to Amazon is it actually has the reverse effect. Most consumers appear content to buy Apple's Fairplay DRM. So the record labels are actually producing more lock-in to Apple's ecosystem, not eroding it. Clearly, they are still leery of DRM-free and see it as an experiment. If they offered DRM-free to all-comers it would do more than any favoritism can to erode Apple's dominance.

Posted by: Tim F. | April 23, 2008 3:24 PM | Report abuse

The big corporations that now own the music business want you to buy from Amazon. They even pay people to post comments to that effect above. Last year, they wanted you to buy from Microsoft, and get a Zune,
They also hope very much that you won't but an iPhone, and will work very hard to convince you that some other phone is way better/cheaper/cooler/sexier/l33t/open/and less "smug". They pay people a lot of money to come up with this stuff, but it's still a lot cheaper than actually designing products good enough to compete with Apple.

Posted by: zato3 | April 23, 2008 3:33 PM | Report abuse

What if movie studios decided to say "Screw Wal-Mart, we're going to sell movies at Flix-R-Us only!"? They'd pretty much chop off the bulk of their revenue.

ITunes has eclipsed Wal-Mart in music sales. However, the labels still don't realise the meaning of this. In the 80s, with the advent of the CD, labels were finally able to kill the idea of the single. Instead, they designed 'the Album' format (an artificial construct), a bundling scheme through which they sold crap along with the good stuff. If you like a song, you had to buy an entire album. ITunes has liberated the concept of 'the Single' from this artificial construct and labels don't like it. Any current deals with the others (Amazon, Wal-Mart, whoever) are temporary, until Apple is unseated from the top. Once that is secure, they go back to setting conditions (no single tracks, only albums, premium price for hot product, etc).

Labels' executives still don't realise that the strategy isn't working. ITunes continues to grow. Amazon, while gaining respectable footing, is doing so at the expense of other online offerings, not making a dent in iTunes share.

If we are patient enough, the rest of the DRM-free tracks will eventually come
to iTunes.

Posted by: Predrag | April 23, 2008 3:35 PM | Report abuse

I have bought and downloaded a number of iTunes tunes and albums. My laptop crashed not long ago, and now Apple won't recognize my right to play any of the music, even though I carefully backed up and restored it. I have written to the iTunes Help line and never got a response. It's only a few hundred dollars, but I have sworn off iTunes in any form.

Posted by: MatthewsP | April 23, 2008 3:39 PM | Report abuse

MathewsP, it's certainly a problem that can be solved and should be pursued. It's not that "Apple won't recognize your rights" -- it's difficult to discern what exactly occurred so I am unable to talk you through it, but it sounds like your computer has been deauthorized, a solvable tech glitch. Annoying but it happens. I would recommend emailing again or posting to Apple's discussion boards (politely but forcefully). Not that it isn't frustrating and off-putting, but it's still worth restoring what you've already paid for.

Posted by: Tim F. | April 23, 2008 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Predrag - either your message is a joke, your lack of knowledge about the history of music is pathetic. Albums have been around for decades. Have you never listened to a great jazz or rock & roll album from the 50s, 60s, or 70s? Even during those decades, many of the best pop songs were never released as singles.

I agree that CD singles never took off, and that digital downloads make singles more relevant than they were 10 or 15 years ago. But the album format is anything but artificial, for musicians or fans.

Posted by: SSMD | April 23, 2008 4:33 PM | Report abuse

I will suggest to all those tired of the major (pain in a**) record co.
that you tell the artists what you want. There are companies that will get tracks posted on itunes cutting out the record co.. This gives the fan the direct access to the music and the artist the money and feed back as to what you want. This has the side benefit of breaking the major record co. control of what music is offered.
All artist/music acts were little known once, it is time for the fans to vote with there money who will be the new big acts and singing idols.

Posted by: bob | April 23, 2008 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Nice article. I also have iTunes gift cards that I will only use on iTunes+ material. I refuse to purchase any DRM protected music. I have no intention of sharing, but I also have no intention of being held hostage to a particular provider. Just look at what Microsoft is doing to it's MSN music purchasers. As of August, they are shutting down their servers, so you won't be able to deactivate a machine and activate a new one.
http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20080422-drm-sucks-redux-microsoft-to-nuke-msn-music-drm-keys.html

Posted by: Steve | April 23, 2008 5:07 PM | Report abuse

The record industry (the fact that it is still called the "record" industry says a lot) is run by morons and Neanderthals and greedheads. I wish Steve would address an open letter to the stockholders of the major record labels asking: Why won't your company sell us - the largest retailer of music on Planet Earth - the same product it sells to the also-rans?? More than a few "record industry" executives might be forced out by stockholder disenchantment, and that would be a huge step forward for humankind.

Posted by: Ralph M | April 23, 2008 6:22 PM | Report abuse

Re: Indie labels and iTunes Plus

I run an indie with a direct deal on iTunes, and we now sell in Plus format. It's as simple as upgrading your contracts with Apple, then re-uploading the tracks since the originals were pre-encoded as 128kbps AAC (now Apple Lossless). Apple is not preventing any indies from going Plus. The labels just need to wake up, log in, put down the Cheerios, whatever. Oh, and we did ringtones and some Ticketmaster tie-in thing at the same time.

Posted by: G | April 23, 2008 8:30 PM | Report abuse

I don't get it. Why do people infer that you need iTunes to use an iPod, iPhone, or AppleTV? They all play mp3s just fine. I have three iPods, an AppleTV, a Zune, and an iRiver H340 and I have NEVER bought a crippled music file from iTunes. All my files (3,000) are 320kbps mp3 files from various sources. Buying DRM AAC files from Apple is just stupid.

Posted by: hpilot | April 23, 2008 10:58 PM | Report abuse

G, it's great to see your comments. As a record label, as someone directly affected, I wonder if you care to share your own experience: have you seen an increase in purchases by being available in Plus? Or have your sales held steady? Etc... Thanks, and good luck.

Posted by: Tim F. | April 24, 2008 12:55 AM | Report abuse

I frequently browse the iTunes plus section to see if there's something I can spend my iTunes cash on. But the selection is meager. I guess stealing albums from the record labels in question is simpler. I can play games too.

Posted by: Disgruntled | April 24, 2008 5:45 AM | Report abuse

Amazon.com is the best legal source of music, offering customers the choice of either CDs, or DRM-free MP3s.

CDs offer the best sound quality, and many of them are quite inexpensive.

When you buy an entire album, you often end up with lesser-known gems that you would otherwise miss.

Posted by: JohnJ | April 24, 2008 10:32 AM | Report abuse

I see a few comments touting Amazon as a better music provider. That's not my experience. They, like iTunes, are restricted to low fidelity and/or DRM tracks due to licensing issues from the music labels. Music labels are tying their own noose by not selling what the people want to buy.

Anyone who plays their music on decent speakers agrees that lossless music (FLAC, Apple Lossless, AIFF) is the best choice for listening. If network speeds ever improve, maybe even SACD or DVD-A file formats would be the standard. Until then, audiophiles have no reason not to continue to buy music on CD. The good old-fashioned disc is easy to buy, fully compatible/rippable with everything, better audio quality, and one can resell the CD when tired of it.

I trust that Apple will convince labels to support iTunes plus, but right now there's no high quality music online.

Posted by: McDougal | April 25, 2008 2:34 PM | Report abuse

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