Why I don't want to Complete My Albums on iTunes

Columns & Opinion, MP3 players, Top stories

stu-mugshot.jpgStuart Dredge writes…

Okay, so Apple has announced its new Complete My Album feature for iTunes, which lets you buy albums that you’ve previously purchased individual tracks from, without having to pay for those songs again. It effectively takes 79p off the price of the full album for every track that you’ve already bought.

Is this enough to Save The Album though? Earlier this week, a feature in the New York Times reported that the album could be on its way out, with digital music buyers purchasing singles over albums by a margin of 19 to 1.

Apple’s new feature is intended to redress that balance, but will it? In a word, no.

See, I don’t think the reason people aren’t buying albums on iTunes is a fear of being charged twice for certain tracks. It might be a minor factor, but only if you assume digital buyers follow traditional habits of buying a single or two to see if they like a band, before buying the album.

Instead, I’d highlight two other reasons for low digital album sales: Duff Tracks and DRM. Let’s start with the first of those. Most albums have duff tracks. You know, the ones you forward past every listen. The experimental eight-minute ones. The novelty ones written by the drummer. The between-track hip-hop skits.

completemyalbum.jpgWhether you blame the music labels or lazy artists, the fact remains that we’ve been paying for duff tracks for years. And now, since the launch of iTunes and other digital stores, we don’t have to. We can listen to 30-second clips of every song, we can consult blogs and other online reviews, and we can cherry-pick the good songs off any album, and leave the rubbish ones languishing on the digital shelves.

I just checked on the iTunes Store, and there are 167 albums in my Complete My Album section. Yet why would I want to pay £3.25 for the rubbish tracks on the Lily Allen album? I’ve got the three good songs on The Like’s album, why do I need the rest? And having bought Something Kinda Ooooh and Love Machine, what’s left to tempt me on the Girls Aloud Best Of?

But that’s only one reason why digital album sales are weak in comparison with single song sales. For all my railing about not settling for filler, when it’s a band I’ve got emotional ties to, frankly I’ll put up with any old rubbish. I’ve bought every Charlatans album in recent years, and I can play you Primal Scream album tracks that would make you feel nauseous. Loyalty has a lot to answer for, but it certainly isn’t killing the album.

DRM is the second reason why digital album sales have been slow to take off. How many people still prefer to buy CDs (or, yes, download ripped MP3s) because they’re far more futureproof than iTunes downloads? If I buy a CD, I can rip it, then play those MP3s on my iPod, or my mobile phone, or my PSP, or my car stereo…

And if I decide I want higher-quality versions in the future for playing through a decent hi-fi (if I ever get one), I can just re-rip the CD at a higher rate. Now think of the sinking feeling I have whenever I think about the albums by The Rapture, Breakestra and the Brian Jonestown Massacre that I bought from iTunes last year, and will probably have to rebuy on CD if I ever desert the iPod for another MP3-playing device.

For me, it’s these two reasons that are stopping me buying more digital albums, not the worry that I’ll have to pay twice for individual tracks. That’s not to say Apple is wrong to launch the Complete My Album feature, which is a classic example of trying to upsell consumers something you know they’re already (probably) interested in. Just that it probably won’t be the saviour of the album that some industry types are hoping for.

Stuart Dredge
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  • You might consider burning your iTunes tracks and then re-ripping them and deleting the protected files. Annoying that you have to do that, but excellent for future-proofing and not having to worry about stupid DRM.

    Nice post, btw.

  • I am happy about this. Several time I purchased a song or two and realized I liked the artist in general most recenlty John Mayer. I purchased two songs and they rrealy grew on me. When I had to pay 9.99 for the rest of the album I wished they had something like “Complete my Album” Thank you Apple (If only this wer retro active)

  • I actually like the idea. I haven’t run iTunes for a while, so I don’t know if any of the albums you can do this with are albums I’ve bought songs from, but if so, I’d welcome the chance to complete them – if it’s worth getting the whole thing.

    Yes, some artists include tracks that not everyone will appreciate. Digital music allows us, the fans, the opportunity to decide for ourselves instead of relying on what the labels want us to buy. I’d like to believe that most of the albums by bands and artists I like are worth getting the whole thing for, and that may be so. But there are always exceptions. Songs that don’t quite fit in, or quite simply aren’t really needed or wanted.

    And what of the bands with relatively short songs or “fillers” that are actually good? I have a problem with spending the same amount of money on something that lasts for far less than an average song (let’s say four minutes). It doesn’t happen often, but it’s kept me away from a couple albums, knowing that buying a couple of the tracks now wouldn’t change a thing if I were to decide to buy the whole album with the tracks I want but can’t completely justify. That’s not to say they’re not worth having, but a 30 second intro to a song (that’s a separate track) or a bunch of smaller stuff isn’t quite the same as a four or five minute song and the iTunes store should take that into consideration.

    S.O.D.’s “Speak English Or Die” first comes to mind. None of the songs even breaks the 3:00 mark, with most coming in under at 2 minutes. The Residents’ “Commercial Album” (40 tracks) as well as some of They Mights Be Giants’ albums (especially “Apollo 18” with 38 tracks in total) also come to mind.

    With some albums, we’re backed into a corner. Some songs are only available to us if we buy the complete album. Not a big deal in and of itself, but it does affect those of us who shop more by the song than by the album. A lot of times, I just go through and pick songs that I know already and want to have or else listen to the samples from a band I’m not too familiar with and select a couple, hoping that what I get is good (I’ve been lucky so far). But in a couple cases, I’d snagged something from an album with songs I can’t get unless I get it all.

    Now, if Complete My Album expands to include some of those albums, I’d be happy, knowing that I don’t have to pay twice, which has happened twice so far when I’ve bought the whole thing. It doesn’t bother me, but it’s nice that Apple has offered a solution.

    Is the album dead or dying? That, I’m not so sure of. The music industry is certainly changing. Digital music is a big part of that, but a lot of others things – some of which have nothing to do with music – play a factor. Gone are the days when the average band can sell millions of records. Now, some of them only sell a portion of what they used to and they manage to continue on and still be considered a success.

    The labels have said that sales are down, which isn’t entirely the truth. And I’d go so far to say that sales are probably close to what they’ve been for a while, only that music fans have sought out the works of other bands or look to other record labels who put put out better material. Music becomes stagnant and formulaic at times, which leaves many fans disappointed. And they will look elsewhere, to other bands that get overlooked, and not buy the albums that the major labels want us to buy instead.

    I do prefer to have the real thing. And listening to the CD, you often get a better experience. Sometimes, songs lead into each other. Sometimes tracks start and end at times that makes them seem awkward alone. Concept albums and live albums tend to be better taken as a whole, but they aren’t the only ones.

    Digital music isn’t perfect. I don’t think it’ll kill the industry as we know it, nor will is save it. But I honestly believe it will help.

  • you do know that all of our albums save “we are the radio” are free to download from our website.i-tunes is just fucking stealing from me really.

    i never recieved one penny for some i give freely.

    but here’s the rub.
    i’m going to sue the fucking shit out of them and will make the other industry download suits look like dog toffee.

    oh,and they ogg files.

    anton alfred newcombe
    nyc 2007

    tangible/committee to keep music evil/fucking briliant ltd/a records.

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