Make a list of your 10 favorite songs of all time. Then go to Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store or one of its rivals, such as Napster...
Make a list of your 10 favorite songs of all time.
Then go to Apple Computer’s iTunes Music Store or one of its rivals, such as Napster, Rhapsody or last week’s newly launched Yahoo Music Unlimited.
Start searching, and you almost certainly won’t find everything on your list.
iTunes boasts of leading the pack with a catalog of 1.5 million music tracks, while the others offer from 500,000 to 1 million.
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This sounds like a lot, but iTunes offers only about one-fifth to one-sixth of all the music sold commercially in the United States during the past 50 years.
That’s an urgent problem for the recording industry, which desperately wants to pull people away from pirate services that illegally offer much bigger libraries. If piracy doesn’t stop, the recording industry could implode.
I’m not criticizing the online services or the record labels; they’re eager to offer more music because that’s how they make more money. And much progress is being made.
One example is the Dave Matthews Band, which put out its first album in 1993 and had refused to allow its music to be sold on iTunes. That’s apparently because iTunes insists all music be sold by the individual track, a consumer-friendly policy, while the band wanted to restrict customers to buying entire albums.
That changed Tuesday when the band’s newest album, “Stand Up,” became available on iTunes the same day it was released on CD. You can buy the entire album on iTunes for $11.99, or any one of the 14 tracks for 99 cents each.
However, none of the band’s dozen previous albums is listed on iTunes.
Other artists continuing to hold out from iTunes for business or philosophical reasons include Garth Brooks, Madonna, Radiohead and the surviving Beatles.
As iTunes and its competitors become more popular, big-name performers won’t be able to say no. They won’t want to sacrifice the cash or the connection with their fans.
Older works in the back catalog that are from artists who never hit the top of the charts, but still had some popularity, are a tougher problem.
The music business is a swamp of arcane copyright rules, where a single recorded song might be encumbered with five or six different licenses.
“There’s no one place to go to get all the rights,” said Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, in a phone interview last week.
I got a rough estimate of what’s missing by talking to Ty Roberts, chief technology officer of Gracenote, an Emeryville, Calif., company that maintains a huge database of music information.
Roberts said there are about 500,000 individual CD titles commercially released and available for sale today in the United S, with an average of 10 tracks per disc — a total of 5 million tracks. Commercially released CDs that are now out of print, but could still potentially attract some sales online, would add 1 million tracks.
That’s obviously far more albums than any real-world store could stock.
One-third of the 1.5 million tracks on iTunes come from CD Baby, a distributor of unsigned artists in Portland. While a few of CD Baby’s artists have a modest following, the vast majority of these tracks will probably never sell more than a few copies.
So iTunes offers only about 1 million tracks that have been in commercial release. That’s one-fifth the total tracks available in the United States and one-sixth if out-of-print albums are included.
I’ve been reviewing online music services since they began in late 2001 with only a paltry few hundred thousand tracks. The improvements since then have been awesome.
But it’s crucial to do more as soon as possible, because I’m betting this is the year legal music downloads will move into the mainstream. No one in the industry — the online services, the record labels, the performers, the songwriters — will come out ahead if the new customers can’t find what they want.
Mike Langberg is a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News.