A Bite of the Apple

Words by Matt Wilkinson

The music revolution promised by ‘downloads’ may have disappointed some, but is there hope amongst the iTunes for independents to reignite the internet fire?

2003 AD: Freedom of music has arrived. You – yes you – the humble music buyer, prone to a little bit of this (Beatles? Roots Manuva? Strokes?), and a little bit of that (Lionel Richie? Admit it – you love him), can buy ANY song in the world. The big-bad-boombastic-hippin-hoppin-and-shakin world. For 79p. Brilliant, eh? All hail the iPod, and all hail iTunes. The world of music is your oyster – as long as you’ve got the internet, that is. But is it really that simple?

By February 2003 iTunes had fully arrived; and, after surveying the burning wreck of dire music sales and internet piracy, started to save the day. Download sales grew exponentially through iTunes and beyond, with 6 million downloads bought in the UK in 2004 jumping up to a massive 17 million MP3s downloaded in 2005. Apple had planned iTunes to be like a virtual, planet-sized HMV, or Virgin, or MVC, but it has emerged to be a bit more like Woolies or Tesco or ASDA (the music section bit) – a bit clique, a bit…naff. Whereas the internet started out offering fresh hope to pretty much anyone involved in music, some now argue that it’s become as drab as Dickie Bird.

“People thought the internet would cut out the middleman in music; that it would be beneficial for the artists,” says Eugenie Arrowsmith, of The Big Chill, famous for its independent festival, club nights and record label, “but in reality, most internet download sites have now become like the high-street music shops – bland, and unwilling to take risks in case a product doesn’t sell. The fact that iTunes has an 80% share of the market doesn’t help either.”

The morphing of download sites into high street music departments is well and truly on its way, with an increasing reliability on safe bets like weak compilations, Best-Of...’s and old faithfuls (step forward Queen, Abba, Oasis…), rather than pushing new music to an audience who might actually get it. “What you see with the big online sites now is that there are no links to anything unconnected with the software itself,” says Khalid Mallassi, co-head of Catskills Records. “Even with people like 50 Cent, there’s no link to (‘Fiddy’ record label) Aftermath. Obviously to him, that’s not a problem because he doesn’t need the promotion. But for other artists, it means they struggle. They need that pedal to survive.”

However it isn’t all doom and gloom for the iTunes generation, with the promise of access to better, more varied music dangled like a carrot and then snatched away. Disheartened by the way downloading was going, Catskills Records set up their own download site, Beathut.com in February 2005 – a kind of ‘independent iTunes’, bringing together artists and labels overlooked by the biggies. The site offers individual tracks, albums and radio shows as legal downloads, and has so far averaged 100,000 hits per month – which equates to a pretty appealing kick up the jacksy for Apple et al.

And if you look hard enough, you’ll see more and more pretenders to the iTunes crown. UK music site PlayLouder.com is developing what it calls the ‘World’s first music ISP’, where customers will be able to pay a monthly fee, giving them broadband access as well as legal downloads across the music spectrum and the chance to book gig tickets through their bill. They’re quietly calling it the way forward…

It’s possible that with the power of independent download sites like these, for the first time in Britain for decades, underground music stands a real chance of collectively lifting a middle finger towards the major players. But, going up against the biggies could be potentially problematic. “People think music nowadays is boring, and it’s because of the fragmentation in the underground scenes,” explains Big Chill’s Eugenie. “If everyone got together we might stand a chance. For independent downloads to work, you need the labels to come together. Take a look at punk – when you had Sham 69 touring with the Clash – and you’ve got proof that collectiveness does work. It’s good value, good music, and people get it.” The collective concept is something Beathut.com are also keen to embrace. “The more labels we can get, the better,” says Khalid. “We want Beathut.com to be like a bespoke community. It’s a salon of independent and alternative artists and labels who can exist alongside each other.”

And it’s not just through artist collectivity that the independents can flex their internet muscle – in this brave new music world consumer power talks too. Just last month a new Sheffield band called Arctic Monkeys saw their first single proper – ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ – debut at number 1 in the UK singles chart after only doing 12 promotional interviews and without the support of Radio 1, who didn’t even bother putting it on their playlist. How? Simple: they gave the song away for free in demo form on the internet, months before the release date. And people still bought it.

Beating McFly and the Sugababes to the top spot is one thing but to manage to stiff music’s middlemen and the big corporations as well is something else entirely. As Artic Monkeys have proven, if you look hard enough the future is full of promise for internet downloading, whether you’re an up-and-coming artist wanting to get your sound out there or a hungry listener desperate for a slice of exciting new music rather than the usual helping of commercial dross that has always been just a click away. Watch out iTunes, there are plenty of worthy advisories out there eager for a bite of the download Apple.