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How exactly is the rumored Apple tablet computer going to revive music sales?

July 28, 2009 |  3:13 pm

Steve-jobs While an army of tech and music reporters hurl rumors about what the rumored Apple Inc. touch-screen computer will look like and do, we can't help but wonder why the entertainment industry is reportedly betting on it to spur a revolution.

Here's what we know -- or, think we know, rather -- so far, according to a story in the Financial Times that made a splash Monday:

The rumored tablet Mac is expected to have up to a 10-inch, finger-controlled screen, like a large-form iPod Touch, if you will, the Financial Times wrote.

Like the iPod, some say it will be able to connect to the Internet, probably using WiFi -- kind of a no-brainer. It could also potentially leverage Verizon's 3G service, which would likely result in a cheaper device, subsidized by the telecom, according to TheStreet.com. Note that this is all still a lot of rumor and speculation.

AT&T, however, announced today that its customers -- that is, just about every U.S. iPhone user -- will have access to free WiFi at Barnes & Noble retailers. With the iPhone, iPod Touch and this new rumored device, Barnes & Noble could position itself as the go-to brick-and-mortar store for high-speed digital shopping.

If anything, the Barnes & Noble deal could have a significant impact on the retail chain's business, whose executives seemed proud to have lost less money than expected in its first fiscal quarter. Fast and easy WiFi access is a nice touch, but how exactly is Apple's big portable computer going to help the music industry?

Record executives reportedly told the Financial Times that the labels have teamed with Apple to offer interactive booklets and liner notes that come bundled with full album purchases.

Judging by what the labels have offered on iTunes in the past as part of pre-orders for flagship record releases, these booklets ...

... could be really lame. If you've ever downloaded an album that comes with a static PDF booklet containing boring band photos, you know what we mean.

Packaging music videos and behind-the-scenes media could make things interesting, but we're talking about an industry that began charging $2 per music video a few years ago. Additionally, a number of releases come in multiple configurations already, and the bundled extras often don't justify the increase in price. Furthermore, record execs reportedly told Cnet that they're upset about Apple being credited with the album incentives idea, which they say was pitched to and shot down by the technology manufacturer 18 months ago.

Who do we believe? Apple and labels have been pointing the finger at each other about who to blame for the disaster that was digital rights management (DRM) -- locks on digital music files -- as well as the introduction of variable pricing. The latter ended up raising the prices of the top-selling songs to $1.29 during A) a recession and B) a time when a seemingly irrevisible retail trend is pushing for cheaper music.

One of the most ironically laughable facets of the Financial Times story is the idea that labels are almost relying on this product to fix their declining album sales.That seems like a stretch, no matter how cool the additional, touch-enabled extras may be. With the iPhone, music applications are all the rage, but these are products targeted at hardcore fans, meaning they're not add-ons that are viewed as essential to every buyer.

Has the music industry, once wary of putting its eggs in Apple's basket and careful to foster digital music competition with Amazon, simply bowed to the company's undeniable track record? Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs says, "Jump," and the labels say, "OK?"

If that's the game plan, then good luck. We'll be watching to see if Apple can pump new life into the music business, as it did with the iPod. But with the latter, music was the selling point.

Will the same hunger be there for interactive extras?

-- Mark Milian

Follow my random thoughts on rock music and technology on Twitter @markmilian.

Photo: Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs on July 2, 2007. Credit: Carl De Souza / AFP/Getty