Since upgrading to OS X, I’ve occasionally bought stuff at the Apple music store: the odd song here and there, and one complete CD (Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright”; how I lived so long without it is beyond me). The interesting thing that’s emerged is that I have no interest in using it to buy new music that I’ve never heard: I use it as a time machine, to find those songs that I heard in my youth, but never liked quite enough to spend $17 on (the cost of a whole CD from which I might want one or two songs). After many years, I finally have a copy of Rush’s “Red Barchetta” (which I had on an LP, but never upgraded to CD).
It’s also proved especially useful for some odd songs that I heard rarely, but never succeeded in tracking down. For example, Derek and the Dominoes did an extraordinary version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” that, for whatever reason, is hard to get; now I have both the studio and live versions of it. (And man, is it great. Very different either from the Hendrix, or Sting’s perfect, sublime version.) And even when I don’t find what I’m looking for, there’s a good chance of stumbling on something entertaining. There’s a hip-hop version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody?” There’s a 3-minute version of Iron Butterfly’s “In a gadda da vida?” I didn’t know that until earlier today….
If the Apple model becomes the industry standard– in other words, if it becomes common practice to sell individual songs, rather than entire CDs– then it’ll mean that all these good songs by middling or short-lived acts stand a much better chance of surviving, and being listened to in the future. Groups with giant backlists can be assured that their music will continue to be accessible (both because there will be people who’ll buy anything from the Rolling Stones, and because the average listener will find enough songs in a CD or box set to justify buying it); but groups that have two or three really memorable songs stand little chance of surviving in the CD world.
It would also mean that songs by well-known performers that never make it onto conventional CDs could be more easily available, like Sting’s great version of “Windmills of Your Mind,” which was in the closing credits of “The Thomas Crown Affair” and hasn’t been seen since; or his quirky cover of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” from the otherwise completely forgettable “Demolition Man.” (Neither is not on the Apple music store, alas.)