Ten things we’ve learnt in ten years of iTunes

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the launch of iTunes, and an interesting article in The Times last week (by Ed Potton; paywalled, sorry) had three music industry insiders commenting on what it has taught us. Yes, the analogy between the music industry and the publishing industry is over-used and under-relevant. But there are still some nicely articulated points in this article that are worth pondering; let’s start with this paragraph:

4/ The album is dead … long live the album:
It’s also commonly said that iTunes celebrates songs at the expense of albums, allowing us to buy individual tracks without purchasing their parent LP. The UK iTunes store recently sold its billionth single but last year album sales fell by 11.2 per cent in the UK. [Stephen] Bass [co-founder of the Moshi Moshi record label]  thinks that we sometimes over-eulogise the album, a format that “was born by the accident of a record being able to hold approximately 45 minutes of music”. But, he adds: “The idea of a world in which you can only have singles is quite scary.” [Tim] Dellow [director of Transgressive Records] agrees: “There is still an affection for what the album can represent. The challenge is to develop records that are that cliché: all killer no filler, so people are compelled to buy the whole thing.”

If “singles” and “albums” are exchanged for “articles” and “journal issues”, this provides an interest avenue of thought on the emerging article economy:

  • do we “over-eulogise” the journal / issue as wrappers of articles?
  • do we find the article economy a bit “scary”?
  • is there still an “affection” for what the journal / issue represents?
  • will the article economy (and, alongside it, the move to author-pays OA) start to filter out some lower-value content such that we move towards “all killer and no filler”?

Meanwhile, the music industry is under-utilising the capabilities of mobile (“‘The functionality and power in a person’s smartphone is just being ignored by iTunes,’ Bass says. We should be able to unfurl an array of extra goodies on our mobile screens, he says, liner notes, photos, links to merchandise and gigs.”) We in publishing also have yet to deliver a truly mobile-first experience for our users, and while I don’t necessarily advocate for “goodies” per se, I do think we need to understand at a much more detailed level not only the mobile behaviours, but also the broader workflows and information needs of our users, in order to better integrate our content and thereby make it more valuable. (Yes, I have banged this drum before.)

The final point that I think has real resonance for us in publishing is the need to avoid walled gardens. Anthony Mullen, Senior analyst at Forrester, comments in the article on Apple’s “Ping”, an attempt to integrate social networking and iTunes which closed after two years because it was a walled garden (“a lack of integration with music labels and other social networks and … confined to purchased music”). Whether in terms of our efforts at social media integration, or our engagement with other technologies that support research workflows, publishing too is learning that the publisher- or journal-specific walled garden approach just doesn’t work. Successful examples are the exception rather than the rule, because walled gardens don’t reflect or support typical user discovery and usage behaviours. Recognising this means developing and pursuing brand, product, technology and partnership strategies that centre on users rather than publishers or journals – strengthening our propositions such that we can cede a little bit of control in order to reap the benefits of wider visibility, usage and citations.