As Apple & its iTunes Music Store sit comfortably on their throne as the music industry’s supreme-retailer-in-chief, iTunes has inevitably become the nucleus of musical storage and organization in today’s ever-shifting musical climate.
Mastered for iTunes
With last month’s introduction of “Mastered for iTunes”, a series of guidelines, tech specs and sample-rate converters and encoders to get the optimal “iTunes sound” , Apple is taking the refinement of its control over the final file formats of our music to a a new level.
Directing the package at audio engineers, they suggest that every mastered file should pass through the “Mastered for Itunes” droplet and process, if the artist/engineer/label wants to achieve the best possible sound on the widest range of formats. Not only does Apple control how music is distributed, it’s increasingly asserting its control of how music actually sounds.
“1000 Songs in Your Pocket”
In the early days of their ascent to digital-audio-domination, by making iTunes free and easy to access regardless of whether you used a Mac or PC, Apple was able to integrate themselves into the very fibres of our music listening experience. Any song could be imported into iTunes; organized, converted and ultimately sync’d up with any mp3 player.
Steve Jobs’ prophetic proclamation of “1000 songs in your pocket” was only a half-truth; for every song that we squeezed onto our iPods, intense compression and modification of the formats was molding and consequently reducing the original size and shape of the music we’re all consuming.
We’re achieving this goal of a staggering amount of music on such a small device, but at what cost? Apple was originally advocating a certain standard (128 kbps AAC) that came under great criticism from artists, engineers and producers, and while they’ve adapted and moved away from this, many people are still consuming music with these specs because that’s how iTunes was initially set up.
Yes, Apple has introduced this new standard with the intention of universalizing the highest fidelity recordings possible within the confines of the format and yes, they certainly have the best intentions in wanting their customers to enjoy their music in the same quality on the widest range of systems possible.
However, their attempt to further standardize the way our music sounds with “Mastered for iTunes” begs a much larger question that arises every time a new music medium or format is institutionalized; Is this for the better, or will it lead to an increased homogenization in the possibilities of how music can actually sound?
I’m not trying to paint Apple as some monstrous corporate vacuum; crushing creativity and sucking the life out every digital file that ends up in the iTunes store (or maybe I am 😉 ) – god knows they’ve done more to help the evolution and growth of any semblance of a music industry in the last decade than the RIAA or any of the major labels and publishers.
But, with the release of “Mastered for iTunes”, which strives to create a new industry standard in digital audio, the least we audiophiles, engineers and music lovers can do is pause, assess and reflect on the implications of a new standard of this magnitude.