Thinking About Steve Jobs' "Thoughts on Music"

By now, you've probably read Steve Jobs's essay, "Thoughts on Music" and had the same warm, fuzzy reaction we did. We're back to our senses (somewhat) and we're here to cut through the afterglow and examine his treatise in detail, since every single word was undoubtedly carefully chosen. So let's jump right in.

Jobs makes it obvious at the end that the letter was penned to head off mounting pressure from several countries in Europe, in particular Norway, to drop its FairPlay system and make iTunes tracks and the iPod interoperable with other players and services, respectively, or risk legal action. But what does the letter do besides that?

Most realistically, it was just a PR move designed to defuse and shift criticism to the record companies while making Jobs (and Apple) look fantastic—all while things stay the same. After all, the odds of the record companies dropping DRM is nil, and he knows it. But look at what he says about the current path: In the "current state of affairs in the industry, [the] customers are being well served with a continuing stream of innovative products and a wide variety of choices." Not exactly a vote of no confidence.

Jobs pretends that he thinks the only reason record companies want DRM is because they have an unfounded fear of piracy. But he knows better. The numbers he throws out—20 billion CD tracks to 2 billion iTunes tracks—show he does. DRM is designed to uphold the CD industry, where record companies control all of the cards and the profits. DRM makes digital music supplemental to, not a replacement of, the CD industry. So that means Steve really is fighting for us, right?

With iTunes, Jobs takes some of that control—as well as some of the profit. And this is when digital distribution is playing a far-second fiddle to CDs. We saw this control come into play when he manhandled the industry to keep tracks at 99 cents a pop—part of that manhandling came in the form of public sound bytes slamming the labels for being greedy.

It's possible he's trying to win the DRM argument (if he genuinely is) the same way: by proclaiming himself willing to help consumers, if only they'd pull him down off of the cross he's nailed to by DRM. Dropping FairPlay would be a minor loss for Apple, whose major source of profits is the iPod, not iTunes. As Jobs said, most of the music on iPods comes from other sources. And even if the tracks aren't wrapped up in DRM, who's to say Apple's going to unchain the iPod from the iTunes program altogether? If iTunes is selling the exact same non-DRM music another store is selling, why go to the other one when you have a perfectly good one integrated with your jukebox/iPod manager? If anything, this would solidify both the iPod and iTunes at the top because there's no need to buy CDs anymore to get DRM-free music.

Finally, as Cult of Mac points out, Jobs says nothing about DRM for video. He can't if he wants to distribute movies from anyone but Paramount or Disney. And the iPhone? A closed system. Apple's not opening anything up anytime soon. It was nice hearing the words from the man himself, but we know DRM is here to stay.

But for all the assumptions we're making, It is also completely possible that Steve is just sick and tired of the music industry, and wants to get his words out on the issue.

iTunes [Gizmodo]