has to admit, it's certainly a landmark. On Monday, Rolling Stone
announced that the world's 100 millionth iPod was sold. Up until a few
years ago, the concept seemed little more than a fantasy, while
massive chains like Tower Records kept their fingers crossed that it
would stay that way.
Predictably, Apple guru Steve Jobs is
being showered with a terabyte of praise as an innovator and icon. RS
even compiled a clever faux-playlist of songs that Jobs is listening
to on his own pod, including such tunes as Bowie's "The Man Who Sold
the World," and NoFX's anti-record industry anthem "Dinosaurs Will
Die." Ha ha.
But the question has to be asked; does Jobs deserve such praise? Is he
a man who made our music more accessible? Or is he simply a man with
undeniable savvy who figured out a way to keep the price tag on an
evolving market? The answer to that question goes deep into the true
nature of the music industry.
First, a flashback: a little less than a decade ago, the idea of an
mp3 had record execs shaking in their Pradas. The minute Napster came
to everyone’s attention, groups like the RIAA screamed bloody murder,
claiming that downloading would take money from hardworking artists; a
laughable notion coming from an industry that is only willing to pony
up 15% of each album sale. What scared the stuffed suits the most was
the idea that artists and fans might have a forum to share their work
without the say-so of corporate greed.
This is where Jobs came in. IPod and iTunes were a perfect way to get
ahead of the game. Rather than squashing the mp3, which would have
been impossible anyway, Jobs merely found a way for the RIAA (and
himself) to make a buck off of it.
But what about us, the ordinary consumer? Do we benefit from Jobs'
scheme? A fifteen dollar iTunes gift card will buy the holder twelve
or thirteen songs, which is about what they would get had they paid
the same amount for the average pop CD. The savings are hardly
Plus, this demarcation between "legal" and "illegal" downloading has
provided cover for the RIAA to go after "piracy" like they have long
wanted to. The latest word is that they have threatened legal action
against universities that refuse to hand over lists of "pirates." Of
course, the idea of an industry that prosecutes eleven year old girls
for downloading "Happy Birthday" calling anyone else a pirate is
And then there is the iPod itself, which can cost anywhere from $150
to $400. For someone making seven dollars an hour, a swiftly growing
section of the US workforce, this is far from an easy buy. The notion
of “pay-then-download” being better for the consumer is nothing more
than smoke and mirrors, dogs and ponies, and good ol' supply and
This kind of cartoon logic doesn't just apply to the ordinary music
fan, but to the manufacture of the iPod itself. Nine months ago, Apple
was scrambling into damage control as it was revealed that the players
are built in sweatshop conditions on the outskirts of Shanghai.
Workers lived in cramped conditions, were paid about $50 a month, and
in some cases were forbidden from seeing family members or friends. Of
course, Apple denied any knowledge up and down, claiming that they
were "committed to ensuring that working conditions in our supply
chain are safe, workers are treated with respect and dignity, and
manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible." But as this
writer has said
before on Dissident Voice, "we've heard this
before. We've heard it from Disney, from Kathy Lee, and now from
Apple. In the end it's the same song, different arrangement."
So while Jobs, along with cohort Bono, would like us to believe they
care deeply about poverty in Africa with their high-profile RED
campaign, it's worth keeping in mind that the money being used to
launch that campaign is made on the backs of the very people RED is
claiming to help. But by bandying about the image of Africans as
helpless little savages in need of assistance from the kind white man,
Jobs has managed to make himself look magnanimous for giving work to
them in the first place. Kipling would be proud.
As rock critic Dave Marsh pointed out in a recent blog posting, "in
Africa, and on broader social questions in general, I think there are
other approaches. I think $10 to the World Social Forum organization
(which held its last meeting in Kenya) would bring more benefit. To
Africans. Poor ones."
So while 100 million iPods sold is an historic marking point in our
musical era, the praise showered upon Jobs by his contemporaries
leaves the picture a bit skewed to say the least. The music industry
is a parasite; a blight on music itself and our very lives, stifling
creativity and limiting possibilities for artist, fan and worker
alike, all in the name of marketability. Jobs shouldn't be lauded for
helping the parasite survive. He should be shamed.
Alexander Billet is a music
journalist and activist living in Washington, DC. He is a regular
contributor to ZNet, and has also been published in
Dissident Voice, Socialist Worker and MRzine. He is
working on his first book, The Kids Are Shouting Loud: The Music
and Politics of The Clash. His blog is
Rebel Frequencies; he can be reached at: