But Who's Buying?

No Control: Thoughts On The End Of The Headphone Jack And The Future Of Digital Music

Do you know who Lyor Cohen is? This isn’t a rhetorical question. I have no perspective here. If you work in the music business, he’s a household name. If you don’t work in the music business, why the fuck would you care about some corporate executive? But maybe, in this case, you actually would care, because Cohen’s a significant enough figure that he sorta transcends that.

Anyway, real quick: Lyor Cohen played an instrumental role in bringing rap to mainstream audiences in the ’80s. He headed up Def Jam Records in the ’90s. He was chairman and chief executive of Warner Music Group in the ’00s. He’s Jay Z’s mentor. That’s not just some unattributed thing people say because they heard someone else say it. That’s a thing Jay Z said in his own 2010 autobiography, Decoded.

So maybe you already knew Lyor Cohen, maybe not, but either way, you know him now. Last week, The Guardian ran a lengthy feature on Cohen, which was full of anecdotes and insights, including this spicy bit of invective directed at another iconic corporate executive whom you definitely know:

My firsthand experience with Steve [Jobs] was that he was determined and was going to get only what he wanted. And he was a bully. He was very seductive, but a profound bully. And oftentimes he did not say the truth.

I.e., Jobs “did not say the truth” in regard to his dealings with the music industry at the dawn of the iTunes era. Now, Cohen is by no means the first C-suite guy to speak ill of Jobs. It was only nine months ago that Pandora CFO Mike Herring told us, “Steve Jobs eviscerated the music industry with the launch of iTunes and it’s been downhill ever since.” But something about what Cohen said struck a chord with me: a person who had zero firsthand experience with Steve Jobs, but was nonetheless in the trenches at that particular moment in time. Do you remember when iPods first came out? Back in the day, they came wrapped in this clear protective tape, on the front of which was printed the command:

“Don’t steal music.”

My friend Todd and I used to laugh about that. In the early 2000s, selling shiny new iPods to computer-literate music lovers and telling them, “Don’t steal music,” was like selling a giant pile of drugs to a couple of college sophomores and telling them, “D.A.R.E. to resist.” The message was either motivated by some bargaining-with-God-style karmic anxiety or intended as a 100-percent ironic endorsement to do the very opposite, but in any case, it was clearly not sincere, and in no way whatsoever did it intend or expect to serve as an actual deterrent.

“Seductive”? Yes. “Did not say the truth”? Also yes.

Anyway, thinking about old iPods and Lyor Cohen and Jay Z and Steve Jobs got me thinking about this tweet from Kanye West from a few weeks back:

But what if they’re not “acting” like anything? People always say that Tim Cook’s Apple has nothing in common with Steve Jobs’ Apple, but maybe, really, the two men’s respective styles are not so different?

***

I’m not talking about Tidal. I’d love to, naturally, and we will absolutely get to that in the not-so-distant future, but today we’re just talking about Apple. Starting here:

Earlier this week, Bloomberg Technology further substantiated something we’ve all been speculating about for a while now: The iPhone 7, which is set to arrive this fall (just in time for Boys Don’t Cry!), very likely won’t have a standard headphone jack. Per Bloomberg: “The new iPhones will remove the headphone jack in favor of connectivity via Bluetooth and the charging port. That will make room for a second speaker [according to people familiar with the matter, who didn’t want to be identified discussing unannounced features].”

“Bully”? Yep. “Determined and going to get only what they want”? Again, yes.

If the rumors are to be believed, when the new phones hit stores, they’ll be bundled with EarPods that connect to the charging port (aka the “Lightning Connector”) so iPhone users won’t be left with nothing. But EarPods are as close to nothing as you can possibly buy on the headphones market. Anyway, here’s what they’ll (supposedly) look like:

If you listen to music on an iPhone and don’t care for bottom-of-the-market EarPods, this creates a whole lot of logistical problems on day one. The headphones you currently own are now basically obsolete. You do have a workaround there: You can buy a Lightning-to-3.5mm headphone jack adapter — called a “dongle,” in case you have to ask the guy at Best Buy where to find ‘em — but that’s far from ideal.

First of all, those things won’t exactly be free; they’ll probably retail somewhere between $30 and $40. (That said, it’s not out of the question that you’ll get one for free — several sites have shared rumors that Apple will bundle a single dongle with each new iPhone.) Second, those dongles are gonna be real easy to lose, probably not all that hard to break, and will just be a general headache to keep track of in your pockets or bag or whatever. You’ll eventually be able to buy off-brand dongles at your local bodega or Duane Reade, but if you’ve ever bought an off-brand charger at your local bodega or Duane Reade, you know how that goes.

(BTW, I am aware that the phrase “Apple will bundle a single dongle” sounds ridiculous, and I intentionally wrote it to sound as ridiculous as possible. I can’t even type the word “dongle” without feeling ridiculous, and when situations like that arise, IMO, you just gotta lean into ‘em.)

So ANYWAY, let’s be real clear: The intention here is not for you to use a dongle.

Alternately, you can switch to Bluetooth headphones — in fact, maybe you already use Bluetooth headphones. I do. I own a pair and I hate ‘em. Why? For starters, it’s no given that your phone will “find” your headphones, which can be pretty infuriating. Plus you have to be constantly vigilant about keeping the headphones’ battery charged … and of course, battery life diminishes over time. (I think I get eight hours of battery life out of my Bluetooth headphones, which are admittedly not the greatest.) Fail to stay on top of that and you run the risk of your headphones dying in the middle of a workout or a long walk or whatever.

The intention here is also not for you to use Bluetooth headphones. I mean, one day? Sure. But not yet.

No, the intention here is for you to buy new headphones — Apple-supported headphones that will be compatible with the iPhone’s Lightning Connector — and not just once but whenever: whenever you break a pair or lose a pair or forget to bring a pair on vacation… And you know who owns the biggest headphones brand in the world?

Yeah you do. On that note, lemme throw this one to Bloomberg again:

Apple started allowing headphone makers to build headphones that can connect via the iPhone’s charger connector in 2014, the same year the company acquired headphone maker Beats Electronics.

That’s great, right? They “started allowing” it. You know who wasn’t so in love that idea? Headphone makers. As MacWorld wrote back in 2014, the rest of the audio industry largely resisted Apple’s invitation to revamp entire product lines to service a single piece of hardware that was bound to be updated again in a few years anyway. Still, as MacWorld noted, choosing not to participate came with its own set of risks:

[Having acquired Beats Electronics], Apple will be able to trot out headphones of its own that use Lightning. Then, if others want in, they would be at a disadvantage, price-wise, because they’d have to pay licensing and royalty fees to enter Apple’s MFi (Made For…) program, while Apple/Beats would not.

Sucks for those other guys, right? Not just them, though.

***

Nobody has been more vocal in their antipathy for the jackless iPhone than Verge Editor-In-Chief Nilay Patel, who authored a pretty vitriolic essay on the subject a couple months ago titled “Taking The Headphone Jack Off Phones Is User-Hostile And Stupid.” Really, Patel’s piece wasn’t an essay so much as a list: six reasons why this practice is user-hostile and stupid. At the top of the list was this:

1. Digital audio means DRM audio

I’m just gonna excerpt Patel here and then try to contextualize the best I can:

For years the entertainment industry has decried what they call the “analog loophole” of headphone jacks, and now we’re making their dreams come true by closing it.

Restricting audio output to a purely digital connection means that music publishers and streaming companies can start to insist on digital copyright enforcement mechanisms. We moved our video systems to HDMI and got HDCP, remember? Copyright enforcement technology never stops piracy and always hurts the people who most rely on legal fair use, but you can bet the music industry is going to start cracking down on “unauthorized” playback and recording devices anyway. We deal with DRM when it comes to video because we generally don’t rewatch and take TV shows and movies with us, but you will rue the day Apple decided to make the iPhone another 1mm thinner the instant you get a “playback device not supported” message.

First, those acronyms: DRM is Digital Rights Management; HDMI is High-Definition Multimedia Interface, and HDCP is High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection. HDMI/HDCP is a pretty good point of reference here, but I’m not gonna go long on that, because this is plenty long already. If you want to learn more about HDMI and HDCP, here’s a pretty decent primer, and here’s the nut: “Unbeknownst to most consumers there’s an anti-piracy protocol [called HDCP] built right into the HDMI cable standard. Not only does it have a poor track record when it comes to piracy prevention it outright breaks the viewing experience for many people.”

OK, so … DRM.

On its face, DRM exists to protect copyrights holders against piracy, which is a worthy goal. It’s never proven effective in that capacity, but we’ll come back to that. Beyond that, DRM is vastly fucking complicated, because it’s an intersection of technology, law, business, and ethics, and you could write books on its implications in each of those areas. Well, someone could. Maybe you. Not me. In 2014, Cory Doctorow wrote a substantial feature on DRM for The Guardian, calling it “one of the most salient, and least understood, facts about technology in the contemporary world.” I’m doing you, him, and myself a disservice by reducing his 5,000-word story to its five broadest sentences, but it’s better than nothing, so here goes:

DRM isn’t the right to prevent piracy: It’s the right to make up your own copyright laws. The right to invent things that people aren’t allowed to do — even though the law permits it — and to embed these prohibitions in code that is illegal to violate … DRM assumes that the computer’s owner is its adversary. For DRM to work, there has to be no obvious way to remove, interrupt or fool it. For DRM to work, it has to reside in a computer whose operating system is designed to obfuscate some of its files and processes: to deliberately hoodwink the computer’s owner about what the computer is doing.

Look, I know. I know this stuff makes no sense. It’s supposed to make no sense. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature! But the thing is, there are plenty of bugs, too. It’s not that DRM is bad — copyrights holders absolutely should be protected — it just that at best it doesn’t do what it’s ostensibly intended to do.

Here’s a real-life example:

For the first six years of its existence, from 2003 through 2009, the iTunes store was forced by major labels to sell only DRM-encumbered song files. As Wired put it: “Terrified music labels essentially decided we were all thieves and couldn’t be trusted. Because of that paranoia, when the iTunes store launched, all the songs were wrapped in DRM.”

But the labels slowly came around — in part because they realized they were giving up a whole lot more than they were getting. As Ars Technica’s Eric Bangeman wrote in 2006:

It appears that the record labels are slowly beginning to realize that they can’t have DRMed music and complete control over the online music market at the same time.

For years, the labels have insisted that nearly all music sold online contain DRM due to fears over piracy and file-sharing. That insistence ultimately left the labels reliant on other companies to come up with DRM solutions capable of pleasing both consumers and the music industry. Hence the dominance of Apple, the iPod, and the iTunes Store in the online music scene.

So there you go. That’s one example of DRM not working. It started in 2003, and by 2006, people were “slowly beginning to realize” it was costing them. They waited a few more years to change it, and they’re still paying for it today.

The real reason DRM became an untenable burden to the labels, though, is because it became an untenable burden to their customers, i.e., you. Music pirates continued to pirate music — partly because that’s what pirates do, but also because pirating was a better user experience, because those files had no restrictions. The DRM-encumbered files purchased on iTunes were restricted to usage on a maximum of five computers, and while they could be played back on as many iPods as you wanted, they could only be played back on iPods. No other MP3 device and/or software could play those songs unless the “owner” went through the labyrinthine process of burning the songs to CD, stripping them of their DRM, and then re-ripping the files from those CDs. Even after the labels finally gave up on DRM, those old files proved problematic: You still had to use iTunes Match to manually remove the protection yourself (a quick five-step process). Weirdly, when Apple Music launched, it incorrectly wrapped all the old files its users hadn’t bought from iTunes in DRM, meaning “the music you’ve accumulated over the years outside of iTunes becomes unplayable if you ever cancel your Apple Music subscription and don’t have iTunes Match to keep it with you.” (Fixing this required only a six-step process.) So in a way, you’re still paying for it, too.

***

The most passed-around piece ever written in opposition to DRM audio was penned by none other than Steve Jobs himself: a 2007 essay called “Thoughts On Music.” The whole thing is worth reading, but I’m just gonna pull out a few key lines. Here’s one:

When Apple approached [the “big four” music companies] to license their music to distribute legally over the Internet, they were extremely cautious and required Apple to protect their music from being illegally copied. The solution was to create a DRM system, which envelops each song purchased from the iTunes store in special and secret software so that it cannot be played on unauthorized devices.

Here’s another:

The problem, of course, is that there are many smart people in the world, some with a lot of time on their hands, who love to discover such secrets and publish a way for everyone to get free (and stolen) music. They are often successful in doing just that, so any company trying to protect content using a DRM must frequently update it with new and harder to discover secrets. It is a cat-and-mouse game.

And one more:

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy.

In time, the labels came to agree with Jobs. And in 2009, the iTunes Music Store went DRM-free. This came as a result of a compromise with the labels, who agreed to abandon DRM-encumbered files only if Apple would agree to variable pricing in the iTunes store. As MacWorld wrote in 2009: “Did Apple cave to the recording industry? If you define ‘Apple caving to the recording industry’ as ‘prices increasing for new and popular tunes,’ then yes, Apple caved.”

That’s not really “caving,” of course, because the higher prices meant additional revenue not only for the labels, but for Apple too. But it was kinda caving, because Apple wasn’t really in it for the royalties — Apple wanted to sell iPods, and needed the labels to be on board. Never forget:

dont_steal

With that in mind, consider just one more line from Jobs’ “Thoughts On Music”:

The [optimal] alternative is to abolish DRMs entirely. Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music.

Two years after he wrote that piece, Jobs’ imaginary world was made real. And two years after that, he passed away.

Fast-forward to 2015, a week before the launch of Apple Music and a year before the Verge’s Nilay Patel wrote the aforementioned “Taking The Headphone Jack Off Phones Is User-Hostile And Stupid.” That week, last June, Patel wrote a different essay, sorta foreshadowing the new one, titled “Apple Music And The Terrible Return Of DRM.” You should read that one in full, too, but here’s the key line:

It’s no longer the labels pushing DRM on the music services; it’s the services themselves, because locking you into a single ecosystem guarantees you’ll keep paying their monthly subscription fees and hopefully buy into the rest of their ecosystem … Apple Music might be available on Android, but it probably won’t be as good, because Apple wants you to buy an iPhone.

Whether by coincidence or design, Patel was right about Apple Music on Android: The app just exited beta last week, and version 1.0 is in the Play Store now with an average rating of 3.3 stars. Per TechCrunch: “[W]hen you look at the Play Store ratings, it says that the app is still crippled with bugs. Music doesn’t play, downloaded songs get randomly removed, and the app crashes a lot.” It’s also no secret that Apple hasn’t exactly made it easy for Spotify to establish a foothold among iPhone users.

So I think Patel is right, too, in his broader assertions about Apple “locking you into a single ecosystem … and hopefully buy[ing] into the rest of their ecosystem.” Why wouldn’t they do that? After all, it is a huge ecosystem — just on the music end, right now, Apple is acting as a streaming service, a hardware manufacturer, a de facto record label, a record store (for now), a radio station, a PR firm, a video production agency, and an on-demand streaming video provider (am I missing anything?) — and its room for growth is equally massive. As Forbes notes, “Apple has upwards of a billion devices in use currently, and it also had about 800 million iTunes accounts with credit cards on file (as of April 2014). This implies that fewer than 2 percent of Apple’s iTunes account holders are actively paying for the Music service.”

That’s a whole lot of credit cards not getting charged 10 bucks a month for an Apple Music subscription. Not yet. Would Steve Jobs have wanted to see Apple customers “locked into a single ecosystem”? Not if you believe “Thoughts On Music.” I mean, he doesn’t exactly say as much. He more or less just says it’s unreasonable for anyone to think that users could be locked into a single ecosystem. Well, I won’t paraphrase — this is what he says verbatim:

Some have argued that once a consumer purchases a body of music from one of the proprietary music stores, they are forever locked into only using music players from that one company. Or, if they buy a specific player, they are locked into buying music only from that company’s music store. Is this true?

Jobs then offers some compelling data, and finally arrives at the conclusion that “It’s hard to believe” this could be true.

But it’s hard to believe anything, right? I keep going back to that Lyor Cohen quote from last week:

My firsthand experience with Steve [Jobs] was that he was determined and was going to get only what he wanted. And he was a bully. He was very seductive, but a profound bully. And oftentimes he did not say the truth.

So maybe Jobs wasn’t saying the truth in “Thoughts On Music” — not the whole truth, anyway. Or hey, give the guy the benefit of the doubt, maybe it was all true and Steve Jobs got exactly what he wanted before he died, only to have Tim Cook’s Apple upend everything immediately afterward. I dunno. It doesn’t matter. Either way, somebody is “going to get only what they want.” It just won’t be you.

Tags: Apple