Plenty to learn from Apple's 'near-perfect' iTunes store

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I have two words to describe how amazing, how fantastic, how utterly revolutionary Apple Computer's new digital music distribution system is:

Swingle Singers.

That's right. So swept away was I by euphoria when I went online to inspect what the new iTunes Music Store could offer my equally new iPod that I purchased an entire album by the 1960s-era doo's-boo's-bah's-and-ah's jazz classical vocal group.

But enough about me. Let me tell you what else I bought. For $10 each, I purchased full albums by John Coltrane and Gilbert & Sullivan. For 99¢ a tune, I acquired songs by Tal Farlow, June Christy, Les Paul, Earl Klugh and Coleman Hawkins. All in all, I dropped about $70 on my first trip to the iTunes Music Store. A few days later, on my second, I opened up for another $30. On my third ... well, let's just say Apple has invented the aural equivalent of a nicotine fit.

What makes Apple's new music-distribution system so delicious (if not downright insidious) is that you don't think of it as a music distribution system. Apple has managed to fashion a near-perfect retail outlet on the Web. Taking pages, obviously, from Amazon, and less obviously from Starbucks, Crate & Barrel and a few other vanguard retailers, Apple has drafted a new book on experiential marketing. The ease with which a music aficionado can browse and taste the surfeit of offerings subtly smoothes the path to purchase. And the one-time registration of the credit card (not to mention that 99¢ price point) makes pushing that one-click order button almost automatic.

But enough about me-really. I go on because Apple's success invites some observations of relevance to the media and marketing industries:

To be an impresario, learn both the "what" and the "how." The digital music revolution clearly caught older-generation recording moguls off-guard; deprived of their distribution clout, they could no longer foist trends on the listening public (which turned to piracy to get what it wanted, how it wanted). Not that the West Coast technology pioneers were any better: Their attempts at creating full, user-friendly music operations were incomplete and unfriendly. Apple CEO Steve Jobs, it's now clear, has always understood how to balance between esthetics and functionality. He is a true entertainment impresario, masquerading as a technology executive.

Both producers and consumers must be served. Napster benefited only listeners; recording company-affiliated distribution networks, like Rhapsody, are far more welcoming to (surprise!) recording companies. Central to Mr. Jobs' vision is that a win-win in entertainment must add value to both ends of the supply chain-and leave something for middlemen like himself.

Don't know thyself. Digital entertainment distribution is one area where it's important to ignore the ancient Greek philosopher Thales' famous maxim. The public wants choices. Media moguls may attempt to create distribution monopolies to force-feed their own offerings to the public. But the public will just tune out. The honest middleman with the best-stocked store will win every time.

Old habits die easy. We fool ourselves when we believe the public has grown inured to a media distribution system. We've shown ourselves ready, willing and able to adapt to the new and novel-if the price is right.

So listen up: Get an iPod and contemplate the future (make that the here-and-now) of infotainment. Me, I've got a few doo's-boo's-bah's-and-ah's to enjoy.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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