The AudioFile: Where's the Love In Online Music Services?

Apple leads again — in charity.
As a journalist covering digital audio, I can’t help feeling like I’m not really contributing to the welfare of the world at large. Sure, music is important to our physical well-being, and hearing it with the utmost clarity and detail is an integral part of the experience for many. But there are bigger issues in the world, like hunger, disease, war, poverty, and the proliferation of reality television. So what’s the booming digital audio world—one of the fastest-growing industries around—doing about all this?

The (PRODUCT)RED initiative has been a boon to the AIDS crisis in Africa, with several big companies participating. Apple has been selling red iPod nanos for several months now, and the company donates $10 per unit sold to the Global Fund, which in turn provides money for fighting AIDS in Africa—specifically, Swaziland and Rwanda. (Of course, they’re also advertising it as the perfect Valentine’s Day gift… way to make the most of it, Steve-O.)

Much to my dismay, I’ve seen complaints online about $10 per unit not being enough. Such complaints seem to be based on those little cost/profit ratio analyses that show how much iPods (and more recently, the iPhone) costs Apple versus how much they cost consumers. $10 out of a $200 or $250 product is actually pretty good, if you factor in the licensing fees Apple paid to join the Red program, as well as the money that it costs to produce and market the products—not to mention the fact that the donations are coming out of Apple’s corporate pocket, not yours.

But while iPods are still selling like water bottles at a rave, digital downloads represent a much vehicle for donation programs. Apple realized this recently and now sells (PRODUCT) RED iTunes cards; 10 percent of each card’s value goes to the Global Fund, with no extra cost for the consumer. Cards are great and all, but what about giving direct downloaders the opportunity to donate?

The real key to making such programs effective is making donations easy and fun. For example, let people put together a playlist of songs with meaningful titles that they can then purchase and donate. Then have those playlists published on the service’s Web site, maybe with stats like “Most Donated Song”. I can see some teenage girl moved to tears because “it was, like, sooo totally appropriate that I donated, like [insert sappy Top 40 song here] because it’s what [insert male or female teen idol here] listens to, and they, like, would totally do that too.” After all, these days John Q. Public needs more of an incentive to donate besides altruistic tendencies and tax deductions.

iTunes isn’t the only online music store out there, so I decided to check into who else is running some kind of donation program. It turns out that Napster had a “Donate to Download” program in 2005 for Katrina victims… but that’s been over and done with for quite some time (must be that Katrina fatigue) and the company isn’t currently running any similar programs. eMusic (O please deliver us from DRM!) isn’t running anything either, nor have they in the past. MTV’s URGE has only been around a short time (around 6 months) and hasn’t quite had time to get involved in any charity work, but the company’s history—as well as assurances from their PR folks—leads me to believe they might roll out something in the not-too-distant future. Looks like Apple’s ahead of the curve once again.

Here’s an important point: While I realize AIDS in Africa is a huge problem, there are plenty of other causes out there—and in this country—that could use a boost from these types of promotions, particularly via online music stores. The major labels could surely find a way to participate too, and I bet it would help their as-of-late malignant reputations, not to mention sagging digital download numbers. Now, if the major labels actually agree to start selling unrestricted downloads as is the current rumor, the resulting market explosion would provide a truly incredible opportunity for charity. Sure there are plenty of ways to donate online, but why not have some fun with it? C’mon major labels and online music services… show some love. We know you care deep down.

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AudioFile by Mike Kobrin is a weekly reflection on electronic music and the MP3 biz. You can read his collected columns here.