iLife ’09 is finally available on store shelves, and while most of the attention will probably go to iPhoto’s spiffy new face-recognition, there’s a feature tucked into GarageBand that might be making headlines very soon: premium lessons for piano and guitar, presented by the artists themselves. Dubbed ‘Lesson Store’, Apple’s online marketplace for music lessons has all the makings of a revolution in music learning that could prove to be incredibly popular and lucrative. We’ve known about it since its unveiling at Macworld, but only after trying it out can I confirm what many initially suspected: this thing is going to rock.
I’ve played guitar on-and-off for the last six years (I am mildly talented, at best) and have been exposed to a wide range of the learning tools available. The most popular by far are online ‘tabs’ – text based files that are easier to read than traditional music and are readily available. Unfortunately, the vast majority of tabs available on the web are laughably incorrect. Tab sites also have to deal with constant copyright infringement threats from record labels and publishers, who allege that the user-created tabs violate their IP. But the ‘tab books’ published with the consent of these labels are often just as inaccurate as the ones on the web (they’re rarely written by the original artist), and tend to be ridiculously overpriced.
Another alternative are DVDs and VHS tapes that feature artists showing off how to play their songs. Besides being pricey, these can be frustrating because DVD doesn’t lend itself well to repeatedly playing the same segment or slowing down a song without altering its pitch. The artist makes it look easy (and it’s always fun to watch them), but you’re never able to keep up.
Apple’s Lesson Store is the perfect compromise. Each lesson offers a lengthy video of the artist discussing how to play their song section by section, which is displayed alongside the music being played (either in tab or traditional notation) and a diagram of where your fingers should be on your instrument. And because you’re dealing with the original artist, you know you’re learning the song as it was meant to be played.
True to Apple tradition, the interface shines. You can quickly jump between sections, slow down video playback to half speed without distorting the notes, and can easily set the program to loop any segment of music until you’ve got it down.
I honestly can’t think of anything that would make it any better. Update: Tabs in GarageBand don’t have any indicators for bends or hammer-ons, which really should be shown.
But the Lesson Store still has a ways to go. At launch there are only four songs available for each instrument, and while they include artists like Sting, Ben Folds, and John Fogerty, I can’t help but want more. Much More. Give me Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Billy Joel (for you piano fans out there). At $5 a piece, these lessons are much cheaper than any DVD or Tab book, and they are much more helpful.
My other major gripe with the Lesson Store is that its interface for actually buying a song is awful, considering this is the company that built the iTunes Store. Buying a song involves leaving the GarageBand application, getting redirected to a webpage that apparently asks you to verify your credit card number every time you buy a song, and then having your browser ask what application should be used to open the incoming file. Seriously Apple? I know this is probably something of an experiment for you, but this seems a little absurd given the streamlined process in iTunes.
Depending on how many artists sign on, the Lesson Store could do more than drive $5 song sales. The Mac could become the computer of choice for fledgling musicians (if it wasn’t already), driving the company’s PC market share even higher. For those about to rock, I salute you.