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iTunes LP broken for indie record labels?

Update: ElectricPig is reporting on 10/13 that an Apple spokesperson said the LP format will be opened up for all, indies and majors alike.

There's word from an indie record-label that iTunes LPs are not for the indies. Introduced at Apple's "It's Only Rock and Roll" event in September, the iTunes LP format adds "bigger than a matchbook" album art, song lyrics, video clips, and other extra content to albums sold through the iTunes store.

Brian McKinney of Chicago-based label Chocolate Lab Records saw some promise in the new format and started looking into the idea of producing for iTunes LPs himself. But the truly small labels may have a hard time getting in. McKinney spoke to the digital distribution manager at his label's distributor, who reportedly told him that Apple charges a $10,000 production fee for iTunes LPs. $10,000 may be less than the heads of Warner Music Group, Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, and EMI spend on breakfast, but could be cost prohibitive for the little label that could (if it had $10,000 handy for each of its acts).

It's not just the cost that prohibits the little labels. According to McKinney, it's also Apple. McKinney says his dude in distribution was told "that LPs aren't being offered to indies and that there are only about 12 LPs being offered right now."

"Foul, foul, filth and foul," cries Cult of Mac's Pete Mortensen. Like a financial analyst moving a stock from "buy" to "sell," Mortensen says iTunes LP has gone from "the first digital album good enough to criticize," to "the first major content misstep in the history of the iTunes Store." Assuming that Chocolate Lab's distributor info is on the up-and-up, Mortensen thinks iTunes LP is "less a new format for music than it is a new form of paid advertising on the iTunes store."
While it may be romantic to think that iTunes was turning into the record store of old, isn't it also unrealistic? Apple wants its customers to "think different," but may not always want to do so itself. The Cupertino-company's relationships with the big four record labels has gone from antagonistic to swell to antagonistic to swell to... well you get the idea. It's not indies that have bemoaned the death of the LP... Perhaps they have, but they have not been as loud about it as major labels or acts such as Radiohead or Smashing Pumpkins. Variable pricing for tracks in the iTunes Store (announced at Macworld 2009) was one concession to the big four. It's possible that keeping iTunes LP for the majors only (for now anyway) was another.

Still, all hope is not lost for the indies. Apple may make the iTunes LP format more accessible down the road (assuming the format lasts long enough to get down the road). In the meantime, if indies want to capture some of the iTunes LP experience, there could be an app for that. They just have to build it or have it built. AppleInsider's Prince McLean suggests the idea, noting that "any artist can build a custom app delivering whatever artistically interesting content they can imagine into existence," meaning bringing album art, song lyrics, video clips, and other extra content is something the indies might be able to do, or might be able to hire someone to do.

There may even be advantages to hitting the App Store instead of the iTunes LP for the indies. Right now, extra content for iTunes LPs is married to the desktop or laptop. Buyers can take tracks with them on their iThings, but the lyrics, video clips, and so on stay on the computer. Where iTunes LP can go may change with the introduction of Apple's fabled tablet or an Apple TV update, but that remains to be seen. Additionally, iTunes LPs are pretty passive. Sure there's a lot of content, but - once it's released - it is what it is. No uploading new content. No adding new features. No interacting with fans. The iTunes LP is a digital package set in stone (unless they are sold as part of an iTunes Pass).

On the flip-side, iTunes LPs would be great for indies today since there are still under 20 iTunes LPs available. With a quick production turn around, the local bar-band could share a pretty exclusive space with Pearl Jam (iTunes link), Dave Matthews Band (iTunes link), and The Doors (iTunes link). Compare that to the 85,000-plus applications in the App Store and the attraction of an iTunes LP likely rises.

There are many ways that this could be much ado about nothing. It's possible that what Chocolate Lab heard was not Apple's official policy. It's possible that it is official policy but that it'll change relatively soon. It's possible that the big four record labels will drag their heels, overcharge, and kill the format in its infancy. It's possible that people won't warm up to iTunes LP as a format. For now, though, word of barred access for the indies has some in a spin.

[via Gizmodo, Cult of Mac, Apple Insider]

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