When it was introduced last year, Apple’s enhanced digital album format iTunes LP was touted as a marquee feature of iTunes 9, but it enjoyed little apparent support from the music industry, and had no compatibility with Apple’s portable devices. It was obvious that the idea of unifying liner notes, music, video, and possibly interactive content behind a DVD-like menu interface was a good one, lacking only for support from good artists, record companies, and Apple itself. Despite less than enthusiastic participation from the recording industry, the content side of the equation has slowly started to come into its own thanks to more appealing releases from additional artists, and now the only question is how long Apple will take to add proper iTunes LP support to the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch—or whether it will do so at all.
Because of its generally superior pricing, we buy far more music from Amazon.com’s MP3 store than from iTunes, and have found real benefits to actively shopping around before making digital music purchases. iTunes almost never offers a price advantage, so iTunes LP is Apple’s potential differentiator; a way for its versions of albums to transcend the bare song and digital booklet downloads it has been offering for years, adding content that might for some users actually justify Apple’s higher prices. For instance, Amazon’s version of the just-released Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse album Dark Night of the Soul presently sells for $6, while the iTunes version goes for $8—with fewer tracks (!)—and the iTunes LP Deluxe Edition sells for $12, with one added mix and some multimedia content. In this case, there are at least two different reasons to prefer the Amazon version, but some really hard-core fans of the artists or collaborator David Lynch might like the extra iTunes LP wrapper enough to pay twice the Amazon price, anyway. Generally, we found that early iTunes LP releases such as Peter Gabriel’s So+ were neither particularly appealing nor worthy of the premium.
iTunes LP’s real potential is illustrated by compilation albums such as “Time Flies,” a recent two-disc set from the now defunct British band Oasis. Released by Sony, the basic 27-track album is offered by Apple for $11, and by Amazon for $12 with the same content. Compared with $1.29/track individual song prices, either version is priced aggressively enough (41-44 cents per track) to get people interested. But only Apple offers a premium $20 version with 47 tracks, 40 music videos, and the iTunes LP digital wrapper—so much additional content that the premium price for once seems totally justified, offering bundled 23-cent pricing across audio and video files.
The twenty additional audio tracks are “iTunes Festival” performances from the band, including live versions of songs from the standard album, covers such as The Beatles’ I Am The Walrus, and more. Each of the album’s core 27 songs plays with a laid-out version of its lyrics separate from the included digital booklet, which is a flip-through fan tribute to the band. Videos range from U.S. and international versions of major hits to live performances from the iTunes Live London Festival and other concerts. Those looking for a traditional album experience can hit a single button to play sequentially all the way through the music, while interactive menus provide clickable screens to access individual tracks or videos in whatever order the user may prefer. This is as close to a realization of iTunes LP’s promise as we’ve seen since it was introduced, albeit without the somewhat gimmicky visualizer content that some early LP releases contained.
Note, however, the word “clickable” rather than “tappable.” Even though the menus of this and other iTunes LP releases are clearly touchscreen-friendly, Time Flies doesn’t transfer its special interface to iOS devices such as the iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch—the menu system works only on iTunes 9-equipped computers and Apple TVs. The same is true with other iTunes LP releases, as well. Copying the Oasis album to the iPad leads to 87 music and video files all falling into the iPod application where they’re individually selectable, though not marked as video or audio content when grouped as an album; the iPad’s Videos application also holds the music videos if you prefer to access them there. Unfortunately, the 88th file—the digital booklet and menu system—refuses to sync to the iPad at all, even into iBooks, which is capable of displaying the PDF-format digital booklets that were released with full album downloads in the past. The only Apple device the iTunes LP digital wrapper will play on besides a computer is the Apple TV.
Despite the increasing appeal of the iTunes LP format, it’s quite possible that these deluxe albums will never come to Apple’s pocket devices. Reduced to a 3.5” screen, the interface buttons and text may just be too small, and even the 9.7” screen of the iPad falls short of the 1280 x 720-pixel resolution Apple specifies for the iTunes LP menu system. Downscaling of these menus is an option on the iPad, and probably easy enough to accomplish, but on the iPhone and iPod touch—particularly the 480×320 pre-Retina Display versions—it seems unlikely to happen. Too much detail would be lost, and in some cases, thin text might even become unreadable.
Have you downloaded any iTunes LP content that was worth or not worth the premium? Do you care if iTunes LP comes to the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch? Share your tips and thoughts in the comments section below.