iTunes without borders

Posted in: Internet stories, Music

Earlier this year I was trying to buy a covers album by Birdy, a 15 year old singer / piano player from the UK. I'd been watching her YouTube videos since I heard about her through Gavin Mikhail's cover of her cover of Bon Iver's Skinny Love (lol, seriously?), and quickly became an fan of her versions of other songs: Phoenix's '1901' and Cherry Ghost's 'People Help the People'.

When I learned that all of the above were going to be released as an album, I waited for the release date to roll over, got out my credit card and hit the iTunes links to give Birdy (and I imagine the myriad of middle men/services between her and myself) my money. That's when I hit my first problem:

This content is not available in your region

So I sighed and tried again in a week, hoping it would be in the Australia / New Zealand iTunes store by then. Still no luck. I tried the Amazon UK links in the hopes that they didn't have region locks, but they did too. You know what avenue was available to me though? Buying a physical copy of her album and having it shipped to New Zealand.

In the age of the internet, when one can know about happenings on the other side of the world the moment it happens, I hate the idea of things that can already be easily transmitted over the internet being released region-by-region. Why is it that a medium we have managed to digitize (music), cannot be sold to me because I'm in another country? We've got the infrastructure (NZ might not have the fastest network, and we might have the lowest of data caps on the planet), so why can't the record company push those bits and bytes my way?

Region locking - good for business?

I'm reminded of this study where they looked at movie releases and looked for a correlation between release strategies and piracy. They found that movies with staggered releases (that is, released in one region/country at some date, then another region/country at a later date, and so on) were more pirated than movies that had a single global release, causing international box office losses of at least 7% (for movies that were released first in the US).

Region controls are annoying in the internet era because a musician's/movie's potential audience knows about new content the moment it's released, but those outside the region in which the content is initially released are left to miss out until the content comes out in their region, if it ever does. Of those music fans who know about, say, the latest album from one of their favourite bands, they will range from: those who can handle the wait, those who hope the tracks are available to stream online region-free and use that to give them their fix, those who will try to obtain the music from outside their region legally (eg: ship album from overseas) and those (I'm guessing somewhere around that at-least-7% mark) who will try to obtain the music from outside their region illegally.

If a company is doing the region-locking thing, suddenly they're trying the patience of their customers, and the less patience a person has, the faster along that range I gave above a person will traverse.

My own experience with Birdy's album, after hitting the region-locking in iTunes, was to bookmark the YouTube videos of her songs and play them over and over for about a week (stream online region-free), then buying a physical copy of her album from Amazon UK (obtain music from outside my region) and having them ship it to me in New Zealand (another week's wait where I reverted to playing her YouTube videos in the interim). The only reason I didn't go straight to the 'obtain from outside my region illegally' step is a combination of: having an expendable income, a willingness to pay for the album, and a conscience that didn't want to steal from a 15 year old girl (who was still wearing braces at the time! I would hate myself for stealing from a kid!).

As The Oatmeal noted around the time this all happened to me, it's hard to stay legit when the companies who represent the music / books / TV shows / movies that you want to buy, put obstacles like this in your way. And they wonder why people resort to piracy? Here's a hint: it's not about price - paragraph 2: I had my credit card out already - it's about availability.