iTunes dominates the download market and drives the official UK singles chart, but fixed prices are bad for art.
Yes: Apple is fighting the pirates, and yes, iTunes does offer a legal, good-to-use alternative to stealing music. That's a good thing - artists deserve to be paid.
While the future of legitimate online sales is huge - eventually music addicts will be able to explore and download every piece of music ever recorded anywhere on the planet - labels continue to see profits fall.
Record label bosses - who still don't truly 'get' the digital opportunity - want to secure tighter control over download prices. They want to do this in order to boost profits, but there are other reasons to permit flexible download pricing.
Apple has been resolute in fighting to prevent this, arguing that raising prices will send consumers back to the pirates. At this stage of the game, that's probably true, but there's strong arguments to change that in future. And these reasons aren't about record label profits, but about artistic and cultural diversity.
Is music really software? Is music - with it's ethereal quality and ability (at its best) to transcend time or pain - really to be treated as so much dumb data, a commodity item, to be bought and sold on the cheap? And in what way does that attitude to music differ from the pirate services? The only clear difference is price.
There's a lot of music out there. You can fill your iPods with a gamut of tracks, from advertising jingles to one-hit-wonders to some pieces of music which stand forever as timeless classics; Jimi Hendrix, maybe, or Robbie Coltrane, or Radiohead - even the Sex Pistols.
But when you visit iTunes, all these tracks cost exactly the same. You'll find some of the greatest pieces of music created by talented humans in the digital racks and at the same cost as throwaway pop hits and Simon Cowell-manufactured pap.
There's no way to differentiate over quality, at least not by price. And with labels facing deeper doldrums daily (or so they claim), these all-time classic songs - which will always sell- could actually help balance the books. At least that's their argument.
Musicians have a better argument. Imagine yourself to be a musician. You have spent two years writing your album, and that album consists of six tracks. They are long tracks, because that's the art you are famous for - you've put your heart and soul into those six songs.
You release them through iTunes. Your six-track album costs £7.99 - but each track costs 79-pence on its own. Unsurprisingly, your fans won't buy the album for £7.99, they'll buy it as individual tracks for the smaller sum of £4.74. The result is (at 8 per cent royalty), the artist makes around 36-pence for each album sold. Sell a million albums and you'll get £360,000. Most acts don't sell a million.
What this means is the six-track album you spent two years creating will earn you far less than a fifteen-track collection of songs written in a hurry by another artist. That'll sell at £7.99 (or more if each track's purchased in isolation). Using the royalty rate above, that hastily-produced album raises £640,000 on a million sales.
It's not just artists who earn less cash for releasing a six-track album. Labels earn less too. This means label executives are less likely to sign artists who produce small collections of high-quality tracks. In this case, fixed price downloads create an economic imperative which fosters artistic and cultural barriers, and impacts against cultural diversity.
Fixed pricing sets a precedent that demands at least ten tracks to every album in order to justify an online album sale. Fixed pricing pays no consideration to the value, integrity or effort behind the art, at least in some cases.
There's another problem to the evolution of music as a fixed price commodity.
Facing falling returns and declining sales of physical product, the majors are growing increasingly focused on mass market artists. They need those big hits to generate the revenue recquired to keep shareholders happy.
This means they sign fewer left-of-field artists, fewer musical innovators, and focus investments on a few big names, while shedding staff.
This is a long-term mistake, as the true value of music stands in back catalogue. Today's throwaway but platinum-selling artist may not sell any records tomorrow. You can't expect a long tail when you sell a Manx cat, after all. Artistic integrity requires risk.
There is a long-term opportunity for artists here. Major labels have extensive infrastructures. They can take an artist all the way from being signed to eventual release in all formats across all geographies.
Major label distribution and marketing networks extend to every radio show, magazine, or TV show on the planet. They are equipped to market, promote, record and have extensive systems for revenue collection.
Major labels could liberalise themselves, and focus on their networks as their main strengths, offering access to these resources as a service to any artist.
They wouldn't need to sign artists, they could sell their services to them instead, on a mutually acceptable income sharing model. If the majors don't take this step, someone else will.
If music were sold on this basis, it would ultimately be up to the artists themselves to decide what their music should cost in any format. And that's the way it should be. Inherently, music belongs to the artist, not to the label, and not to iTunes.