I'm on the record (ha ha, "record," get it?) as being underwhelmed by the iTunes LP concept; it strikes me a little bit too much like as an awkward attempt to reproduce as non-virtual object on a computer. iTunes is probably one of OS X's most important applications, but how many people are just sitting at their keyboard looking at it while music plays, and will some video and still images get them to do so? Still, I always like to give things a fair shake. My very favorite band, the Mountain Goats, released a new record last week, and they've always had great and hilarious liner notes and art; it seemed at least possible that they might sign up for the new format on iTunes.
Of course, as you'd find out if you clicked on that iTunes link, they hadn't; in fact, as became clear this weekend, they weren't going to anytime soon, because indie labels have been shut out of the iTunes LP marketplace for now. Chocolate Lab Records, a Chicago-based indie label, reportedly contacted Apple about getting iTunes LP albums up for their artists, and was told that only the majors are being considered, and they'd have to pay $10,000 for design costs. The Mountain Goats are on 4AD -- a pretty big-sized label as indies go, but not big enough to shell out ten grand for each iTunes LP design.
A lot of the controversy over this has been focused on the subject of the large dollar figure being bandied about. But when it comes to design, you do get what you pay for, and I have no doubt that the slick iTunes LP offerings currently in the store cost that much to have put together. What's more puzzling to me is why Apple is taking that money for the design in the first place. iTunes LP packages aren't some secret proprietary format that only Apple can author; they're essentially bundles of based on the technologies used to build ordinary Webpages, and frankly anyone with enough Web design know-how could hack one together. Sure, it wouldn't be as slick as the ones you could buy from the iTunes Store from Mika or the Dave Matthews Band -- but frankly, there are plenty of indie musicians whose recordings aren't as technically slick as the records from Mika or the Dave Matthews Band, and the iTunes Store is still happy to sell them.
To bring this point into sharp relief, you actually can get a non-Apple-authorized iTunes LP album: It's Listen, by a band named Tryad. The album was under a creative commons license, and an outfit called iLongPlay put together the iTunes LP version as a proof of concept. Download it, drop the files onto iTunes, and it will work just like one you buy from the iTunes store.
Of course, this neglects what the whole point of the iTunes LP format has been all along: making extra money from an album. Those iTunes LP packages cost $2 more than just an album full of songs, and if indies can't get their albums into the record-selling machine that is the iTunes Store, they can't make that extra $2. The question is: why won't Apple let indies sell self-authored iTunes LPs? What exactly are they afraid of? I really don't know, but part of the answer might lie in the extremely sparse selections of iTunes LPs currently available -- only a dozen at the moment. They may simply not have a lot of confidence in the format, which may have been pushed on them by the labels somehow. But surely the company loses nothing by allowing artists to experiment with it. It's reminiscent of the control freakish behavior that's been so irritating in the App Store.
UPDATE 10/13: And now Apple is saying that this is all a big misunderstanding, and that open specs for the format would be released "soon". Since it seems weird that Chocolate Lab Records would simply make up such an interaction with Apple, I wonder if the negative publicity got kicked far enough upstairs to get Apple to change their tune.