The RIAA and record companies have been telling us, for decades, that music is too easy to pirate. They’ve complained that the technologies that exist make it too easy to steal their music and that people should be brought into line by a series of Draconian measures. If you’re somebody that strictly adheres to paying for music and software, you tune this constant din out, over time. It doesn’t apply to you. You’re playing fair.
For my birthday, I was given an iTunes gift card, by my eleven year old daughter, who had saved her pocket money to buy it for me, from arguably the largest supermarket chain in the country. She knew I was a recent Apple adopter, having resisted the company and its products, on a variety of grounds, for quite some time. However, I relented, on balanced consideration and took a full and hearty plunge into the vertically controlled monopoly that is Apple.
She was so pleased to have given me £25 worth of music (or apps). She knows how much music I buy. The place is full of CDs. We have literally hundreds of the things about the place. From her young point of view, she felt she was modernising her daddy and making it possible for him to carry much more music around with him in, a vastly more portable format.
On attempting to redeem the card, I took it from its attractive cardboard carrier and revealed the secret redemption code. I typed in the ridiculously long number, only to be challenged to type in another ridiculously long number, located elsewhere on the card. That was odd. Normally you only have to enter the one number.
At the end of this process, I got an error message telling me to do nothing more and that a customer service agent would be in touch with me to resolve the matter. Maybe I had made a few typos. I tried again, this time wearing my best reading glasses. Same error message. No redemption. What a terrible user experience!
The next day I received a scripted, drippingly insincere email advising me to provide photographic evidence of the card and the store receipt. I didn’t have the store receipt. It was a gift. The clue was in the name. It was a gift card. We had also recently thrown away last month’s supermarket till receipts. You have to, or they rapidly take over your house.
The day after, I received another email assuring me they were pleased to be of service, were only too eager to help me, but that without the till receipt, they were disowning the card, without telling me what was wrong with the card.
I felt I had been robbed. They had my daughter’s money and yet were refusing to honour the gift card, for reasons they did not state.
I’m probably going to have to forget about it, put it down to experience and will have to continue to buy from this single source of apps, but through gritted teeth. They know it, too.
That got me to thinking about musicians and recording artists that entrust the sales of their downloaded music to this kind of operation. How many times a day does somebody have their gift card refused at the gatekeeper to their music’s gate? It must represent a significant sum of money that the artists never see. Worse, it puts people off using a service like this. It’s too hard. It’s too frustrating. It’s too time consuming. It’s too upsetting. It’s too risky. It’s too unfair.
Is refusing to honour a gift card, bought and given in good faith from a reputable source, really acting in the best interests of recording artists and their paying fans? Does it even protect Apple’s profits? Considering my purchase history, the kind of device I have connected to iTunes (a big, hungry one) and the fact that this was my first encounter with a card that couldn’t be redeemed, you would think that some genius at Apple would figure out that in unjustly treating me like a common thief, they would dissuade me from purchasing as much content as I might have previously been inclined to buy. You would think it would be to everybody’s advantage to honour the card, which I dutifully photographed, in spectacular, high resolution, macro detail, using my iPhone and sent in to the customer support people.
Think how much damage this gatekeeper and all like them do to the music industry, the prospects for working musicians trying to earn their living from the brave new digital download world and to the relationship of fans to their favourite artists and this means of getting their favourite music, which was foist upon them. Are the savings made in doubting legitimate customers who happen to have some unexplained problem with their gift card sufficient to justify this amount of destruction in the market place?
Buying music has to be easier and more reliable than this. The sloppy way that customers are handled when redemptions of gift cards go wrong ought to be a serious concern for the music and software industries. The gatekeepers to their music and apps are acting in their own interests first and even then, arguably in a counterproductive way. They don’t consider the interests of the artists and producers. They don’t much care about their customers either, it would seem.
For our part, we won’t be using gift cards again.
EDIT and UPDATE: Further email from Apple, this morning, escalated to a supervisor. They say the problem is the card wasn’t activated at the point of sale. That means that the supermarket’s IT system didn’t talk to the Apple IT system when it had to. The transaction was lost. So, rather than solve the problem at the root cause, they devolve it to their many customers and stand their ground. That’s unfair, because we can’t fix it.
A brief survey of the internet shows that this redemption failure, due to retailers failing to notify Apple of a card activation, happens a lot. That means it’s a system design problem. Even the lady we phoned at the store had experienced the same redemption failure. It appears that Apple values its relationships with its retailers over those with its many end users, but that’s a mistake because we ultimately pay their bills. Both of them – Apple and the retailer.
As a form of complementary currency, the Apple gift card is not robust, because the issuer (Apple) does not stand behind it. Therefore, we shouldn’t trust it, as a currency.
Apple will happily gather a detailed user profile of your purchase history in order to target product advertising at you, but will claim that they’ve never heard of you and might not be able to trust you, at the point of redemption failure. They can’t have it both ways. Either we have a relationship, based on our willingness to share private, personal data with them, or we don’t. Which is it, Apple?
If we do have a relationship, how does Apple want that relationship to be in the future? One where we conclude Apple can’t be trusted, or one where we can have confidence in them, as a vendor of digital content? That’s a choice for Apple, too.
As for the business practice of taking money and then not providing goods, let’s see how that works out in the long run for both Apple and the retailers. In the meantime, Apple should take their customers out of a dispute over a problem the customers have no power to solve, honour their cards and go and see their retailers to see what’s up with their systems and data interchanges.