Happy 10th Anniversary iTunes!

On April 28 2003, Apple launched its iTunes Music Store (now known solely as iTunes Store), named after (and integrated with) their music player that was released 2 years earlier. Initially offering 200,000 songs at 99 cents each, the store offered piece meal purchases of albums beyond what the single format ever offered. During its launch week, 1 million songs were sold, the first clue that maybe Apple would succeed where many others had failed at selling digital music. I remember that at the time I had a Sony Minidisc Walkman, and their online store was a pain to use.

While this initial number did not hold, by September 10 million songs had been purchased and slowly the industry started to realize that, given a hassle-free alternative, people were willing to pay for digital music. Looking at this with 10 years of hindsight, it is stunning to realize that the recording industry was so focused on beating back Internet piracy that they let a new player walk into their field and walk away with an entire new market, using their own products. By the time the labels started to believe in legal downloads (and started realizing that their old business model was dead and gone), Apple had such a stranglehold on their industry, through iTunes and the iPod, that they couldn’t afford to NOT play ball. In 2008, Apple became the biggest music retailer in the US, topping Walmart. The scariest thing about this is that Walmart was the biggest for so long, and as such held so much power over artists. (One example: they refused to carry albums with explicit lyrics. Since the labels couldn’t afford to be absent at the largest retailer, they complied with so called clean versions)

itunes Sales

Textbook growth market

The music industry isn’t alone in making a transition to digital goods, often painfully. Over the last 10 years, Apple also began to offer movies, TV shows, books and educational material. One of the biggest hurdles that companies have to overcome in these new economies is the consumer hang up towards paying for non tangible items. The older generation, the one that didn’t come of age believing music was free , is often the most attached to physical medium and the most reluctant to invest in digital goods. For sure, any data requires backup in case of hardware failure or theft, but to me the advantages of digital outweigh the negatives. For one, I have a huge music collection that takes up a lot of space in my office. My digital collection fits on 2 iPod Classic that I can carry with me easily. I listen to a lot of music while working, and whatever mood strikes me, I can play it. Over the years, I’ve also bought countless CDs for one or two tracks: now I can buy the good stuff and dump the filler. Thank you iTunes for that! And for those that claim that iTunes has destroyed the album format: I’d say that the artists and labels themselves have destroyed it by releasing albums with a couple of good singles and a bunch of duds to fill the rest.

Audiophiles also have reason to be concerned: lossless or high resolution files are still far from the norm. At least iTunes went from 128 kbps to 256 kbps. I’ve done some blind tests, and it’s surprising how hard it is to distinguish between the source and the compressed file, so I can live with that trade off, but I understand people who won’t.

iTunes has come a long way in 10 years, but here’s my wishlist for the next 10. Some are utopic, some will require that the industry stop trying to replicate its old business model, some just need a little intiative:

  • Get rid of the concept of out of print. This concept relates to the obsolete  concept of inventory management. In digital, things should always be available.
  • Get rid of regional distribution. We live in a global market. Music should be available globally.
  • Find a way to really replicate the feeling of browsing a record store. The Genius function is good, but it’s too mainstream (and if your account is used by the whole family, it will get really confused!). I miss browsing the racks at HMV and discovering little know albums by bands I liked, or rarities.
  • Align prices with the real world. Catalog CDs can often be had for 5-7$ in store. There’s no reason for the digital album to be 9.99$ (and that goes double for movies and TV shows where the DVD/Bluray is usually cheaper)
  • Allow any song to be purchased individually. If it’s longer, charge more.
  • Remove the 25,000 song limit on iTunes Match.I’ve been buying CDs since 1987: it’s not hard to go over that limit legally!

To me, iTunes and the iPod have revolutionized how I listen to music. I listen to more music than before, and more variety than ever, and revisit forgotten albums way more often than before. Thank you iTunes; the world of recorded music will never be the same again.

What is your take on iTunes and digital music?

Some important dates in the history of iTunes:

2001

January

iTunes digital jukebox software introduced

October

Apple presents iPod, offering “1,000 songs in your pocket”

2003

April 28

Apple launches the iTunes Music Store with 200,000 songs at 99¢ each, along with the new third-generation iPod that is thinner and lighter than two CDs and holds 7,500 songs

iTunes sells one million songs in its first week

June

One millionth iPod sold

2004

June

iTunes Music Store goes international, launching in the U.K., France & Germany

BMW drivers get the first car audio system with iPod integration

2006

February

iTunes sells its one billionth song

2007

January

Apple introduces iPhone

2008

January

Apple premieres iTunes movie rentals with all major film studios

April

iTunes Store passes Wal-Mart to become America’s #1 music retailer

July

The App Store debuts as iPhone 3G goes on sale

September

App Store downloads top 100 million

Over 90% of new cars sold in the U.S. offer iPod connectivity

2009

January

All iTunes songs offered DRM-free

March

Movie fans can buy and rent films in HD on the iTunes Store

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Jean-Frederic Vachon

Manager in the video game industry by day, rock journalist by night, Jean-Frédéric fills every waking moment of his life with music. Diary of a Music Addict is the little corner of the Internet he's claimed for himself to share his passion with the world.

He's also a regular contributor at the very rad site Montreal Rampage
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2 thoughts on “Happy 10th Anniversary iTunes!

  1. Nice synopsis. I agree with your suggestions — regional distribution is nuts in the digital age (and, I realize, not Apple’s preference) and their album pricing is kind of ridiculous; I often still buy CDs just to save money!

    The other thing is that iTunes is huge and bloated now, trying to do and be everything. It was better when it just for managing music, which is mostly what I want it for. They should break up the other parts (video, books, apps) into other application, like Android does, and make iTunes the premium music management system it once was.

    • I’ve often heard people complain about iTunes being bloated. I must admit that I love it because that one hub feeds my iPhone, iPad, iPods and Apple TV. I’m also on Mac where iTunes is much more stable.

      That’s not to say it’s perfect, but I actually like iTunes. And with version 11, they’ve separated all the various types of media a little bit more. I hope the next step is to customize each one instead of using the song interface!

      Thanks for the comments!

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