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)
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:
iTunes digital jukebox software introduced
Apple presents iPod, offering “1,000 songs in your pocket”
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
One millionth iPod sold
iTunes Music Store goes international, launching in the U.K., France & Germany
BMW drivers get the first car audio system with iPod integration
iTunes sells its one billionth song
Apple introduces iPhone
Apple premieres iTunes movie rentals with all major film studios
iTunes Store passes Wal-Mart to become America’s #1 music retailer
The App Store debuts as iPhone 3G goes on sale
App Store downloads top 100 million
Over 90% of new cars sold in the U.S. offer iPod connectivity
All iTunes songs offered DRM-free
Movie fans can buy and rent films in HD on the iTunes Store