Thursday 20 June 2019

Ed Power: iTunes wasn't perfect, but it helped save the music industry

With streaming now firmly established as our preferred way of buying songs, Apple has finally killed off its online store. Ed Power charts its rise and fall

Back in the day: With iTunes, consumers could buy individual songs. Photo: Getty
Back in the day: With iTunes, consumers could buy individual songs. Photo: Getty

Ed Power

One Sunday night early in 2005, I stayed up for hours watching a tiny download bar progress across my computer screen. I'd just made my first purchase on iTunes. The online music store was newly launched in Ireland, some two years after being unveiled by Apple as a potential saviour of a record industry ravaged by illegal downloads. Half a lifetime latter, iTunes is now set for the great recycling bin in the sky with Apple announcing it is to replace the ancient interface with a series of newer apps.

Back in 2005 this supposed future of music was not, it is fair to state, particularly gleaming or high tech. The album I had bought, Pure-Tone Audiometry by the New York indie band Aarktica, had cost far less than a CD version in the store (around a tenner, so far as I can remember). But I was paying for that saving with my patience as, in the pre-broadband era, it took 40 minutes or so for just one song to make its way from the internet to my hard-drive. By the time the full LP had finally manifested from the ether, I'd lost all interest in listening.

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Music was on its knees when Steve Jobs launched iTunes. Twenty years ago this month, a 19-year-old Massachusetts hacker named Shawn Fanning had created Napster. This was a rough and ready file-sharing programme he'd knocked out in his bedroom allowing users to swap music online.

Within a few months Napster was posing an existential menace to the corporate record industry (this, ironically, at the end of an epoch of record-shattering sales). Instead of handing over twenty quid for a record invariably stuffed with filler, you could download illegally - but for free - those one or two songs you actually wanted. That scraping sound was the noise of record executives rearranging the deck-chairs as they took in water from below the bowline.

With the iTunes store, Steve Jobs helped save the music industry. Napster had been sued into oblivion by 2003. But a host of successors - LimeWire, Kazaa etc - had popped up. The internet was a wild west of free music, though accessing it was a pain. If you were no longer coughing up cold hard cash for your favourite Metallica record, you stumped up in other ways - running a gauntlet of glitchy interfaces and leaving your computer exposed to a boxset worth of viruses.

iTunes and its download store changed that. As with Napster and the like, it allowed you acquire the songs you wanted rather than an entire albums. But it was legal, you paid a fair price - one euro per tune - and the music was yours. You "owned" it just as you owned the cassettes gathering dust in your glove compartment or the CDs heaped around your stereo.

"We think people want to buy their music on the internet by buying downloads," Jobs declared at the 2003 unveiling of the iTunes store (the iTunes interface had launched in 2001, though at the start you used it to access songs already on your hard drive). "Just like they bought LPs, just like they bought cassettes, just like they bought CDs."

The problem was that iTunes was never perfect. Granted, it was a distinct improvement for the buggy, clunking front-ends offered by Napster, Kazaa etc. Yet it would never be mistaken for a thing of beauty and it always seemed to need you to update to the latest version (soon the terms and conditions that nobody ever read had metastasised into 20,699 words of legalise).

Still, iTunes was soon the only game in town. At its peak in 2010 it accounted for 69pc of music sales in the United States. A sign of its clout was the fact that the Beatles finally made their catalogue available on the service that year. Within one week, iTunes had sold two million songs by the band.

Even as it was eclipsed by streaming rivals such as Spotify, iTunes remained a hugely important component of the music business. In 2013, iTunes helped Beyonce distribute 828,000 copies of her self-titled fifth album within days of its surprise drop.

Yet, even though we didn't yet fully realise it, the jig was already up for iTunes. As internet speeds improved and smartphones became ubiquitous, so streaming overtook downloading. Jobs, who had passed away in 2011 at age 56, would have been astonished to discover consumers would rather pay for the experience of listening to music than own that music outright.

However, that was the business model by which Spotify superseded iTunes. It didn't help that Apple committed a series of blunders - such as foisting U2's Songs of Innocence album upon 500 million customers in 2014 without first seeking their permission. Such missteps did iTunes little favours.

Not that it really mattered. By that point streaming was clearly the future. Three years later, the unthinkable happened as physical sales once again superseded iTunes purchases - a back-to-the-future reversal which would have seemed surreal in 2005. In 2018, downloads were worth just £10 million in the UK. By contrast, 91 billion songs were streamed over the same period.

As iTunes passes into history, those who have been with it all the way will feel a shiver of nostalgia. Having finally unlocked my iTunes folder on my desktop - it took a while - I was struck by the music I was buying back then: the New York band Blank Dogs, stuff by Monolake and Vector Lovers.

The experience was wistful - but only to a point. I can access all those artists right now on Spotify. And I didn't experience the goosebumps that I get when I'm sifting through old vinyl. That's the problem when the future comes knocking. After a while it becomes the past.

So what happens your music now?

iTunes is to be shuttered with the next Apple software update. From that point, the service will be split into three apps: Apple Music, Apple Podcasts and Apple TV. This will all come to pass via the next version of its Apple Mac operating system, coming later in 2019.

That won’t be too shocking to users of iPads and iPhones where music and podcasts have already been shunted into their own apps. But what about all those songs you purchased and downloaded over the years? Don’t fret — you’ll still be able to listen to your collection.

That’s because Apple isn’t phasing out music downloads. You will still be able to purchase music via Apple Music — and all of the songs you already own will be there, waiting for you to crank up the volume.

And if you used iTunes to listen to podcasts, now all you have to do is download the Apple Podcast App, where your favourite ’casts can be streamed or downloaded. So the sky hasn’t fallen in — it’s just had a radical software upgrade.

Irish Independent

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