The Death of iTunes

We are gathered here today to remember the life and times of iTunes, a repository of music that both made and broke musicians and some of the technology used to enjoy our favourite songs.

iTunes was born in 2001, near the dawn of the digital music age, one of the many curious thoughts of Apple as it was changing from punchline to wunderkind. The idea was simple and brilliant: Why buy a whole album when all you want is one or two tracks? Get the songs you want without having to lose shelf space to a CD jewel case that was getting overfilled anyway.

When Apple bought SoundJam MP3 in 2000, the company reformatted and tweaked the software to make it more user friendly. iTunes and the iPod were introduced in October 2001, allowing people to digitally store songs they liked on a block the size of a deck of cards – slightly smaller than the Walkman they were used to carrying around just a few years prior and without the annoying skips of their surgically-attached CD players.

It wasn’t until 2004, when iTunes 4 was released and introduced us to the iTunes Music Store, that people began to really care. And shop. And boy, did we shop. Remember paying $0.99 for a song? Glorious!

A whole new world for music

But iTunes also allowed users – both Mac and PC by the mid-2000s – to rip their CDs into digital files and upload them into their music repositories. It gave users the ability to play with their songs, making remixes, using audio software the manipulate music made by someone else into their own customized version. Is iTunes responsible for the explosion of EDM? Perhaps. But that’s for another day.

In a few short years, the whole music landscape changed. The introduction of CD burner drives for desktops and laptops made it possible for people to copy CDs; the introduction of Napster and LimeWire and other sites where digital music was, uh, shared for free gave people the opportunity to find and share new music (or really old songs) with just a few clicks, and the release of iTunes and the iPod made the whole thing digital and substantially cheaper – and legit!—than buying CDs.

Things get “Complicated”

By September 3, 2003, it was clear Apple had a real winner on its hands, as the iTunes store announced the sale of its 10 millionth song: Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated.” (No judgment – that song was all over the place.)

Apple guru and questionable human being-turned-technological visionary Steve Jobs called the development a milestone, stressing that it was all done legally. “Apple offers the only complete solution for digital music with iTunes and the amazing iPod, which now holds 10,000 songs in your pocket,” he said at the time.

The iTunes Music Store had sold 10 million songs in four months, averaging 500,000 songs per week.

“We are honoured and grateful to be one of the top selling artists in the iTunes Music Store,” added Coldplay’s Chris Martin. “It’s clear Apple has delivered a working and successful platform for music fans to discover artists and purchase both albums and single songs instantly with ease. We embrace these efforts enthusiastically and see them as the future of our business.”

Truer words.

By February 2010, that number would reach 10 BILLION (Johnny Cash, “Guess Things Happen That Way”). As of last September, more than 40 billion songs were sold via iTunes and the iTunes Store.

iTunes eventually added videos… then movies… while still offering music, though the price went up to $1.29. Podcasts found a home here, as did the ability to create a playlist based on a single song. It became possible to send user data back to Apple to learn a listener’s preferences and create playlist based on that, or make recommendations based on tastes.

Maybe the tide started to turn in 2014, when under someone’s misguided suggestion, iTunes and U2 teamed up to automatically load the band’s album “Songs of Innocence” on all accounts. People really didn’t like that. At all. Even U2 fans. Bono himself apologized later for such an intrusive and forceful move. (What the hell were they thinking?!)

But, alas, nothing lasts forever.

Much like iTunes made buying albums an outdated way to get music, Spotify and other streaming services came along and once again upset the Apple cart. Why buy music at all, even if it’s just a dollar per song, when you can just listen and not buy anything?

By 2017, streaming had become the dominant force, with $7.1 billion in market power for the music industry. In 2018, more than 90 billion songs were being streamed in the UK alone, either totally for free or through a monthly subscription fee that cut the ads.

iTunes was trying to do too much for too many and began to suffer.

“Its role as a music app has already diminished… what Apple is doing is saying that to succeed in this world it has to specialize in everything – it can’t be a generalist,” industry analyst Mark Mulligan told the BBC. “It’s still number two to Spotify. If it’s going to be the leading player, which it is what it wants to be, it’s got to unbundle all of these things and make each one a leader in its space.”

And so, with much fanfare and public commentary, Apple announced earlier this year it was killing iTunes as a standalone concept. Instead, it will be broken into three pieces and absorbed into three pieces: Apple Music, Apple Podcasts and Apple TV.

Files will still be playable. Collections will remain intact. No tears will be shed because what is digital never really fades away.

But what was once an earth-shatteringly new way to buy, share and find music is being tossed into the digital graveyard.

Thank you for your service, iTunes. Be sure to ask for a space in digital heaven next to Jeeves and the sock puppet.

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1 Comment

  • So the penny finally drops for me… I live in Vancouver & one of my social events is dancing tango. Through May & June, a woman from San Fransisco was spending 3-4 days/week in Vancouver dancing tango in the evenings.

    She is a senior project manager for iTunes. So I knew that something major was happening in iTunes but not what & why in Vancouver.

    You’ve answered the what.

    so how about the why? What is the connection between Vancouver & iTunes that rates a senior project manager to spend ~8 wks here?