Liner Notes

iTunes And The iPod: Ten Years Later

by Jeff Clutterbuck

It was about eight years ago that I penned an essay for the Vault entitled “What Was An Album?” It was 2005, and the digital music revolution has just become to realize its potential. It made us as consumers consider the question of just how much things were going to change for the industry, and even the art form itself. You can point to a variety of reasons that there was such a radical transformation, but at the core, there is iTunes and the iPod.

At the end of April, iTunes celebrated its 10th anniversary and that occasion prompted some discussion about just what its impact has been the past decade. On the surface it may be hard to see how a piece of software could have such an influence on music, but upon closer inspection, the reasons are no more different than how the Macintosh made personal computers truly “personal”, or how Windows 95 changed how we interact with those PCs.

Steven Hyden of Grantland recently wrote a piece for that website that made a case for the legacy of iTunes (and by extension the iPod) being akin to the MTV era of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Two decades ago, it was hard to picture a time when music videos via television would not become the primary distribution method. Today, they are nowhere near as relevant and MTV can barely lay claim to being the “Music Television” network. What once seemed revolutionary is now mundane.

Hyden’s perspective recalls the early ‘00s when iTunes and the iPod were marked a “sea change in music presentation.” However, his argument supposits that time was a “transitional period” between the era of the CD and the present day popularity of streaming services such as Spotify. Hyden identified the direction that I believe the industry is headed towards; with the advent of technology, it is possible to have access to thousands, if not millions of songs for a small fee per month. Of course that ability has existed before, but never with such ease and depth. Cellular connection willing, one can listen to music they don’t own for as long as they want, wherever their travels may take them. Downloaded music will begin to dwindle whether it’s five, ten, or fifteen years from now. Where I begin to disagree with Hyden is on a primarily semantic level. While the dominance of iTunes may not last as long as we may have thought from a market share perspective, the impact it had in shaping the industry and technology cannot be understated.

The peer-to-peer sharing program Napster was released in 1999, and turned the entire music world on its ear. It was possible to connect to another computer and download a music file from it. Napster exposed the flaws of the music industry in that people were clamoring for some sort of digital alternative to large chains, but because it was an illegal service, it did not and could not attain legitimacy. To many, downloading from Napster was no different than stealing. And beyond that, once the file was downloaded, the question was what to do with it. CD technology had advanced to the point where it was possible to make or “burn” a CD with as many mp3s as would fit, but the process was still akin to using physical media in a standard sense. More importantly, it was also deemed unsavory, if not unethical.

When iTunes began to offer a service where you could actually buy music to download...well, it all changed. Not only did iTunes affirm that the vast majority of people had no problem paying for what they considered a reasonable amount to charge for music. The ability to buy music whenever you wanted had never existed before. Artists may not have appreciated the ability of someone to cherry pick songs from an album and forego the whole package, but the public sure did. A standard album on a CD would run roughly 70-80 minutes if filled completely; in the days of vinyl or 8 track, that would have been a double album’s worth of material, if not more. There was something amazingly freeing about being able to spend time on the iTunes Store, just browsing and listening, and hitting that “Purchase” button if there was even just five to ten seconds of something that was intriguing.

The technology behind iTunes and the iPod certainly has been subject of much criticism and in some ways is outdated. Hyden discusses how future listeners won’t understand what the big deal was that you could have a device that “only played music.”  Younger generations will almost certainly be unaware that such devices existed far earlier than the latest smartphone or tablet. Sony’s Walkman received much of the same type of praise, and similar criticisms as the iPod, and was one of the biggest selling electronics devices of the ‘80s for a reason. People wanted to choose what they were listening to. However, when the technology shifted towards the digital landscape, the Walkman died an ignoble death. The first iPods could only hold 1,000 songs worth of music, which at the time was certainly a big deal but has become a much less impressive number over time. iTunes itself has been blasted for being sluggish and difficult to use to discover new music.

However, the technology of those devices/software isn’t what they should be defined by. The iPod was a shiny little box with few buttons and has gotten thinner, faster, and sleeker over the years. All those refinements stand as massive achievements to how amazing technology can be in the modern age, but it was that idea of this box carrying an entire musical existence that turned people onto it.  Finding the perfect song for the perfect moment required a collection of tapes or LPs that had been gathering dust in a corner. With iTunes, that song was key clicks away. And if you didn’t own it, it was less than a minute before you did. These paradigms had never been possible before iTunes and the iPod.

Hyden is definitely correct in identifying that iTunes finished off “ownership as meaningful concept” (that is an entirely separate argument if one wants to make the case that such a result is a terrible thing). But how is that not a massive legacy to leave behind? For the entirety of the 20th century, a person could walk into a store and buy vinyl, 8 tracks, cassette tapes or CDs. iTunes made it possible for that same person to accept the notion that what they were looking for didn’t need to be something tangible or physical. Today, movies and books and music exist in an infinite library in the cloud. A song is no longer subject to decay and destruction, a film does not have to be lost to the ages, and a book doesn’t have to be shelved far from where someone can find it. iTunes helped us as a society to accept that potential moving forward. That is a legacy that continues to develop, beyond being the first successful online music store.

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