Steve Jobs changed the way we consume media, which in this day and age, is equivalent to changing the very fabric of interpersonal communication. Many people probably read of his passing on an iPhone, Macbook, or iPad (or all three). Yet, it is one of Jobs' least tangible inventions that catalyzed one of his more lasting effects on the music industry--iTunes.
In 2001, the world was replete with CD cases and other musical detritus (Walkmen, CD burners, etc). The digital music revolution was in sight but slightly out of reach. There were plenty of MP3 players on the market but none of them really caught on. Enter iPods and iTunes. iPods were the more visible component of the revolution: it was as if one day the world woke up and everybody had one. However, but for the signature Apple ease-of-use and simple design, the iPod wasn’t remarkably different from its competitors. The edge Apple gained on everybody else was in the massive online music store iTunes, which made an incredible amount of music available legally and at a low price.
The advent of both iTunes and the iPod wrought two seismic changes in the music industry: we now listen to individual tracks not albums and we listen to digital files while physical copies are on the verge of irrelevance. It is a cold truth that online and digital music consumption is slowly killing the industry as we knew it. But iTunes is not the iceberg that sank the ship.
iTunes was launched in 2001, right as the music industry was imploding. Napster, LimeWire, Kazaa and a host of other file sharing websites allowed users to give music away for free and threatened to wipe-out the commercial viability of the music industry. Record labels refused to back down from the business model they'd relied on for years and consumers clung to this new, easy, and free way to digest music. The increasingly accelerated pace at which technology moved was sure to eventually break the stalemate and guarantee consumer victory. The industry just couldn’t compete.
The introduction of iTunes stemmed the decline of the music industry (it's still crumbling slowly) by reaching a compromise between monetizing music distribution and keeping the customer satisfied with easy-to-use (and relatively cheap) Internet consumption. Jobs offered a viable model for the music industry to keep itself afloat while it tried to adjust to the digital age, though he set a dangerous precedent by selling songs for 99 cents. By getting major record labels on his side Jobs quickly amassed the largest amount of sanctioned music available for online purchase. iTunes has also made it much easier for independent artists to make their music commercially available to a wide audience. Record stores were disappearing, but iTunes had a better selection than most of them anyway.
Today with cloud services like Spotify, many people wont even spend the time or money to fill up hard drives with digital files (let alone fill up shelves with cds); instead they stream music online from massive servers with millions of songs. With Spotify it takes approximately 64 listens to equal one 99 cent iTunes purchase, according to Billboard. Musicians are struggling more than ever to make a living and despite a growing web presence, annual record sales are declining steadily each year. Nowadays many artists would put up less of an argument about giving their music away for cheap or for free than they would ten years ago, as long as it was given away at a reasonable quality.
Though on first glance it seems as though iTunes played a large part in precipitating this sea change within the music industry, the most they can be accused of is accepting the inevitable and hitching it to a business plan while it was still possible.
Steve Jobs accomplished an odd thing with iTunes, one that fits with the general mission statement of Apple. Steve Jobs embraced the future, but he ushered in that future gently. He did not destroy the music industry; it was already on a precipitous decline and it continues its fall despite Jobs’ interference. He allowed space for the record industry, and the rest of us, to enter that future as naturally and ergonomically as possible. His coup consisted of taking what was already familiar and recasting it to accommodate an easy transition into the future. As he stated in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech: “you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”