How iTunes changed music

Apple announced Monday that it’s retiring iTunes and splitting the service into separate music, podcast, and TV apps. The changes will take effect for Mac users in the fall.

Although some form of iTunes will live on in iPhones, iPads and Windows devices, Apple is essentially phasing out iTunes as we know it.

In the 18 years it was around before Apple announced its demise, though, iTunes transformed music.

Before iTunes, the music industry preferred physical CDs, cassette tapes, and vinyl records. Napster, file piracy, and listening to music on Windows Music Player were all for a time common ways for listeners to get their music, but it was iTunes that fast-tracked the popularity of digital downloads — at least paid ones. It signed up the major music labels to bring exclusive tracks from artists like the Black Eyed Peas, Mary J. Blige, The Rolling Stones, and Yo-Yo Ma to Apple devices.

iTunes proceeded to help kill CD sales by selling digital albums for $10 and singles for 99 cents.

By 2012, over 75% of all music-related transactions were digital singles, according to the RIAA.

“There was a time when every Mac had iTunes running full-time. For me, that time was college. iTunes was never perfect, but I vividly remember spending hours organizing playlists,” said Lex Friedman, who wrote a book on iTunes Match and is also the chief revenue officer at audio platform Art19. “It was never the sexiest nor speediest app, but for managing music, it was great, and it was Apple’s, and it worked.”

iTunes was also one of the rare products that Apple allowed to run outside of its ecosystem. Apple brought iTunes to Windows in 2003.

“People should never forget that at one time, (iTunes) was one of the best and most important software titles in the world, on both Mac and Windows,” Walt Mossberg, Recode co-founder and tech journalist, told CNN Business. “It was also one of the most frequently installed by consumers.”

iTunes no longer on top

These days, iTunes is no longer king or as beloved.

In recent years, its growth has been outpaced by streaming services like Spotify and Apple’s own Apple Music. Streaming revenue was up 30% year over year in 2018, while digital downloads were down 26%, according to a report from RIAA.

Jack Kent, executive director of media and advertising at IHS Markit, said iTunes’ death was due to a shift away from people feeling like they needed to own the songs to which they wanted to listen to simply paying a fee for access to a “single comprehensive library of content” like Spotify or Apple Music.

And the app is no longer as fun to use as it once was.

“In recent years, iTunes turned into a bloated mess. It had too many tasks and features,” Mossberg said. “So I like the idea of splitting it into separate, more media-centric apps.”

Friedman agreed: “As Apple started packing more and more into iTunes — iPod syncing which made some sense; iPhone syncing, which didn’t; movies, audiobooks, apps, TV shows…it became a mess.”

iTunes’ legacy?

iTunes will remain a marker for the early 2000s — and a reminder of how far our digital services have come since then.

As Friedman said, “iTunes will hold both a special and stressful place in my memory. I loved it and then eventually loved when I could avoid it as much as possible.”

For Apple, iTunes was an entry point into the homes of millions of users.

“Services like (iTunes) have enabled Apple to stand out compared to competition,” said Roberta Cozza, senior director analyst at Gartner. She pointed out that Apple used iTunes to prove it wasn’t just a hardware maker, but also an ecosystem owner.

She said the death of iTunes is exciting because Apple will have to fill that void with something even more valuable.

“An iTunes by any other name is still essentially iTunes,” said Dan Moren, a podcaster and tech journalist. “I’ll pour one out for the name, but after nearly two decades, I’m ready to move on to something better.”

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