When Steve Jobs made the rounds of the major record labels in 2000, he knew he had them over a barrel.
Music piracy, pushed into high gear by the original Napster the previous June, was a threat to the recorded music industry. The new frontier of music was online, and labels were completely ill-equipped to deal with the biggest change in music distribution in a century. They had to get into the business of selling music digitally, but how?
Oh, the labels tried to build their own download stores, but Pressplay (originally called Duet and owned by Universal and Sony) and Musicnet (all the other big ones) were miserable failures. First, they were expensive. For $15 a month, fans could stream 500 songs each month, get 50 songs downloads and the ability to burn each of those songs to a CD 10 times.
Third, the labels couldn’t work together on a unified platform because that would have violated all sorts of antitrust rules, a legal situation that also helps thwart the labels’ proposed purchase of Napster.
The record companies had all the digital products but had no way to distribute and sell them. Apple’s iTunes offered a way out of this predicament.
Jobs convinced the record labels that allowing him to sell individual songs for 99 cents each was the way to go. And because the labels had no idea what they were doing, and because Apple promised to spend millions on marketing (not to mention they had this new device called the iPod), all the labels signed to the iTunes Music Store.
His speech worked and boom: the music industry was changed forever.
There were other attempts to create digital music stores. Cductive was founded in 1996 and sold MP3 downloads for 99 cents (was acquired by electronic music in 1999). Sony debuted Bitmusic in Japan in 1999, offering mostly singles by Japanese artists (it flopped). Factory Records launched Music33, which offered downloads for 33p each (ditto). There was even a Canadian digital music store called Puretracks that was around a nanosecond long.
Nothing beats iTunes, especially when the record labels agreed to remove all DRM locks in 2007. (I still have songs on my computer in the old .mp4a format that are locked and can’t be freely transferred from one place to another.) it soon became the norm that all releases were available through iTunes.
And because the iTunes Music Store was so easy to use on every computer (offering a Windows version was a big deal), it became the go-to destination for buying digital albums and tracks. At one point, iTunes was responsible for 70 percent of all digital music sales. Almost all of the would-be challengers were crushed. Hey, does anyone remember hmvdigital.com?
But the whole switch from selling plastic pieces to digital tracks left a bad taste in the mouths of record labels. They had ceded distribution of their product entirely to a third party who charged a 30 percent commission for each file sold. They swore not to let that happen again.
Fast forward to today. Streaming, not downloading, is king and record labels have a firm grip on how streamers can do business. They made over $10 billion from streaming in 2022. They also continually receive petabytes and petabytes of data about how music fans consume music.
And because streaming is so cheap, or even free, music piracy is a fraction of what it used to be.
As a result, digital album and track sales continue to plummet. In Canada, digital album sales are down 15.9% from this time last year and digital track sales are down 7.5%. Streaming, meanwhile, is up 13.9 percent over the previous year, as Canadians reliably stream around 2.3 billion songs per week.
I can make the situation sound even more dire. In 2012, we bought 1.3 billion digital tracks. Last year we bought 152 million. That’s a slump of 88.6 percent in a decade. These numbers are obviously not good. Paid downloads are fast becoming the next cassette.
Sales were once front and center on the iTunes home page. Now you have to do some searching for the iTunes Music Store when you open the app. If you go to Amazon, a search for MP3 takes you to a page promoting streaming and the physical product. Neither company breaks out the amount of digital music they sell in their financial reports.
So here’s the question: How long will Apple support iTunes? Hell, how much longer? all digital track/album sales have? Let me issue a plea that this never happens.
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I desperately need iTunes to continue due to my job. I need to get full and legal access to the songs to produce my radio show, The ongoing history of new music, so I buy up to a dozen songs a week. My Mac tells me that I have 79,655 items spanning 564.65 gigabytes in my library. A not insignificant number of those songs are iTunes downloads.
There are many uses for downloads. DJs need files that they can mix as part of their sets. Older music fans who grew up on the diet of buying CDs and vinyl also like iTunes because it offers permanent ownership rather than renting music from streamers. Insiders know that if an artist’s downloads increase, it can show that the artist has moved to a previous demo.
Artists can also earn a decent income from iTunes, especially after being in the news for something. Paid downloads are on the rise and pay much, much more than streaming. Artists, labels, and managers also monitor iTunes for songs that might appear on the iTunes charts, a possible indication that something interesting is going on.
What are the options if iTunes disappears like Google Play Music did? Well, there are other digital music storefronts. Is the mentioned electronic music, which went online selling DRM-free MP3s in January 1998, three years before iTunes debuted. He has contracts with the major record labels and dozens of indies. Unlike iTunes and Amazon Music, it is a download site for purchase that requires the purchase of a monthly membership. Its library isn’t as deep as iTunes (15 million songs vs. at least 60 million), but it can get the job done for some people.
The most exciting digital music storefronts are the ones that sell lossless hi-res files for people who demand the highest audio quality. For example, 7 digital will sell you all kinds of digital music, including many 24-bit FLAC files. That’s great, if you have the necessary hardware.
same goes for professional study teachers (I used it quite a bit to buy FLAC files.) If that’s your problem, be sure to check HD Tracks and from France Qobuz. which will debut in Canada later this year.
DJs and fans of dance music have known for a long time Beatport. If you like the indie side of things, you’ve probably bought a download or two of band camp. and then there is beepwhich focuses on independent artists and labels.
Still, though, it’s hard to beat iTunes for selection and functionality. I really, really hope Apple doesn’t do something stupid like kill it off. But with the music industry sales figures coming every week, you have to wonder how much things can drop before it’s time to move on.
If that day comes, it will be very, very sad.
alan cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
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