PAT PILCHER looks at the demise of iTunes and buy-to-own vs streaming models like Spotify.
The multimedia Swiss army knife of apps known as iTunes is more than a little unusual in the world of tech. Apple launched its jukebox software back in 2001 and it’s credited with causing a tectonic shift in the way we consume music. But finally, a whopping 18 years later, it’s finally being put out of its misery.
The tech sector is a fast-moving place, so it’s no surprise that the super information highway is littered with the corpses of obsolete software. Anyone remember WordPerfect 5.1? That iTunes has managed to last 18 years really is nothing to sneeze at.
Having launched MacOS 10.15 Catalina, all the chores that were handled by iTunes are now handled by three separate apps – Music, TV, and Podcasts, which all do what the label on the tin says. This also means that it’s the end of the road for iTunes, which is to vacate its place right at the very heart of Apple’s content ecosystem. iTunes used to handle iPod synching, iPhone activation, podcasts, music and video and so on. From now on, syncing iDevices will be dealt with by Finder on Macs which will backup, restore and update iDevices directly. Windows users, however, will continue to be stuck with iTunes – for now.
iTunes is a story of software that started out being incredibly useful, only to eventually go to fat and ruin. When it launched, it was a slick and intuitive music management tool. Spotting duplicate tracks and updating ID3 tags for your music library was, to put it simply, a piece of piss.
But like Elvis, iTunes didn’t age well. It went from a shiny, slim application superstar that did a few things exceptionally well to a bloated mess that tried to do it all while begging for yet another a deep-fried peanut butter sandwich (okay, software update) every time you ran it. Where it used to be intuitive and a joy to use, iTunes senior had many users scratching their heads in dismay at its convoluted and unintuitive design.
Back in the day, many – myself included – lamented the fact that the only way to get digital music without breaking the law via piracy was buying and ripping CDs into mp3 files. It was a time-consuming task. An unfortunate by-product was the sheer volume of boxes stuffed full of CDs that had to be tucked out of the way somewhere.
Before the iTunes music store, using iTunes was part and parcel of owning an iPod. While us Kiwis couldn’t buy music from the store initially, iTunes made ripping mp3s from a CD a pain-free undertaking. Even better still, organising tracks into a half decent playlist was dead easy with iTunes. Finally, on Wednesday, December 6, 2006 (a full 18 months after Australia and an incredible three years after the US/UK), Apple decided that us poor Third World antipodeans should have music, and launched the iTunes store in New Zealand. It was now possible to pay for music and download it instead of pirating. The era of legal downloads had begun.
The sheer popularity of the iPod (remember that back then, white-on-white earbuds were everywhere) and by extension, iTunes, saw Apple dominating the digital download space. Soon the focus had moved from buying from an entire $35 CD to purchasing individual tracks for $1.99. Crappy b-side tracks died the death they so richly deserved.
This didn’t last very long. In 2008, streamed music from Spotify launched and became the norm. It wasn’t long before the iTunes download-to-own business began to fall by the wayside. Managing a vast music library was simply no longer necessary when almost every song you could imagine was searchable and available as streamed audio – all for a monthly fee.
So has the rise of streamed audio been a good thing? The simple (and not so simple answer) is both yes and a no. Under the old iTunes model, you bought the music and that was it. No more money changed hands and you could treat your ears to sonic tonic as often as you liked without rummaging around for chimp change.
Not any more. Now if you want tunage, you’ve got to cough up a monthly fee. The music industry realised that convenience outweighs economics and that we’re a lazy lot, so a small fee each month where there used to be a one-off cost is now the price of music. An ongoing revenue stream is also a lot more profitable than a one-off sale and music piracy is now largely a thing of the past.
This brings me to the next rub of streaming. Audio quality. Quality can vary depending on what streaming service you use, as well as how much bandwidth you stream music over. While there’s a free version of Spotify, it’s littered with adverts, and its audio quality is average. The paid version sounds slightly better and isn’t littered with adverts, but this all comes at a cost each month. There are higher quality streaming services such as Tidal – whose audio is comparable to CD – but you’re still effectively borrowing the tunes for a monthly fee.
Streaming vs download to own arguments aside, the multi-billion-dollar question on the lips of iTunes users everywhere is, “What the hell will happen to my music library?”. Thankfully, the news isn’t bad. According to Apple’s press release, “Users will have access to their entire music library, whether they downloaded the songs, purchased them or ripped them from a CD”.
RIP iTunes, it’s been real.