iTunes marks ten years of changing the way we listen to music

Birthdays are curious occasions at their best, but when their context is the technology industry, they seem even stranger. For the tech industry, the past is something to be overcome, to be torn down and rebuilt and revised. Still, one cannot, it seems, ignore the milestones. This tension can be found in the various commemorative articles regarding iTunes’ tenth birthday.

When the iTunes store launched on April 28, 2003, it was essentially the only viable way to download music from the Internet legally. Long wedded to the immense profits of CD sales, the entire music industry took was in shock as peer-to-peer services and CD-ripping technology stripped music from labels’ control and made its free — and illegal — distribution over the Internet easy. At the time iTunes launched, there were other music services available, but these charged for access to music on a monthly basis, much like the premium versions of Spotify and Rdio today.

With one price point (99 cents) for all songs and the ability to buy songs separately from albums, iTunes had ease of use and accessibility going for it. It also had masterful marketing.

As Nathan Ingraham writes, “The ads sold you music and white earbuds, with the rest left to your imagination. When the iPod was first released, those white headphones were an exotic rarity that pointed to someone carrying a piece of bleeding edge technology, and after Apple’s silhouette commercials, they soon became a reminder of Apple’s dominance in the music world.”

ITunes quickly sold millions of tracks to millions of new iPod owners; the integration of hardware, software and digital service proved so compelling that it took years for viable competitors to launch comparable stores with any success. As of today, iTunes is still the dominant player in the music industry, having moved 25 billion songs as of this February (Time).

In the many articles commenting on the tenth anniversary, there was the expected range between the celebratory and the more skeptical. Firmly on the latter side of the spectrum is Wired’s Roberto Baldwin, whose article is almost an open letter to Apple suggesting ways the Cupertino-based company can revise their software.

He writes, “The iTunes Store turns 10 on Sunday, and during this decade, Apple has sold billions and billions of songs and apps out of its electronic storefront. But all those videos, apps and songs have crippled the once-great MP3 player,” echoing a common sentiment in the tech press lamenting the allegedly out-of-control growth in the software’s complexity over ten years.

Another point of criticism leveled at Apple and iTunes is the lack of a subscription service to compete with Spotify, Rdio and their cohort. Those subscription platforms have been rising in popularity despite occasional protests from artists about the lack of adequate royalty payments. So-called “access models” (as distinguished from purchasing models like iTunes) now make up about 15 percent of music industry revenue, and are growing rapidly.

Ingraham writes, “While many consumers are still happy to buy music from iTunes, there’s a growing population moving to more innovative services that are finally doing streaming subscriptions without the many bad decisions made by the many ‘iTunes killers’ that failed to make a dent.”

The legacy of iTunes, however, does not seem in doubt. It was and is a pioneer in digital storefronts that still commands a powerful place in the music industry’s market and history.