How Apple Transformed Music and Our Lives

Remember when an Internet-based jukebox of infinite depth was just a dream?

iPod and iphone through the years
iTunes logos and device photos copyright Apple Inc.

Originally published: Dec. 2009
Last Updated: Sept. 2015

It’s hard to adequately explain just how profoundly the combination of the iPod and iTunes, and Apple’s wise management of them, has transformed our lives in the last 15 years. Perhaps the only way to truly understand it is to have been a computer/Internet/music lover in 2000.

But even recalling that time isn’t easy. It’s hard to clearly remember a time without the iPod and iTunes. It feels like they’ve always been with us.

The Internet and the transition to digital have accelerated the kinds of sweeping historical, technological, and cultural transformations that used to take many decades. The transformation isn’t complete yet—take the newspaper industry flailing over its dying model as one example—but it’s happening faster than ever before.

The evolution of the iPod and iTunes is a microcosm of the many sweeping changes— entertainment, business, and culture—of the last decade and a half.

The iPod: From the Sidelines to Leader of the Pack

Not everyone knows it, but the iPod wasn't the first MP3 player. In fact, Apple let the MP3 player market develop for years before it stepped in.

Though dozens of devices had come before it, the iPod was the best of the bunch the moment it debuted. Its simple interface and ease of loading music were unparalleled. That simplicity remained at the heart of the iPod even as it gained more, and more powerful, features.

It wasn’t obvious that the iPod would go on to sell hundreds of millions of units. At its debut, the iPod held 1,000 songs and only worked on the Mac. Some dismissed the device, deeming it another Apple niche product. (That’s another major change the iPod/iTunes axis has caused: Apple is now a major cultural and financial player. For years now, it's been trading the title most valuable company in the world with a handful of other big companies.)

In 2001, MP3 players were the definition of an early-adopter product. With them—or their descendants, smartphones—seemingly in every pocket or bag, the stark contrast between then and now is clear.

Bringing your entire music collection with you was practically unthinkable before the iPod. At the time the iPod was introduced, I wanted to take my music library—about 200 CD—with me. My best option was a CD player that played MP3 CDs. The player cost $250 and would have required me to carry 20+ CDs. More portable than 200, but that hardly fits into a pocket! The iPod changed all that. Today, my phone has over 12,000 songs on it and lots of room left over.

Before the iPod, music wasn’t everywhere. After it, all entertainment is portable. As a mobile media player, the iPod laid the groundwork for smartphones, the Kindle, and other mobile devices.

To quantify the impact of the iPod, try this: count the number of people you know who don’t have MP3 players or smartphones.

Think about that. Sure, there products almost everyone has—a TV, a car, a phone, whatever—but those are categories and products from many different companies. That’s not the case with MP3 players. If more than 20% of the MP3 player owners in your life have something other than an iPod, I’d be shocked.

That’s how you measure a culture-wide shift.

iTunes Takes the Stage

When the decade began, iTunes existed, but not as we know it today. It started life as SoundJam MP. Apple bought it in 2000 and rechristened it iTunes in 2001.

The original iTunes didn’t transfer music to the iPod (which didn’t exist yet) and didn’t sell music downloads. It simply ripped CDs and played MP3s.

In 2000, there was no major online store for downloadable music. But there was a dream: a jukebox of infinite depth, hosted on the Internet, that anyone could use to hear any song ever recorded whenever they wanted.

That dream was widely shared, and many companies tried to realize it. Some—Napster and, most notably—came close, but failed under the weight of music-industry lawsuits. Because there was no good legal option for downloads, piracy thrived.

Then came the iTunes Store. It debuted in 2003, with major and indie label content, fair prices—$0.99 for a song, $9.99 for most albums—and a not-unreasonable digital rights management scheme.

Just how hungry consumers were for this can be summed up in one statistic: in just eight years, iTunes went from an upstart digital music store to the world’s largest music retailer.

The world’s largest. Not the largest online, the largest anywhere. It flourished while consumers bought more music than maybe ever before and major music stores—Tower Records, comes to mind—went out of business. There’s hardly a better metaphor for the shift from physical to digital in this decade than that. To put an even finer point on it, Apple is now perhaps the key player in the music industry, given the power of iTunes and the iPhone for promotion and distribution.

ITunes also changed how we interact with media. Now we expect to get the media we want whenever we want it. We watch TV on our schedule, any music can be had for a few mouse clicks. Apple didn’t create them, but it's the major distributor of podcasts. They're now an integral part of the media landscape.

These days, people are more likely to download or stream music than buy a CD (many have given up physical music entirely; if I can’t get a song online, I usually don’t get it at all), and this transition is drastically changing business. It’s lead to successful regional music chains like Newbury Comics being convinced that their existence is threatened despite having 28 stores throughout New England (by 2015, that number was down to 26).

ITunes—along with Napster at the start of the decade and MySpace in the middle—trained a generation of music lovers that the Internet is the first, best place to go for music. As so many other industries have learned, once the switch to digital starts, there’s no going back.

This is the way it is—at least until another epochal change upends digital downloads.

Apple Responds to Streaming with Apple Music

By 2013, a new change was in full swing and Apple was playing catch up. Sales of music downloads were getting smaller, replaced by streaming music services. Instead of owning music, users paid a monthly subscription for all the music they wanted. It was an even better version of the infinite jukebox that had inspired Napster and iTunes.

The major streaming players, especially Spotify, had tens of millions of users. But Apple was still clinging to its download-focused approach with iTunes.

Until it wasn't. In 2014, Apple made its largest acquisition ever, spending US$3 billion to purchase Beats Music, which boasted an extremely successful line of headphones and speakers, as well as a streaming music service.

Apple spent a year transforming that music service and in June 2015 debuted Apple Music. That service, available for the industry-standard price of $10/month, lets users stream virtually any song in the iTunes Store, added the much-praised Beats 1 streaming radio station, and more. Now, Apple is competing head-to-head with Spotify, on Spotify's own turf.

The initial reviews for Apple Music have been mixed, but Apple's strategy in the 21st century has been to let others pioneer new technologies and then come in and dominate them later.

Only time will tell if it can work the same magic on streaming music as it did MP3 players, smartphones, digital download, and tablets. But with so much success over the last 15 years, I wouldn't bet against Apple.