00:00 Jordan: We come together today not to mourn a historic piece of software, even though it did kind of suck. But to celebrate it.
00:09 News Clip: We begin with iTunes. Now ITunes started completely focused, rip mix and burn songs on your Mac. The future of Apple music, our iTunes is not one app, but three, Apple music, Apple podcasts and Apple TV.
00:31 Jordan: And that was it. A few words from Apple’s software VP, Craig Federici, and that was the end of iTunes. And really, it was the end of a unique media era. This little piece of software, at least it was little when it launched, was a gateway for a few of the biggest changes in music history. ITunes bridged the gap from physical media to digital, and it played a key role in normalizing illegal downloading, ushered in the era of paid digital music, and finally when the industry had gone completely digital and all music everywhere was available for a monthly fee, iTunes was irrelevant… and now it’s gone. So how much credit or blame should this program get for changing the way an industry does business? What legacy does it leave behind as it goes? How did it impact the way we consume media? And yeah, it really wasn’t that great, so why are we celebrating it?
01:39 Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings and this is The Big Story. Alyssa Bereznak` is a reporter who covers tech and culture at TheRinger dot com in New York City. Hi Alyssa.
01:49 Alyssa: Hey, how’s it going?
01:50 Jordan: It’s going well? Are you a member of the iTunes generation?
01:53 Alyssa: I am indeed. It was a huge part of my identity as a child, and I spent a lot of time in that software. Pretty much the most intense meta data entry I’ve ever done.
02:03 Jordan: Do you remember some of the first albums or songs you put into it when it started?
02:08 Alyssa: Yes, I mean mostly at the beginning it was my mom’s CD collection. So… both of my parents. So my mom’s CD collection has a lot of like feminist singers. Like I remember memorizing that Alanis Morissette CD, and definitely some of like soundtracks to movies and things like that. You know, she didn’t have a huge CD collection, and then my dad was very into jazz, so I was really up on Herbie Hancock and like a bunch of other people that I probably wouldn’t have learned about otherwise.
02:37 Jordan: Did you name drop Alanis because you’re on a Canadian podcast?
02:41 Alyssa: No, I really didn’t. I actually really love Alanis Morissette.
02:45 Jordan: Fair enough but iTunes died this week and you wrote a piece about it for the ringer, and we wanted to talk to you because of the way you kind of captured an era. So maybe start with why was iTunes originally created? What was it supposed to be and do?
02:58 Alyssa: When it was created in 2001, at the beginning of 2001, it was a competitor to Media File Player or something like that. But those players were kind of historically very buggy because they were on the window systems and iTunes was pitched as a virus free MP3 player, and when it came out in early 2001 there was an ad with the slogan Rip, Mix, Burn. And that was to advertise the ease at which you could load music, put it into a mixed playlist, and burn it onto a CD. And that you know, for its first year of existence was what everyone used it for.
03:34 Jordan: Take us back a little bit to the music landscape at that time because it’s just so different from what it is now. Where did people get music? Find music, store music, etc.
03:44 Alyssa: Sure I would say as a teen, there were probably three main places that I got music. I mean there are adults who had spent their whole life collecting music in record form or CD forms, so they had their their giant music collections in CD format already. But as a teen, I basically discovered music through the radio, on MTV, and then, you know, if I could save up my allowance and go to Sam Goody, I don’t know what you have in Canada, but Sam Goody was a big CD store for us, and that was it. And then, you know, pretty soon there were a peer to peer file sharing networks that started popping up most famously Napster, but also LimeWire and Casa. And those were the places where you could get as much music as you wanted for free. It wasn’t necessarily legal, but that’s how everyone was doing it. So, you know, originally, iTunes came out and they;The idea was that you could load on your CDs and you know, turn those CDs into a bunch of different playlists that you could then burn onto more CDs. But in reality, a lot of people were stealing music off the Internet and then just loading it into their iTunes library so that they could amass this giant collection. And I mean, it was it was amazing. It was like well, what we have now, which is unlimited access to all songs all the time.
05:02 Jordan: Tell me about that process because you wrote about it and it brought back a lot of vivid memories of finding the music, getting it to iTunes and turning it into a CD.
05:12 Alyssa: It was such a process. I was so dedicated. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this dedicated to anything else to be honest.
05:17 Jordan: We all were because it was so new and it was a limitless world, and so what would you have to do to get some music?
05:24 Alyssa: Yeah, so the first step is either I go to my parents CD collection or I go to the library and I get a CD and I load it, that’s the easy version. The harder version and the one that I did quite frequently was I loaded Napster up, and usually at a time when my parents weren’t using the family computer because then it was in the family room and usually overnight, I sort of cued up a bunch of different songs that I wanted to download. They took forever to download because everyone’s Internet connection was terrible, and so I would leave them overnight, in the morning I would check on them. Some would languish, you know, some just couldn’t make it overnight, and some would make it to the end, and those were the ones that I would then move the file to the iTunes library, and I would spend time correcting the text in the title and the artists, all the metadata. Sometimes people who shared files on Napster would add their own signature to the metadata to sort of mark a file, and so I removed that. And then I would add the album art. It was very hard sometimes to find non pixilated album art… very small JPGs on the Internet at the time, and at the end it would sort of be like a music laundering process. It was like through this labeling system in this meta data entry, I was able to legitimize the track so that it no longer came from, or no longer appear to come from a sketchy source online. And it, you know, once I had an iPod, it would show up on my iPod the way I wanted it to.
06:54 Jordan: It seems like something out of decades and decades ago, the process that you’re describing. And what is fascinating to me about all the conversations we’ve had about iTunes this week is that really people were doing that until, you know, like, 12 years ago. This is not ancient history.
07:10 Alyssa: Yeah, it seems so far away and I think it just speaks to the intense acceleration of technology now. And even just this idea of ownership is completely shifted. That was a huge mindset that people had for a really long time. People really wanted to own their own media files and they felt really possessive of them. I wrote in my piece that it was part of my identity you know, that whole process was kind of like music flashcards to me and it really engaged me with the music and the artist. You know, I felt more bonded to it, I felt like I had invested time, and therefore I felt more loyalty to these people and closer to the songs. And I think maybe that there’s a little bit more distance now when I can listen to any artist, anytime I want, I start to sort of take that for granted.
07:59 Jordan: What does it say now that the software that everyone used as recently as a decade ago to kind of bridge that gap between physical media and digital media is useless now has been surpassed by streaming services, by better versions of the same thing, by the cloud that doesn’t even need you to physically load the files up. When you think about your music collection now what do you think of?
08:23 Alyssa: I don’t actually think of anything physical it’s kind of amazing. Though I will say I still have my 40 gig brick oven iPod on an all tech Lansing speaker, and they kind of exist like symbiotically, and sometimes I’ll play it, but that’s a very specific case. I mean, the music that I have, it’s on Spotify. That’s the particular streaming service that I use, and I don’t think of it tangibly. I guess I think about it in terms of what speaker I play it on, but I think it’s in a way it’s also more exciting because music can be integrated into our life in a much more seamless way. It may be less intentional you know, it’s not like sitting down with everyone and listening to a record the way college students before me, before iTunes did, you know. But it is definitely a way to infuse music in almost everything we’re doing. And sometimes that’s a great way to sort of get closer to an artist when you’re on a commute or something like that. But other times it’s a tool to zone out and and I think that that’s when you get that lessened engagement.
09:28 Jordan: Do you make playlists on Spotify the same way you used to on iTunes?
09:32 Alyssa: I actually make my playlist on Spotify differently because there is a social feature on Spotify, which means you can share it with people. So one of my favorite spotify pastimes is actually making a playlist with someone, and we come up with a theme together and we share the link. I mean, it could be a decision we made while chatting on the Internet or a decision we made because we’re planning an event in person. But it’s much more interactive and much more social and Spotify itself to its credit, like they have, ah, social feed that shows you what people are listening to at any given time. I personally have turned that feature off because I listen to the same embarrassing song over and over and over again. But in a way it’s enhanced the listening experience in new ways. There was a feature like that on iTunes for a little bit, but I still think that the stream-able music and the fact that everyone can access the same library at all times is incredibly helpful for sort of making that a communal experience.
10:31 Jordan: Well it’s interesting because before you said when you were loading that music onto iTunes in the old fashioned way, that you felt a sense of identity to it, that, you know, this was who you were and you were choosing that carefully and then you just said that I actually turned that feature off on Spotify even though it’s available because I don’t want people to see what I’m listening to. So when did we change from music being the public facing identity that we self select to actually I’d rather listen to my old songs in private?
11:01 Alyssa: It’s very interesting that you think of identity as a public thing because I actually was thinking like it was just my identity for myself. When I was a teen, I was under my parents control. They owned most of the property in our home like they got to choose what we listen to in the car, or watched on the TV and the iTunes library was something that I owned. You know, I could keep that on my hard drive, and you know, in a way, it was the beginning of my identity because I felt I was like pulling from culture and deciding what was me and then sort of organizing it for myself. So, you know, I mean publicly you could definitely assert your musical tastes, and people love to do that, and it’s for some people. It’s for not for me. But I definitely think that those are two different kinds of identities. You know, the performative this is what I like to listen to identity and then the one where you’re actually a sort of building who you are based on your personal collection.
11:59 Jordan: What happened to iTunes that made it no longer relevant. Aside, maybe, from changing how we consume digital media. What happened to the software itself over the years?
12:09 Alyssa: I think what happened was Apple just really felt like they could make it a catch all for all media. There was, I think, in 2003 is when they introduced the iTunes store, and that’s when you could buy songs for 99 cents each. And then soon after that, they added TV and movies and podcasts, and all of those things lived in iTunes. And also iTunes was used to update your iPhone or your iPod. So it started to become this really central hub for Apple but in that process, it became really hard to navigate for the user. It was very bloated, you know that they’re really big media files, especially if you’re working with a movie or something, and if you’re saving that on your hard drive that can really frees up your software. At the same time, apples devices were moving away from that. They were getting smaller, they were getting thinner and they needed to move to the clouds. So their whole original sort of concept of ownership, which Steve Jobs definitely pitched to the beginning, he emphasized in his presentation of iTunes, that its important people own their media. You know, Apple had to move away from that because their devices were just incompatible with that philosophy ,and so, ultimately, that’s when iTunes started getting very inconvenient, and people started turning to services like Pandora….. Netflix, eventually Spotify because it was just more lightweight and you didn’t have to worry about managing this giant amount of data when your laptop was never going to fit that, you know, you’d have to buy an external hard drive if you wanted to really double down on your old library.
13:48 Jordan: Does Apple get credit, or do they even deserve credit because, like you mentioned they’re kind of; iTunes became mostly a music laundering service for a lot of the young people using it, but then they introduced the store and the 99 cent song, and I guess at the time it was 9.99 for a lot of albums. Do they get enough credit for sort of being the first to move digital music away from the Wild West? Cause I can’t remember anybody thinking about paying for music online before iTunes.
14:14 Alyssa: Yeah, I think it really depends on the culture that you grew up in. You know, I was in Silicon Valley as a teen, and so everyone had computers. They knew about Napster, it was just like you’re never going to pay for music. The moral argument would not work on them, but I know plenty of other people who, like immediately bluff to that format. And in reality, iTunes transformed the music industry by taking a lot of power out of the hands of the record companies and in some ways making it more difficult for artists to make money. You know, like they started to devalue this concept of the CD, which you know that was really a cash cow for artists and people could just buy a single as opposed to the whole album. They didn’t have to invest in the artists in the same way. So it was the beginning of a very tumultuous time in the music industry that has led us to some of the tensions that we’ve been witnessing in the streaming era in terms of value and artists rights.
15:14 Jordan: I talked to a friend this week about this, and he said, do you remember paying 19.99 for an album and only knowing you liked one song before you actually opened it and listened to it?
15:23 Alyssa: Yeah, it’s kind of hard to believe we would do that. I mean, I guess it’s like that was an example of why media was so important than you would have to read a review in a magazine and get an idea of what the sound was like before ever even hearing it. I mean, we’re just so spoiled now. In a way, I missed that, though there’s more mystery, and you’re paying attention more because you really paid for it, it’s just kind of amazing. Now, you know in contrast, I think an example with tic toc, which, you know, the Social Media Network were there are video challenges that teens are really crazy about. That’s how people listen to music now. For instance Lil Nas X, a rapper who sang Old Town Road
16:13 Alyssa: He has basically introduced his music via that platform, and we only know that one song, and that’s the only song he has. You know, like the artists themselves are shaping themselves to this environment. He didn’t have to put out an album I mean, he probably will now, but it was never a necessity. So in a way, the formatting of music is also changing. Like artists know that maybe they just need a single and they need to nurse it on the Internet until it goes viral, and then they can take that next step of an album.
16:44 Jordan: If the infrastructure for CDs and even iTunes purchases of entire albums and that feeling of ownership that keeps coming up. If that’s just gone now, how do musicians building connection to their fan base in this era?
17:00 Alyssa: I mean, so much of it is things that have nothing to do with music. You know, the big games, like the Taylor Swift’s and the Beyonce’s and the Drakes. It’s all through shows, and it’s all through merchandise, it’s all through their own branding efforts, you know, like the collaborations with different companies, commercials. So it’s a lot about creating your own identity and your brand, and social media has given artist plenty of tools to do that, but they rely on that, especially new artists to advertise who they are and what they stand for. So identity is so much more important these days. I think it’s much harder for shy artists to get out there, though we do have a couple and I would say that, yeah, that’s the way that you support an artist now. You’re buying into the religion of Beyonce or sort of the cultural impact of Drake. It’s not just about you liking their music.
18:00 Jordan: When we look back at iTunes, um and not just now, but a few years from now. What will its legacy be? Was it a success? Was it a failure? I mean, almost everything we’ve talked about today is about how it either enabled music stealing or didn’t succeed at what it hoped to do.
18:14 Speaker 1: I think it was a success in the sense that like we think about it with such heart and nostalgia. You know, this conversation is a fond one even if we are kind of poking fun at how bloated it eventually become.
18:24 Jordan: Ya why is that? Why do we think back on such a bad piece of software so fondly?
18:30 Alyssa: I think it’s the same way that the generation before, like, talked about the eight track like they hated the track but it was this necessary piece of tech that bridged to errors of technology, it bridged two listening experience eras. So, you know, I think we talk about it because we like that we struggled. We liked that we worked hard for it, and there’s a value to spending time with the software and getting intimate with it. It sounds kind of bizarre, but I just like deeply believed that the Internet can help us form important formative memories just like everyday experiences.
19:09 Jordan: This is probably the oldest sounding question I’ve ever asked, but do kids these days then have it too easy?
19:14 Alyssa: You know, I I want to say that when I was, you know, ripping music and transferring it to iTunes, I remember this sort of old slogan from get off my lawn types, you know, they would just say kids these days, they’re never going to appreciate music. They just have it super easy with these MP3’s, and so you know that’s the same narrative that we’re talking about now. You could say that there’s less engagement and less knowledge from kids nowadays because they might just learn about an artist from an algorithmicely generated playlist. But at the same time, you know, maybe they’re creating a tic toc challenge to a song, and that’s how they formed their memory to it, and in a way, that’s a new form of engagement. It’s definitely not the same sort of mundane metadata that we did, but that is a way me to sort of familiarize yourself with an artist and its formative. So, yeah, I think my short answer is yes, we all have it too easy. It’s not just kids these days, but hopefully they’ll find their own way to connect with music in a unique and important way.
20:20 Jordan: And in the meantime, we will just get older.
20:22 Alyssa: Exactly. I’m right there with you.
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