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The iTunes Store at 10: How Apple reinvented the music business

Michael Gowan | April 29, 2013
As I write this paragraph, I'm enjoying a playlist that I created from among the thousands of songs on my iPhone, and it's no big deal. It wasn't always so simple: Once upon a time, crafting the perfect playlist for your MP3 player felt like an epic project. You had to rip the songs from a CD onto your computer, find sources--legitimate and otherwise--for tracks you didn't own, and then hope everything was in the right format to play on your portable device. Apple changed all that, thanks to a series of musical moves right at the dawn of the 21st century--not the least of which was the launch of the iTunes Music Store.

A pirate's life

The iTunes Music Store came along at a time when piracy plagued the music business. Crupnick says that at one point 50 percent of college students were using services like LimeWire to download tracks without paying for them.

Wider access to broadband gave piracy a boost, contends Josh Friedlander, vice president of strategic data analysis for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). But that same access to broadband also made a legal alternative like the iTunes Music Store possible.

When it launched, tracks on the iTunes Music Store came with FairPlay, Apple's DRM. You could listen to a song on up to five computers and burn a playlist ten times. That put some restrictions on users, but FairPlay didn't get in the way of listening to your music as much as other DRM schemes did, NPD's Crupnick says.

Still, some dispute what impact the iTunes Music Store really had on stopping piracy. In the first five years of the store's existence, piracy continued unabated. After all, Mulligan notes, not even iTunes could give pirates what they really wanted--unlimited music, wherever they want it, whenever they want it, for free. Analysts think continued litigation by the RIAA and rights holders as well as the rise of free streaming options did more to stem piracy than Apple's music store.

Do the evolution

The iTunes Music Store changed the landscape of digital music instantly, but it also has continuously evolved over the past decade as entertainment and technology have changed. Consider some of these adaptations rolled out by Apple over the years:

  • The iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, introduced by Apple in 2007, as a way for iPod and iPhone users to buy music straight from their devices. These days, every iOS device ships with mobile stores for both entertainment and apps already installed.
  • Apple dropping DRM in 2009, following the lead of competing services like Amazon's MP3 music store.
  • iTunes Plus, Apple's first foray (in 2007) into DRM-free music. It also offered songs encoded at higher bit rates for better sound quality.
  • Adding more cloud-based services such iTunes in the Cloud and later iTunes Match to let you download tracks you've bought to any of your devices.

iTunes has also moved beyond music, even dropping the word "Music" from its name. These days, iTunes is more of an entertainment store, where you could buy or rent movies and TV shows, download books, and--of course--load up on mobile apps.

Apps, introduced as a section of the iTunes Store in 2008, also wound up creating some competition for its music business. Through apps like Pandora, you could stream music over your iOS device--no purchase necessary. Now, with subscription services like Spotify and Rdio, you have access to millions of songs, anytime, anywhere (though not for free).


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