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Why the iTunes Store succeeded

Christopher Breen | April 29, 2013
The traditional tenth anniversary gifts of tin and aluminum are appropriate for the iTunes Store. Both durable and somewhat flexible, the iTunes Store has become the preeminent place to purchase music. Still, if not for the unintended assistance of a bungling music industry, the store might have been as ephemeral as iTunes’ social service, Ping.

The traditional tenth anniversary gifts of tin and aluminum are appropriate for the iTunes Store. Both durable and somewhat flexible, the iTunes Store has become the preeminent place to purchase music. Still, if not for the unintended assistance of a bungling music industry, the store might have been as ephemeral as iTunes social service, Ping.

Seeing the present through the past

The history of music retailing goes something like this. Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s the LP (Long Play album) was the long-form audio format du jour. If you wanted to purchase just a single song, you bought a 45-rpm disc, a smaller record that featured a hit song on side A and a lesser-known song on the B side. As tape players began to show up in homes and cars, 8-track tapes and cassettes became popular. You could purchase cassette singles, though they werent terribly popular.

As the 60s ended and the 70s began, albums increasingly became worksconceived as a whole rather than as just a collection of tunes to surround an artists chart topper. As a result, the single became less important. And the advent of audio compact discs in the 80s did nothing to enhance the singles popularity. Record companies claimed that the CD manufacturing process was expensive and so charged a premium for CD singles. Also, music buyers had become accustomed to listening to music uninterrupted for an hour or more. The idea of changing media after just a few minutes to play a single seemed quaint.

At the same time, with cassette decks a common part of an audio system, consumers had a way to make recordings of their records and CDs (and other cassettes if they had a dubbing deck) and then share that music with others via mixtapes. So common was the practice that people started to develop the idea that music could be freely (and legally) shared.

Labels under pressure

Fast-forward to the very late days of the 20th century, when computer programs were developed that could create digital copies of music stored on CDs. Ripping CDs because common practice. With the help of broadband Internet connections, people could share this music far more widely than ever before. And they did so by the truckloadvia peer-to-peer sharing sites such as the original Napster.

The new Music Store in iTunes 4

From there, the story moves to the boardrooms of the major music labels of the day. CD sales were dropping, the singles market had mostly vanished save for dance music, music was increasingly shared illegally, the labels efforts to market and sell their music online was a hodgepodge of failures, and too many executives (and their lobbying groups) held stubbornly to the idea that if only music could be copy-protected and the worst file sharers prosecuted, the problem would disappear.

 

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