March 20, 2023

When Steve Jobs beat the big record labels in 2000, he knew he was fine with them.

Music piracy, hyped by the first Napster last June, posed a threat to the music industry. The new frontier for music was online, and labels were utterly unable to cope with the biggest shift in music distribution in a century. They needed to get into selling music digitally, but how?

Oh, labels tried to create their own download stores, but Pressplay (originally called Duet and owned by Universal and Sony) and Musicnet (every other big company) failed. First, they were expensive. For $15 a month, fans could stream 500 songs each month, receive 50 song downloads, and be able to burn each of those songs to CD 10 times.

Secondly, it was chaotic for the consumer. You needed to know what label the song or artist used to be on. The terms of use were confusing, and digital rights management (DRM) blocking files made them difficult to move and frustrating. It was much easier to just steal the music.

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Third, the labels couldn’t work together on a single platform because that would violate all sorts of antitrust rules, a legal situation that would also help to thwart the labels’ bid to buy Napster.

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The labels had all the digital products, but there was no way to distribute and sell them. iTunes from Apple offered a way out of this situation.

Jobs convinced labels that letting him sell individual songs for 99 cents each was the way to go. And because the labels had no idea what they were doing, and because Apple was willing to spend millions on marketing (not to mention they had this new gadget called the iPod), all the labels signed to the iTunes Music Store.

His pitch worked, and boom, the music industry changed forever.

There have been other attempts to create digital music stores. Cductive was founded in 1996 and sold MP3 files for 99 cents (acquired by eMusic in 1999). Sony debuted Bitmusic in Japan in 1999, offering mostly singles from Japanese artists (this failed). Factory Records launched Music33 which offered 33p downloads each (same). There was even a Canadian digital music store called Puretracks that lasted for about a nanosecond.

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Nothing beats iTunes, especially when the labels agreed to remove all DRM locks in 2007. (I still have songs on my computer in the old .mp4a format that are locked and cannot be freely transferred from one place to another.) It soon became mandatory that all releases be available through iTunes.

And because the iTunes Music Store was so easy to use on all computers (offering a Windows version was a huge success), it became a go-to place for buying digital albums and tracks. At one point, iTunes accounted for 70% of all digital music sales. Almost every potential challenger was crushed. Hey, does anyone remember

But the whole transition from selling pieces of plastic to digital tracks has left labels with a nasty aftertaste. They completely ceded distribution of their product to an outsider who took a 30 percent commission on every file sold. They swore that this would never happen again.

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Fast forward to today. Streaming, not downloading, is king, and labels have firm control over how streamers can do business. In 2022, they have earned over $10 billion from streaming. They also constantly receive petabytes and petabytes of data on how music lovers consume music.

And because streaming is so cheap or even free, music piracy is just a fraction of what it used to be.

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As a result, sales of digital tracks and albums continue to plummet. In Canada, digital album sales were down 15.9% year-over-year, while digital track sales were down 7.5%. Meanwhile, streaming is up 13.9% year-over-year as Canadians consistently stream somewhere around 2.3 billion songs a week.

I can make things even worse. In 2012, we bought 1.3 billion digital tracks. We bought 152 million last year. That’s an 88.6% crash in a decade. These numbers are obviously not good. Paid downloads are fast becoming the next cassette.

Once upon a time, sales were the focus of attention on the main page of iTunes. Now you need to hunt for the iTunes Music Store a bit when you open the app. If you go to Amazon, an MP3 search will take you to a page that promotes streaming and physical products. Neither company discloses in their financial statements how much digital music they sell.

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So here’s the question: how long will Apple support iTunes? Damn how much more All Do you have any digital track/album sales? Let me state that this will never happen.

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I desperately need iTunes to keep going. I need full and legal access to the songs in order to create my radio show, An ongoing history of new musicso I buy up to a dozen songs a week. My Mac tells me that there are 79,655 items in my library, taking up 564.65 gigabytes. A small number of these songs are downloaded via iTunes.

There are many uses for downloads. DJs need files they can mix as part of their sets. Older music fans who are dieting to buy CDs and vinyl also like iTunes because it offers permanent ownership rather than renting music from streamers. Insiders know that if an artist’s uploads increase, it could show that the artist has moved to an older demo.

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Artists can also make a decent income from iTunes, especially after they’ve been in the news. Paid downloads are on the rise, and they bring in a lot more than streams. Artists, labels, and managers also monitor iTunes for songs that may appear on the iTunes charts, which may indicate that something interesting is happening.

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What are the options if iTunes disappears like Google Play Music? Well, there are other digital music stores out there. The aforementioned eMusic went on sale in January 1998, three years before iTunes debuted. He’s signed to major labels and dozens of indies. Unlike iTunes and Amazon Music, this is a download site that requires the purchase of a monthly membership. Its library isn’t as deep as iTunes’s (15 million songs versus at least 60 million), but it might work for some people.

The most interesting digital music stores are those that sell lossless high resolution files to people who demand the highest sound quality. For example, 7 Digital will sell you all kinds of digital music, including many 24-bit FLAC files. It’s fantastic – if you have the right equipment.

The same goes for Pro Studio Masters (I used it to buy FLAC files). If this is your jam, be sure to check out HDTracks and French Qobuz. which will debut in Canada later this year.

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DJs and dance music lovers have known about Beatport for a long time. If you’re into indie, you’ve probably bought a download or two from Bandcamp. And then there’s Bleep, which is aimed at independent artists and labels.

However, it’s hard to beat iTunes for selection and functionality. I really, really hope Apple doesn’t do something stupid like kill him. But with the music industry’s weekly sales figures, you have to wonder how far things can fall before it’s time to move on.

If that day comes, it will be very, very sad.

Alan Cross is a TV presenter for Q107 and 102.1 Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s The Constant History of New Music podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play.

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