Apple is retiring its iconic iTunes in a move reflective of a change in industry
Back at the beginning of the millennium, the music industry was in a serious state. CDs were in decline as consumers digitised the way they consumed music: but they were doing it for free via Napster and other pirate websites.
And then, in 2001, the industry’s knight in shining armour appeared, in the shape of Steve Jobs. He announced the birth of iTunes at the Macworld Expo, heralding a music revolution. The era of MP3 music was here, and over the next six years Apple would sell more than 100 million units of the iconic iPod with which to listen to those MP3s. Apple was at the pinnacle of its success, having redefined what music ownership looked like: no longer physical records, tapes or CDs, but a world of songs in your pocket.
In the 18 years since its launch, iTunes has become a media behemoth, a one-stop shop for users to consume not just music, but movies and TV and, latterly, podcasts too. But over the last few years, downloading has been eclipsed by a new kind of access: digital streaming.
A new contender in the market
In 2008, just a year after the launch of the first iPhone and when iTunes was at the height of its powers, a small Swedish start-up called Spotify launched its music streaming service across eight European markets. Its two-tier model – free to the consumer ad-funded, and a premium subscription option – gave users on-demand access to stream millions of tracks. Music streaming was still in its infancy, accounting for just 1% of global music revenues in 2007, and Spotify’s initial growth was good but unremarkable. By 2013, they had 30 million active users and 8 million premium subscribers.
It is the six years since 2013 that have seen a seismic shift in how music is consumed. By March of this year, Spotify’s user base had skyrocketed, with 217 million active users and 100 million premium subscribers around the world, a number which looks set to continue growing. By opening up the streaming market and persuading users to give up ownership of their music, Spotify has arguably redefined the music industry, just as Apple did when it persuaded users to give up physical ownership.
The consolidation of Apple
iTunes’ download model was starting to look clunky and old-fashioned. In 2015, Apple launched Apple Music, its streaming service which it hoped would compete with Spotify and other broadcasters with its three distinct components – on-demand streaming, radio and Apple Connect, which allows artists to upload songs, videos and photos for followers. Since then, as streaming has increasingly become the norm, there have been rumours that iTunes would be wound down.
That finally came to pass this week, as Apple announced at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose that it would replace iTunes with standalone music, television and podcast apps. This will align Apple’s media strategy across the board: iPhones and iPads already offer separate apps for Music, TV and Podcast, and Mac/Macbook users can expect the same.
However, the move is symbolic as well as practical. As Amy X Wang says in Rolling Stone, “by portioning out its music, television and podcast offerings into three separate platforms, Apple will pointedly draw attention to itself as a multifaceted entertainment services provider, no longer as a hardware company that happens to sell entertainment through one of its many apps” – and that’s increasingly important as iPhone sales have started to slow.
Consolidation moves reflecting the wider market
This move towards entertainment services is being seen across the technology and communications sector: we’ve seen the tech giants buy up rights to live sport, while AT&T acquired Time Warner for $85bn and Disney bought most of the 21st Century Fox empire, fending off an offer from Comcast. This trend is of course being driven by changing consumer behaviour as internet connections over 4G and now 5G accelerate – allowing for uninterrupted streaming of music, TV and films. We’re seeing the effects of technology on the media and communications industries, and lines between these sectors will continue to blur. This blurring of boundaries will then pose another issue on how they can all be monitored & assessed both separately and in totality.
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