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Remembering iTunes' Cultural Significance

Jun 3, 2019
Originally published on June 3, 2019 4:43 pm

Nearly two decades ago, Apple announced its new jukebox software. The company called it iTunes. Today, during its annual World Wide Developers Conference, Apple has announced that in its new operating system, iTunes is going away, to be replaced by a Music app, a Podcast app and a TV app instead.

"It completely changed the way that people buy and listen to music," Amy Wang Rolling Stone senior music business editor, says. Amid rumors last week, Wang penned a remembrance for the "clunky but world-shattering" innovation. As Wang explains to NPR's Ari Shapiro, iTunes was a game changer in more ways than one.

"There was also a brief period where the music industry was terrified that people were just going to download things illegally and pirate music," Wang says. "So, iTunes came in and did two things at once. It moved the model from retail stores onto the web and it also sort of helped ease those fears that Napster would take over."

Now, as music lovers prepare to bid farewell, they're sharing their favorite iTunes memories. When Shapiro asked Twitter users for their iTunes memories. "That first time I realized I no longer needed to put 10 CDs in my backpack to get work done at the library...it was amazing," @MonicaBisha shared.

User @mediapark1999 shared that The Beatles catalog finally being released on iTunes in 2010 was a "delightful shock." It seemed to acknowledge the inevitability of the platform.

But how will moving away from purchasing MP3's on iTunes affect a listener's relationship with the music?

"You essentially lease music instead of buying it," Wang says. "So, for instance, that's the hypothesis for why live events are growing so much and people want to go to concerts and festivals more than ever: Because if you can stream things so easily and so openly everyday, then you crave that emotional connection to an artist you can get maybe in person or via some other means rather than just buying their music."

Sarah Handel edited this audio for radio. Sidney Madden adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nearly two decades ago, Apple announced a new jukebox software. It was called iTunes. And today Apple has announced that in its new operating system, iTunes is going away to be replaced by another music app. In Rolling Stone, Amy Wang writes a "Farewell To A Clunky But World-Shattering Icon." And she joins us now for a remembrance. Hi, Amy.

AMY WANG: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: World-shattering is a very strong phrase. So when iTunes debuted in 2001, how did it revolutionize the music industry?

WANG: It completely changed the way that people buy and listen to music, right? And of course you have to factor in that before iTunes, there was also a brief era where the music industry was terrified that people were just going to download things illegally and pirate music...

SHAPIRO: The Napster era.

WANG: ...For the rest of their lives.

SHAPIRO: Right.

WANG: Exactly. And so iTunes came in and sort of did two things at once. It moved the model from retail stores onto the Web, and it also sort of helped ease those fears that Napster would take over.

SHAPIRO: OK, so I asked people on Twitter for their iTunes memories. And someone named Monica Bisha said, that first time I realized I no longer needed to put 10 CDs in my backpack to get work done at the library. It was amazing.

WANG: Yeah, I mean, to kids today the image of fitting 10 CDs into one thing is just unspeakable.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

WANG: That's, like, so uncool.

SHAPIRO: Do you remember the first music you bought on iTunes?

WANG: I think it was probably something, you know, embarrassing now, like The Killers' single or something.

SHAPIRO: Oh, of course - coming out of my...

(SOUNDBITE OF THE KILLERS SONG, "MR. BRIGHTSIDE")

SHAPIRO: That one?

WANG: Yeah, definitely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. BRIGHTSIDE")

THE KILLERS: (Singing) ...And I've been doing just fine. Gotta gotta be down because I want it all. It started out with a kiss...

SHAPIRO: OK, when I asked on Twitter for memories, somebody named Byungho Park brought up a big moment in 2010 when, finally, the Beatles' catalog was available on iTunes, after they had held out for almost a decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE SUN")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Here comes the sun, do do do do...

SHAPIRO: It seemed to acknowledge the inevitability of this platform, right?

WANG: Yeah, absolutely. If you think of the Beatles as the sort of, like, cultural indicator of anything, whatever they say is kind of, like, the gold standard for the industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE SUN")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Here comes the sun. And I say it's all right.

SHAPIRO: Someone named Luke Vargas wrote on Twitter, iTunes debuted when I was in sixth grade. Macs sold that year featured some preloaded songs to showcase iTunes, including "Love Shack" by the B-52's.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE SHACK")

B-52'S: (Singing) ...Says 15 miles to the...

Love shack.

SHAPIRO: He says, the song still grates on me, but it will forever be my first digital audio experience.

WANG: (Laughter). iTunes came out when the iPod came out, too. Those two things were in tandem. And to this day, I know people who still say, you know, that's the iPod song - because they remember it so vividly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE SHACK")

B-52'S: (Singing) The love shack is a little old place where we can get together.

SHAPIRO: It feels to me like as we go from purchasing physical things, like CDs, to purchasing MP3s on iTunes to now just streaming, the connection to the music we listen to has become weaker.

WANG: That's so true. You essentially lease music instead of buying it. So that's the hypothesis for why live events are growing so much. And people want to go to concerts and festivals more than ever because if you can stream things so easily and so openly every day, then you want to crave that emotional connection to an artist that you can get maybe in person or via some other means rather than just buying their music.

SHAPIRO: Is there a song from the iTunes era you'd like us to go out on?

WANG: I think what comes to mind is that Feist song, "1234."

SHAPIRO: Yes.

WANG: You know what I'm talking about? Yeah.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Yes, I totally do.

WANG: The iconic, like, person bobbing along to an iPod.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1234")

FEIST: (Singing) One, two, three, four, tell me that you love me more. Three...

SHAPIRO: Amy Wang of Rolling Stone, thanks for this reminiscence.

WANG: Thanks so much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1234")

FEIST: (Singing) Old teenage hopes are alive at your door. Left you with nothing... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.