Before Apple's visionary co-founder Steve Jobs died last week, he oversaw a series of revolutions in how we make, share, and buy music.
By putting the interests of artists and fans before those of executives and corporate shareholders, Jobs turned the music industry power structure upside down. Every artist, producer, DJ or blogger who leverages their own creative resources and energy against the odds follows in his footsteps. #ThankYouSteve.
He always told people to listen to their heart and follow what they loved. "You can't connect the dots looking forward," Jobs once said, "you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."
It's been a decade since Apple introduced the first iPod and iTunes software, and it's safe to say that the music game will never be the same. But Steve Jobs' influence is so pervasive and wide-reaching that it's easy to overlook. So let's take a moment, and take stock of all that Apple accomplished by "thinking different."
Revolution # 1. Laptop = Studio.
By the late '90s Apple laptops were powerful enough to produce entire albums on, letting musicians work anywhere at anytime. Moby's 1999 Apple laptop produced album Play sold 10 million copies worldwide beginning a new era of portability for musicians. Radiohead front man Tom Yorke recorded his solo debut on a laptop in his tour bus. Legend has it that smash hits like Usher's "Love In This Club" and Rihanna's "Umbrella" were built around preset loops jacked from Apple's Garage Band software. Lil' Wayne carries a mobile studio duffel bag that keeps him working around the clock. From the bedroom to the jetway Apple took music making out of the studio and into the world.
Revolution #2. iPod = Mixtape explosion
When the iPod first dropped, Napster had just been shut down by the RIAA and record labels were scrambling to figure out a response to wide-spread free file-sharing. Where Metallica and Dr. Dre saw downloads as the enemy, suing file-sharing sits—and sometmes even their own fans—Jobs saw a paradigm shift, and a huge business opportunity. The first generation iPod offered “1,000 songs in your pocket," even if most of those songs were coming from Peer-2-Peer networks like Napster, Limewire, Soulseek and Kazaa. For new artists without established fan bases, distribution, or label contracts, P2P meant having direct access to thousands or millions of potential fans. As the old music industry crumbled during the early 2000s, getting signed no longer became the necessary first step to a successful career. Instead artists just wanted a place on fans' iPods. The mixtape circuit has always brought unknown rappers into the spotlight, but now musicians in all genres had direct access to their fans like never before. 50 Cent's infamous 1999 song "How To Rob," for instance, spread like wildfire on file-sharing networks, bringing him national recognition even as his debut album got shelved by Columbia.
Revolution # 3. iTunes = Kaching
Bundled with iPods, iTunes ended up on the desktop of PC and Mac users across the world. What Steve Jobs realized was that even if an artist only sold ten songs on iTunes, Apple still made money. One-click shopping and 99 cent downloads ensured that fans could fulfill every impulse. Though less albums were going platinum, Apple was still getting stupid rich off the percentage cut it takes on every iTunes sale. Long-tail economics, creating services where even the smallest markets contribute to the total, made Apple rich alongside similarly inclusive platforms like Amazon. Before iTunes a host of smaller digital retailers had sprung up, but none hold the weight of the Apple store. After negotiating with movie studios Apple began offering digital movie and television rentals, locking down yet another market where others had failed to succeed.
Revolution # 4. Shuffle
As fans downloaded more and more music, the shuffle feature on iTunes brought it all together. Hearing your favorite Bad Brains track right after Nas was no longer relegated to late night college radio. For sample based artists and DJ's whose practices pushed the edges of legality shuffle made listeners ready to hear everything and anything together. What the Bomb Squad did for Public Enemy with tiny sampled pieces artists like DJ /rupture and Danger Mouse did with bigger ones. DJ /rupture's genre bending three-turnable mix-tape Gold Teeth Thief was one of the first to hit the file-sharing world, launching his career and garnering a four star review in Vibe for the then unknown artist. Danger Mouse's Grey Album, mixing Jay-Z acapellas with edited Beatle's instrumentals, also brought him to fame through file-sharing networks. Girltalk took shuffle to its logical extreme, creating a whole career off a one-trick pony of clever mashups.
Revolution #5 Artists Get Strong Armed by Apple.
Record companies have been taking advantage of artists since day one, but iTunes forced the Beatles and Jay-Z to sit at Job's table. When the iTunes Music Store first got introduced in 2003, some labels and groups, like the Beatles, initially refused to let their music be sold on iTunes. After years of fighting, the legendary band, like most others, finally reached an agreement with iTunes in 2010 after realizing how quickly digital sales had replaced CD sales.
The Beatles weren't the only act to wisen up to the value of iTunes. In 2007, Jay-Z chose to opt out of iTunes as a means of distribution for his album American Gangster. He insisted that the album, loosely based around the movie of the same title, was meant to be heard as a whole and not consumed as individual songs. By 2011, the importance of sales coming from the digital retailer was crystal clear and too great to be ignored. As part of an unprecedented release strategy, Jay-Z and Kanye West dropped Watch The Throne exclusively on iTunes before giving other retailers a chance to sell the album.