Don’t you remember owning music? Not in the legal sense, as Record Industry v. America proved, but in the Pokemon-ish “collect them all” style of ownership. Buying CDs and recording tracks off the radio to your cassette player, that’s what I’m getting at. The first piece of music I ever owned – “owned” being a poor word for it, more like “acquired” – was a bad rip of John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” from The Phantom Menace that I spent forty-five minutes downloading over a dial-up connection. A year later, the first CD I ever bought was Moby’s Play, probably his last listenable album. Between Napster and the occasional CD purchase, building a local collection of music was pretty great until, y’know, your hard drive failed.
But those early days were murky and strange. Illegally plumbing the internet for your favorite music, or just songs to listen to, was a weird forest of web sites and pop-up ads with no guarantee of quality or safety. Eventually those songs started to add up and that WinAmp playlist got longer than ever. At a point in early 2001, I’d downloaded over a thousand songs and lost almost all of them when my computer failed.
When I bought my first iPod in the Fall of 2002, DRM still wasn’t a buzzword so taking all of my music and putting it on my Apple player was easy-doing, but acquiring that music wasn’t any easier. Ripping CDs and illegally downloading songs was counter-intuitive to the notion that this was the future. If I have an MP3 player, why must getting my music in MP3 format be such a pain? People stole music because it was easy, but I wanted to be as legitimate as possible. Unfortunately, CDs got pricey and some songs you simply could not buy. In college, I would daydream (not in class, of course) that I’d be the dreamy entrepreneur that would get the record labels to fall behind some innovative service, like a legitimate Napster, where I could legally buy songs individually and put them on my player in one move. Many were trying, no one had succeeded until Apple came.
iTunes didn’t land on Windows until nearly a year after I bought my iPod, but I was so happy when it did. For $.99 a song or ten bucks an album, you could have music almost instantly. For the following two and a half years, I’d buy three to four songs a week and I’d do it whenever I wanted. I’d buy songs after hearing them on the radio. This was the musical Promised Land I’d dreamt of. On top of that, the service would eventually offer recommendations, which is how I got into Shiny Toy Guns, now one of my favorite bands.
While iTunes had spoiled me on the convenient availability of music, I wanted more. When Microsoft unveiled their Zune service, I was sold. The key point? A monthly subscription that was only a few dollars more than what I was buying individual songs for in the same timeframe that allowed me unlimited access to download anything I wanted at any time. Telling, the subscription also included ten free MP3s to download and own, untethered from the service entirely. You could own if you wanted, you could still buy individual songs outside the plan, or you could just lease.
As history is showing, people are favoring cheap subscriptions to their music rather than a la carte purchases. Steve Jobs didn’t believe in the music subscription and now iTunes is suffering for it. Zune offered DRM-free music early on and iTunes followed-up in the clumsiest way. I never rented a movie and I never downloaded an app from the iTunes App Store, but even after iTunes bloated in size and function, then scrapped and re-written, the service still reminds me ancient it feels. Once revolutionary, iTunes feels like a relic. Extricating the music I paid for from the service is nearly impossible.
Ten years later, I’m happy iTunes existed, I’m just glad I don’t use it anymore.