Steve Jobs had an idea that he believed could convince customers to pay for their music

When Harry Potter was eleven years old, he learnt that he was a wizard. The entire series stems out of this revelation as the magic around Potter unfolds over the next seven years of his life. For the last 11 years, we’ve been part of a magical community ourselves. Not one with wands and flying brooms, as is the case with Potter, but the magic of music that has seen a digital revolution.

If you ask your parents as to how they used to listen to their music, you might be surprised to hear them mention words like “audio cassette” or even “gramophone disc”. These utilised analog recording techniques wherein a property of the physical recording medium is analogously made to vary with the variations in air pressure of the original music. The mid-1980s and 1990s saw an upsurge in digital recording that converted the physical properties of the original sound into a sequence of numbers, which can be stored and reproduced.

As online services like Napster and MP3.com started hosting digital music, chaos ensued. Artists were worried about their rights, recording industries feared piracy and the consumers, who were suddenly overwhelmed with what was at their disposal, confused about the legality of it all.

Enter Steve Jobs. Apple might not have been the first to hop onto the browser bus with their Safari, but they were certainly up and running with respect to the music industry. iPod, Apple’s flagship device, had been launched in the fall of 2001 and their CEO envisioned an online music store in 2002, which would be hosted by Apple, easy to use along with plenty of choice for the customers and be reliable.

Jobs believed that this would convince customers to pay for the music, rather than obtain them free illegally. He, however, also wanted to provide customers with an added choice, allowing them to buy songs individually instead of the entire album. The latter took a lot of convincing.

Jobs first proposed his idea to Warner Music and Universal, the biggest players in the United States. Following a series of negotiations, the two music labels agreed to sell their products based on two agreements. Firstly, the iTunes Music Store would be available only to systems running Apple’s Mac and secondly, the songs would be copy-protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM). Labels BMG, EMI and Sony soon joined the bandwagon and on April 28, 2003, Apple launched iTunes Music Store with 200,000 songs.

Within 18 hours from the time the service went live, over 275,000 tracks were sold. And in less than a week, over a million songs were bought by customers from the iTunes Store. By October that year, iTunes opened up for Windows users as well and slowly it was launched throughout the world, making it the most widespread digital music service. By 2009, DRM restrictions were removed, another important step in Apple’s progress.

With many online music services now offering cheaper downloads when compared to Apple, the challenge Apple faces to maintain its dominance in the market is stiff. Add to it the change in consumer habits brought in by streaming services, it would be interesting to see how the digital music landscape pans out in the years to come.

ganesh.a.s@thehindu.co.in

Keywords: musicSteve JobsAppleiTunesdigital

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