Steve Jobs’ contribution to the world of computers and technology has always been very well documented. His prevalent fingerprints are all over today’s laptops, phones and the entire electronic world. However, the man’s role in digital music stands as one of his more influential yet unheralded acts that helped steer the course of the music industry.
It all started with the iPod. “1,000 songs in your pocket,” Jobs said in 2001. This was a perilous time for music and as the business stared down a cliff, fresh on the heels of Napster and peer-to-peer sharing. Downloading songs was so much simpler than buying CDs that oftentimes came with expendable content surrounding one or two good tracks. Not to mention it was free. But surely making digital music even more convenient was the final blow that would send the industry in an irreversible plummet right? Not if Mr. Jobs could help it.
With the explosion of the iPod, came the accompanying iTunes software and the iTunes Store soon after. Cementing the mp3 into everyday life, these two worked hand in hand to promote the legal purchase of individual records, store them in a convenient way and finally resuscitate a fading market, all with one click. $0.99 for a song you could preview and only buy if you knew you liked it seemed like a great bargain over the $15 that would get the same thing with ten other skippable joints. And don’t forget, it would then have to be ripped and converted to go into the iPod anyways.
For better or for worse, this birthed the new generation of singles artists. Rappers like Soulja Boy and Flo-Rida saw multi-platinum selling songs but feeble album sales. Along with several others, these artists were critically panned for their inability to move complete albums, but at least the money was starting to change hands once again. After all, making $3 million for a three minute song wasn’t too shabby.
New ideas flowed with the new revenue stream. Now, artists no longer needed to have physical distribution with every release. Those with a lower budget could now simply put their releases exclusively on iTunes at a tiny fraction of the cost of filling shelves with CDs, with much added benefit. Without a major label backing, they could now reach a staggering audience that consisted of every household with an Internet connection. Anyone who was interested could legally acquire the artist’s music, who would in turn see his share of the check, in the form of royalties.
Today, with the bypassing of physical distribution, music has become infinitely easier to release. The process is much more direct and streamlined because there’s no longer a need to wait to press, ship and stock CDs. Once the song is mastered, it can literally hit stores the next day, like Freddie Gibbs’ Lord Giveth, Lord Taketh Away EP did. Not to mention that with software like “GarageBand,” songs can be made be those talented musicians who have nothing else in their arsenal besides a MacBook (of course it also paved the way for terrible artists with allowances, but that’s a post for another day).
Emcees like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Big K.R.I.T. all arranged for their free mixtapes to eventually hit the iTunes e-shelves and in turn saw them being supported, putting a concrete value beside their swelling popularity. Because in the end, without profitability they wouldn’t get a backing to continue making quality music and thanks to Apple’s products, they weren’t forced to slang discs out of their trunks anymore. At zero extra effort, the product was instantly available worldwide.
Now, in the year 2011, all thanks to the late Steve Jobs, digital music has long become the standard. These days, a bootleg album is a .zip file that contains mp3s. A digital single that came out yesterday is now old news because there are three newer songs fighting to take its spot. Mixtapes are often followed by an iTunes only release. Oftentimes online sales now surpass physical sales. And thanks to one of Jobs’ final acts, now you don’t have to download music to your hard drives anymore, because that even became too cumbersome.
The man was a visionary and, thanks to his vision, Hip-Hop, one of the most pirated genres of music, is still alive, thriving and profiting. In fact, the music industry as a whole owes a share of its resurgence to Apple. In 56 years on earth, Steve Jobs completely turned the world on its head. The only thing left to wonder is where he could have taken it from here, had his life not been tragically cut short.