On Monday, Apple confirmed what had been reported as rumor just a few days earlier: iTunes is dead. This news is the tech equivalent of a middle-aged athlete finally deciding to call it quits after a series of injury-plagued seasons. By the end, nobody liked iTunes — it often crashed, it hid your old files, and the interface was bland and boring. Good riddance, right?
Well, the end of any era can make even a faded, dysfunctional piece of software the object of nostalgia. What else other than misplaced affection for the past explains the New York Times referring to iTunes as “a magical, one-click emporium where 99 cents could get you almost any song under the sun.”
A magical emporium? Are we still talking about iTunes here? Even back in the mid-’00s, when iTunes was shiny and new and subject to the kind of fawning media coverage that Steve Jobs was always able to conjure, iTunes was ultimately a cold corporate product whose obsolescence was baked in from the start. It was far from magical. In fact, it took a lot of the magic out of music listening.
I tend to identify as a Gen-Xer, though in reality I’m technically an Xennial — I was born in the late ’70s, so I experienced an analog childhood and a digital adulthood. I have affection, and cynicism, for both sides of the binary.
When it comes to shopping for music, I’ve lived through several distinct periods. I shopped in record stores — in my time we called them CD stores — back when you had to shop there. Then, I participated in the free-for-all that was the Napster/Limewire/Kazaa era. I eventually transitioned to iTunes and other à la carte pay-per-MP3 sites, and then I embraced streaming to the point where I currently have about a half-dozen listening apps on my phone.
Out of all those ways to access (and in most cases pay for) music, iTunes was the worst. By far. I mean, it’s not even close. Shopping in record stores is still the best experience — you have to go to a specific place, touch a lot of music with your hands, make a conscious decision to commit yourself to fully absorbing a limited selection of music, and then go home to play that music while doing nothing else. (I still do this, by the way, because it helps to ensure that music still has a ritualistic aspect for me. I guess I really am a Gen-Xer.)
The illegal downloads era was the opposite of that — it offered the thrill of total indulgence, where you could grab as many songs as your bandwidth and hard-drive space could handle. In its own way, though, it was pretty thrilling. The streaming era replicates that feeling with far less intensity. Now theoretical access to millions of songs is the norm, so it’s inherently less exciting. But at least it’s convenient.