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On This Day In Music… April 28, 2003: Apple Launches the iTunes Store, Revolutionizing the Music Industry

Within seven years, the iTunes Store would be the largest music vendor in the world. Within 20 it would be all-but forgotten.

Source: RICHARD B. LEVINE/Newscom/The Mega Agency

iTunes found a way to make digital music downloads a commercial phenomenon.

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On April 28, 2003, under the slogan, “Rock and roll will never die. It is, however, being reborn”, Apple supremo Steve Jobs announced the launch of the iTunes Music Store, the first legally authorized platform for buying and downloading digital music. The store, available only for Mac users, held 200,000 songs in its library, and was launched in conjunction with all five major record companies.

The iTunes Music Store would rapidly become the largest music vendor in the world (reaching that target in February 2010) – and set in motion a revolution in the way that music is consumed. It took the existing iTunes platform, a music-playing app that allowed its users to upload existing CDs to a digital library and then download them to a portable MP3 player, and made it into a way to discover new music… and, crucially, to buy music.

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iTunes began life two years earlier, with the launch of the first-generation iPod, Apple’s homegrown MP3 player, boasting “1,000 songs in your pocket”. It wasn’t the first MP3 player on the market, but it was the most user-friendly, and quickly became a stand-out product for the company.

But with the rise of digital music had come the rise of digital piracy – and the big labels were worried. Prior to MP3 files, music had to be purchased in physical formats (or else surreptitiously taped off the radio, which led to the ludicrous “Home Taping Is Killing Music” campaign of the 1980s). But in 1999 Napster had launched, and, along with a plethora of other file-sharing sites, created a huge network for peer-to-peer music sharing. With people illegally downloading songs straight from each other’s hard drives, there was simply no need to go out and buy CDs any more.

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Source: RICHARD B. LEVINE/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Napster made accessing digital music immensely popular - if also, sadly, immensely illegal.

By February 2001 Napster was boasting over 26 million users worldwide, and, in the face of high-profile lawsuits – including from Metallica and Dr. Dre – the service was shut down in 2002.

But by then the genie was out of the bottle: Napster may have been no more, but by the very nature of the internet, peer-to-peer file sharing had become almost impossible to regulate. As physical sales dwindled and piracy rocketed, Steve Jobs saw an opportunity.

Jobs convinced the “Big Five” record companies (Warner Music, Universal, Sony, BMG, and EMI) to let Apple legally sell their content via iTunes. His argument was that most people were not pirating music because they wanted to break the law, but simply because it was convenient. If they were given an easy way to pay for it, he told the labels, the majority of them would.

“Consumers don’t want to be treated like criminals and artists don’t want their valuable work stolen,” wrote Steve Jobs in Apple’s announcement of the store. “The iTunes Music Store offers a groundbreaking solution for both.”

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Source: RICHARD B. LEVINE/Newscom/The Mega Agency

iPod boasted it could bring you '1000 songs in your pocket'.

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For the record labels, it was a no-brainer, a win-win situation. If the iTunes Store were to prove a failure and music continued to be downloaded illegally, they could simply pull out again, without having to have set up their own costly digital infrastructure – and blame the whole debacle on the Cupertino upstarts. If it were to succeed, however, then at a stroke the pirates would be killed off… and the money train could start rolling again.

It not only succeeded, but did so spectacularly. In the first 18 hours following its American launch on April 28, 2003, the iTunes store sold over 270,000 tracks, and more than a million within its first week. After it was rolled out to Windows PCs as well as Macs in October 2003, it shifted a further million songs in just three days. By December 2003, Apple announced that it had sold 25 million songs through the platform; four months later that figure had risen to 85 million.

Jobs was right: most music lovers did not want the hassle and potential virus risk that came with pirated music sites, and given a way to easily and securely pay for MP3s, would gladly take it. Shortly before the iTunes Store’s 10-year anniversary in February 2013, Apple proudly declared that songs sold through the Store had passed the 25 billion mark.

Source: mega

Spotify would eclipse even iTunes' success.

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The celebrations were to be short-lived – because by then the writing was already on the digital wall.

A new kind of music delivery service by the name of Spotify had launched in the United States in July 2011, offering a six-month trial period, during which new users could stream an unlimited amount of music. Although the original idea was that after the free period expired non-subscribers would be limited to 10 hours of streaming a month, that was soon abandoned: meaning that if you were prepared to put up with a couple of adverts every six or so songs, you could listen to whatever you wanted, as much as you wanted, without paying a penny for it.

Spotify would eclipse even the iTunes Store’s success. In August 2012, Time reported 15 million active Spotify users, with four million of them paying subscribers. By March 2013, that had risen to 24 million active users and six million subscribers, which grew to 40 million users (including ten million paying) the following year.

Spotify reached 100 million total users in June 2016, 400 million by 2022, and, as of March 2024, over 615 million monthly active users, including 239 million paying subscribers.

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If Steve Jobs was right about people preferring to pay for music rather than illegally download it, it seemed that they would also rather legally listen for free than pay. In 2015 Apple replaced iTunes with its own streaming service, Apple Music; and the iTunes Store was relegated to a relatively-hidden corner of the app.

Such is the breakneck speed of progress in the digital age, that just 21 years after its launch and only 14 years since it became the biggest music vendor on the planet, the iTunes Store already seems an archaic concept, a museum relic belonging alongside the Sony Walkman, stackable record players and even the iPod itself.

Yet its importance remains incontestable. Without Steve Jobs convincing the record labels to get on board with digital, without it popularizing MP3 players – and eventually music on smartphones – it’s doubtful that streaming services like Spotify would exist at all.

“Whatever anyone says about Apple, if it wasn’t for Steve Jobs there would be no legitimate music online,” Interscope founder Jimmy Iovine told Fortune magazine in 2009. “I think his impact on music has been extraordinary.”


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