In 2001, when Apple launched a device called the iPod, it dramatically upended the music industry and allowed you to carry “1,000 songs in your pocket”. If the iPod changed the way we listened to music, the company’s own dramatic transformation in fortunes, from a struggling laggard to one of the world’s most valuable businesses, is also entwined with music. Back then, the Napster-hit recording industry was reeling from declining CD sales and a spike in online piracy. Apple’s iTunes was the first alternative that promised to slow the industry’s revenue haemorrhage by making it possible for users to purchase individual songs for a small fee. Its spectacular success earned Apple the grudging gratitude of record labels, which could at last take a break from their unsurprisingly unpopular tactic of suing college kids and grandmothers for copyright violation — at least until the company’s dominant position inevitably bred resentment.
In the decade since, high-speed internet has once again changed how we listen to music. Instead of carrying our extensive libraries around in our pockets, we simply access the “cloud”, that magical place where all our songs, photos and videos are stored. This transformation was so quick that Apple, the market leader till just the other day, was left behind streaming services like Spotify and internet radio stations like Pandora. Now the company is making another stab at regaining its prominence with Apple Music, a streaming service. But despite the company’s formidable reputation and its staggering pile of cash, this foray might be coming too late.
The music industry, though, should applaud Apple’s entry. A stuttering recovery from the dark days of the early 2000s could give way to intense competition, which will improve content creators’ bargaining power, as the depth and variety of catalogues will be a major factor in deciding which service users choose.