One of the biggest rumors going around the tech blogosphere lately is that Apple will finally, after years of neglect, put iTunes out of its misery. And yesterday, the company officially confirmed this to be true. Some are mourning the loss of what was once a great piece of software, while others are rejoicing at its death like the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. To be honest, it’s a long time coming. But that doesn’t make me any less sad about it.
You’d be forgiven if you had to ask, “What the heck is iTunes, and why are all the nerds riled up about it?” It hasn’t been a part of popular culture for a while. But back in its heyday, iTunes was the place to purchase music online.
When you plugged in your iPod (remember those?) to your computer, iTunes would instantly appear, dutifully ready to help you sync your songs, art, and playlists with ease. Or if you wanted to hear the latest banger, you could head over to the iTunes Store, purchase it for a buck, and start listening within seconds. The whole process was fast, easy, and convenient, and it made music accessible to everyone in a new way.
To say that iTunes changed the music industry would be an understatement. When music started going digital with the advent of MP3 players, people were getting music one of two ways: either they went to the store, bought an entire CD, and ripped it to their computer… or they stole it from any number of pirating websites.
CDs were expensive and annoying. Why pay so much money and go through the trouble of ripping a disc just for a couple of songs you like? Not to mention having to manually enter song names and track down album art to keep everything organized and pretty. Buying physical music was simply more trouble than it was worth.
So a significant number of people were turning to piracy, not because they didn’t want to support artists, but because the physical music system wasn’t compatible with new digital methods of listening. Consumers weren’t happy with the options available, and music makers weren’t happy that their stuff was being passed around illegally. Seeing this dilemma, Apple decided to capitalize on it. And thus, iTunes was born.
Having the ability to buy individual songs—rather than entire albums—and easily string those songs into playlists that could be taken anywhere was revolutionary. In the world of streaming, we‘ve become accustomed to having our music available to us anytime, anywhere. But back in the early days of iTunes, this concept was groundbreaking, and it changed everything.
The music industry was never the same again. The structure of songs and albums shifted drastically. The distance between artists and their fans nearly vanished, making space for a much deeper connection than ever possible before. And thanks to the iPod and iTunes, Apple became a household name at a time when average consumers had no idea what a Mac even was.
That’s an incredible story, and it’s one that gets told a lot in the tech world. But if that was all there was to it, no one would really care that iTunes is going away in 2019. Music streaming has taken over, and people use their phones as their primary computers now. It’s time move on, right?
The problem with that—and the reason so many techies like myself have such strong feelings about this development—is that iTunes has had a profound impact on so many people’s lives. It wasn’t just about selling songs and iPods. To me at least, iTunes was so much more than that.
Everyone who lives in the Apple ecosystem remembers their first Apple product. The thing that drew them in, showed them what the company could offer, and led them to integrate those products more and more into their lives. The thing that showed them that spark of magic and wonder Apple integrates into everything they do. It’s something you never forget.
For me, that first Apple product wasn’t a computer. It wasn’t a phone or even an iPod. My very first Apple product, the thing that got me interested in this company that‘s such a big part of my life now, was none other than iTunes.
I was a kid with no relationship whatsoever with music. The only songs I knew were from church and the country radio station my mom played in her van. I had no taste and, honestly, no interest in music. But then I somehow got my hands on an iTunes gift card (one of the most popular gifts to give to kids at that time), and all of that changed.
Suddenly, I could look up any song I wanted, and if I liked it, it could instantly be mine. I was amazed! I started looking up the few songs I knew from MySpace and clicking the related links underneath to find more like them. I fell in love with music. Over time, I carefully curated a library of my favorite music, and I listened to it all the time, right there at the desk in my family’s kitchen.
Music became my identity as a teenager. I prided myself on keeping up with unknown artists and telling other people about them. I burned countless CDs and gave them to my friends as gifts. (I actually burned so many CDs that iTunes issued me a piracy warning.) When life got hard or confusing or even just exciting, I always had a playlist handy to help me work through whatever I was feeling. It’s no exaggeration to say that my music library was my most prized possession at the time.
More Apple products followed. One year, I got an iPod Shuffle for Christmas. The next year, it was the first-generation iPod Touch. Then came the iPhone 3G. For my high school graduation, I asked my parents for a MacBook Pro. After that came a string of so many iPads. Now, I’m known as an Apple fanboy by my friends and family. And it all started with a little program called iTunes.
My relationship with music changed as I got older, as these things do. I found other passions. Every once in a while, something will come along that re-sparks my interest in music. A few years ago, it was Apple Music. More recently, I invested in a couple of HomePods and started listening more. But no matter where my relationship with music goes now, it will always be tied in my mind to those hours I spent as a bright-eyed kid browsing iTunes and forging my music identity.
Like many, though, I have had my heart broken by changes made to iTunes. I’ve watched the app morph over the years into something nearly unrecognizable. The iTunes Store eventually added movies, TV shows, and podcasts all within the same program. When the iPhone came out, it became the place to sync over not only your music, but also your apps, photos, contacts, documents, and everything else you might want on your phone. Apple decided a few years ago to get into the streaming music game, so it tacked Apple Music onto iTunes in a way so crude that it’s nearly unusable.
No, iTunes is not what it once was. It’s become cluttered to a point that many who used to be its biggest fans now hate what it has become. There have been cries within the tech community for iTunes to be broken up ever since Apple took a more segmented approach on iOS, releasing separate apps for music, podcasts, movies/TV shows, and app downloads. The iTunes behemoth just doesn’t make sense anymore. The tech world mostly agrees that it has to go so that it can be replaced by a series of smaller, more focused apps, which is exactly what Apple is planning to do.
But it will be missed. Despite its flaws, iTunes was incredible when it came to discovering, curating, and listening to music. Back before streaming took over, music libraries mattered, and no other app held a candle to iTunes when it came to managing huge collections. And for that, iTunes deserves to be remembered fondly.
I admit that I was sad yesterday when I heard the news that Apple will be officially sunsetting iTunes in this year’s big Mac update. I’m sure that the new Music app will be great and serve us very well for years to come, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the original.
iTunes changed the music industry, and in that way, it changed the world. But more than that, it had a huge impact on me during a vulnerable, formative time of my life. For that, I’ll be forever grateful.
So here’s to you, iTunes. You served us well. Now may you rest in peace with the CDs you replaced all those years ago.