Steve Jobs has retired. Does that spell the end of the iTunes/iPod era?
Well, obviously it doesn’t. The Apple CEO wasn’t actually crafting each individual gadget himself – though I like to imagine him up a ladder somewhere, hewing iPods out of a giant hunk of alabaster, as flakes of white plastic cascade on to the beaming upturned faces of those below, like the end of Edward Scissorhands.
OK, so iPod sales have plummeted, since everyone listens to music on their smartphones now. But the iPad is the most lusted-after consumer item on the planet, and iTunes – while a negligibly small part of the Apple empire – is colossally profitable.
Those endeavours will carry on as normal. It’s not as if Apple factory workers are suddenly going to down tools and go, “Woo! The boss has gone home! Let’s start pumping out vuvuzelas and Hypercolor T-shirts!” The only thing Jobs’ departure will affect is Apple’s share price, and I just know you give a shit about that.
Even so, the announcement is clearly a big deal, if only because it represents a good moment to reflect on the seismic changes old baldy has wrought on the music business.
The arrival of iTunes and the iPod accelerated two generational shifts – from albums to tracks, and from CDs to MP3s – while simultaneously ripping down the value of music and making it more available and ubiquitous than ever before.
Has any one man in history had more of an impact on the way we consume music? Apart from the bloke behind M-Flow, obviously.
Still, it doesn’t make you a harrumphing reactionary to question whether Apple’s breathtaking ascent has been an entirely good thing for music. How did a technology company come to dominate the record industry in such a short space of time, bulldozing all competition? Is it healthy that iTunes should control 80% of the entire MP3 market?
Apple are the vampire squid of music: they profit enormously from it, yet give nothing back. Unlike the likes of Universal and Warner (‘Boo! Hiss! Greedy major label Canutes!’ etc), Apple don’t plough a hefty chunk of their profits back into finding new talent.
OK, they put on the iTunes festival once a year – but expect the bands to perform for free. Yes, even the likes of Foo Fighters and Paul Simon will work gratis in the hope of a featured spot on the iTunes store.
Apple’s great genius was to recognise not only that MP3s were the future, but that they could be monetized: people would pay for downloads, as long as the user experience was effortlessly slick.
It’s customary here to point out that the major labels were offered MP3 technology in the early ’90s, and could have got in on the ground floor, but chose to ignore it. What would you have done, though? “Oh wow, a new format that will render the old one obsolete, but make us a tenth as much money. Brilliant! Where do we sign?”
The download era has changed music in two ways. Obviously it is now cheaper and more convenient to access. And obviously it means less. Sorry, it just does. Buy a CD for £16 and you will care more about its contents more than if you download it for a fiver. How could you not?
Yesterday Twitter went nuts for black and white photos of HMV in the ’60s, originally posted on the Voices Of East Anglia blog.
You can see why. Without wishing to get all Werther’s Original and Record Store Day about it, just look! Record shops were once modernist cathedrals – gleaming temples devoted to sound and technology. Leaving that place with a bag full of records must have felt like looting Aladdin’s Cave.
I made a playlist on Spotify last night and listened through laptop speakers. It wasn’t the same.
But my biggest beef with Steve Jobs is far more personal. And possibly slightly puerile.
By making the corporate world cool, Steve Jobs invented a whole new species of suave corporate git. By some measures Apple is now the biggest company in the world, having overtaken Exxon – and yet their adverts are soundtracked by Feist.
At least in the old days it was easy to spot a hypercapitalist: he was a cigar-chomping blowhard with a steel mill. You knew where you stood. Apple are rapacious and bullying and monopolistic. But they’re still somehow cool. It’s confusing.
Hence, Jobs has become a sort of Mahatma Gandhi for the Wired-reading company man. He’s basically nerd Jesus. He’s certainly got the beard for it, not to mention the groovy dress-down fashion sense.
Jobs is worshipped by the kind of dullards who buy self-help management books from WH Smith. To the point where people make creepy bum-kissing video tributes like this:
But he’s retired now, which presumably means he will become instantly baffled by gadgets. I like to imagine him shuffling round his living room, furrowing his brow over the TV remote and calling his kids for help programming the Sky+.
But yes: Jobs’ glittering career at Apple’s helm is over, and the press is full of breathless lists of everything he achieved. That’s understandable. But maybe, just for a moment, spare a thought for the beautiful things he helped destroy, too.