By putting the interests of artists and fans above those of executives and corporate shareholders, Steve Jobs turned the music industry power structure upside down. Every artist, producer, DJ or blogger who leverages their own creative resources and energy against all odds follows in his footsteps. #ThankYouSteve.
He always told people to listen to their heart and follow what they loved. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward,” Jobs once said, “you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
It’s been a decade since Apple introduced the first iPod and iTunes software, and it’s safe to say that the music game will never be the same. (Even Puff tweeted this heartfelt tribute in a tweet: RIP to one of my HEROS Steve Jobs!!! You’s a Bad Mother fucka! 4real. Changed the game. Thanks for dreaming So BIG!!!) But don’t take Diddy’s word for it. Steve Jobs’ influence is so pervasive and wide-reaching that it’s easy to overlook. So let’s take a moment, and take stock of all that Apple accomplished by “thinking different.”
Revolution#1: Laptop Studio
By the late ’90s Apple laptops were powerful enough to produce entire albums on, letting musicians work anywhere at anytime. Moby’s 1999 Apple laptop produced album Play sold 10 million copies worldwide beginning a new era of portability for musicians.
Radiohead front man Tom Yorke recorded his solo debut on a laptop in his tour bus. Legend has it that smash hits like Usher’s “Love In This Club” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” were built around preset loops jacked from Apple’s Garage Band software.
Lil’ Wayne carries a mobile studio duffel bag that keeps him working around the clock. From the bedroom to the jetway Apple took music making out of the studio and into the world.
When the iPod first dropped, Napster had just been shut down by the RIAA and record labels were scrambling to figure out a response to wide-spread free file-sharing. Where Metallica and Dr. Dre saw downloads as the enemy, suing file-sharing sits—and sometmes even their own fans—Jobs saw a paradigm shift, and a huge business opportunity.
The first generation iPod offered “1,000 songs in your pocket,” even if most of those songs initially came from Peer-2-Peer networks like Napster, Limewire, Soulseek and Kazaa.
For new artists without established fan bases, distribution, or label contracts, P2P meant having direct access to millions of potential fans. As the old music industry crumbled during the early 2000s, getting signed no longer became the necessary first step to a successful career. Instead artists just wanted a place on fans’ iPods.
The mixtape circuit has always brought unknown rappers into the spotlight, but one these so-called “mixtapes” were liberated from cassettes and CDs, musicians in all genres had direct access to their fans like never before.
50 Cent’s infamous 1999 song “How To Rob,” for instance, spread like wildfire on file-sharing networks, bringing him national recognition even as his debut album got shelved by Columbia.
Bundled with iPods, iTunes ended up on the desktop of PC and Mac users across the world. More than the iPod, it was this software that allowed Steve Jobs to sell his idea to the recording industry.
What Jobs realized was that even if an artist only sold ten songs on iTunes, Apple still made money. One-click shopping and 99 cent downloads ensured that fans could fulfill every impulse. Though fewer albums were going platinum, Apple was still getting stupid rich off the percentage cut it takes on every iTunes sale.
Apple went on to sell 300 million iPods and 10 billion tracks via the iTunes Store, leapfrogging Wal-Mart and Best Buy as the world’s biggest music retailer. “His stock went from $8 billion to $80 billion and ours went in reverse,” said Warner Bros CEO Roger Ames. “Not his fault.”
After negotiating with movie studios Apple began offering digital movie and television rentals, locking down yet another market where industry titans had failed.
As fans downloaded more and more music, the shuffle feature on iTunes brought it all together. Hearing your favorite Bad Brains track right after your favorite Nas banger was no longer relegated to late-night college radio.
The resulting burst of sonic variety gave rise to a new generation of sample-based artists and DJs whose practices pushed the edges of legality, and shuffle-savvy listeners were more than ready to hear everything and anything together.
What the Bomb Squad did for Public Enemy with their intricately woven tapestries of samples, these remix artists did unofficially. DJ /rupture’s genre-bending three-turnable mixtape Gold Teeth Thief was one of the first to hit the file-sharing world, launching his career and garnering a four star review in VIBE for the then-unknown artist.
Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, mixing Jay-Z acapellas with chopped-up Beatles instrumentals, brought him to fame through file-sharing networks long before his Gnarls Barkley payday. Girltalk took the shuffle aesthetic to its logical extreme, building a whole career off his ADD-friendly mashups.
When the iTunes Music Store was first introduced, many labels and groups, notably The Beatles, refused to let their music be sold on iTunes. Jobs’ favorite band had a long and tangled history with Apple, which happened to be the name of their record label, leading to an early legal battle.
But Jobs never doubted that he would win them over, personally designing The Beatles’ iTunes advertisements long before they signed on the dotted line. After years of wrangling, they finally reached an agreement in 2010. But the Fab Four weren’t the only act that took some convincing about the virtues of iTunes.
Jay-Z refused to have his 2007 album American Gangster sold on iTunes. He insisted that the album, a cinematic opus inspired by the Denzel Washington movie of the same name, was meant to be heard as a whole and not consumed as single tracks. “As movies are not sold scene by scene, this collection will not be sold as individual singles,” Hov said in a statement at the time.
But by 2011, the importance of digital sales was too great to be ignored. As part of an unprecedented release strategy, Jay-Z and Kanye West dropped Watch The Throne exclusively on iTunes before giving other retailers a chance to sell the album. They sold nearly 290,000 downloads in the first week, setting a U.S. iTunes record. Even though he didn’t know hip-hop existed until 2004, for successfully negotiating with the Jiggaman, Jobs gets maximum respect.