When Steve Jobs officially stepped down several weeks ago, one pundit compared him to Thomas Edison. Another compared him to Albert Einstein.
I’m not sure about either comparison. Edison is probably more accurate. But if by doing so they wanted to imply that Jobs, who died today at 56, was a visionary who radically and permanently changed the world (not just culture), that is inarguably correct.
Since I mainly cover music here at Hitfix, I’m going to concentrate solely on how he and Apple changed the music business by creating iTunes and take you back to when Apple first birthed the download service.
In addition to being a master of design, ingenuity and business, Jobs was also a master of timing. In 2001, Napster and Kazaa were killing the music industry and Jobs rode in, on what looked like a gorgeous white horse at the time, to save the day. He began wooing labels and promising that if they would come along with him, he would guarantee that together, they could monetize digital downloads.
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After about 18 months of discussions, he launched the iTunes Music Store in April 2003 during a huge presentation at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. And it was good.
As he told me in my only one-on-one in person interview with him, the negotiations all came down to personal usage rights. In other words, there were all kinds of rules in place to keep someone from downloading a song and then sharing it with the rest of the world for free. The initial conversations with labels, he said, came down to “convincing them that the songs were going to be on Kazaa; there was nothing they could do to stop that except compete. [We told them] that we could help them compete and that we were going to build a store to do that.”
Even back then, the buzz was about the Beatles allowing their music to be on iTunes. “Oh, I think we’re moving in that direction,” Jobs told me in 2003... So, that one took a little time than planned, but Apple’s persistence certainly paid off.
I remember, as I waited my turn for my audience with Jobs, feeling like I was going to visit the wizard. I was getting a glimpse behind the curtain (and I literally was.... following his presentation, he was sequestered in a makeshift interview area constructed from pipe and drape). As I sat down with Jobs, he was surrounded by flacks and his consiglieres, who answered any of the specific details. He was there to address big picture, essay questions, and, ultimately, not to give a single shred of information away that he hadn’t already said. Given that the stock price hinged on his every word, I shouldn’t have been surprised by how guarded he was, but I was keenly aware that I was sitting, probably for the first and only time, in the presence of a true genius, and the fact that he’d haltingly answer a question, often consulting with his publicist first, and then still not say very much was a little short of shocking. I didn't expect a scoop, but I expected a boldness for someone who so clearly did not obey any of the rules by which the rest of us adhered.
Because iTunes represented a lifeline for the music industry, the (then) five major record companies were willing to accede to almost all of Jobs’ demands. Bathed in hubris, the label powers that be had practically dared consumers to steal from them by refusing to give the people what they wanted: the ability to purchase singles. Many labels had deleted singles, making buying an entire album (or illegally downloading) the only option for fans even if they only wanted one song.
So, without much of a fight, the music companies agreed to sell all songs for .99 cents with no thought at all of variable pricing (that would come much later). Additionally, almost all albums had to be available on a track-by-track basis, which prevented a number of artists, including Madonna and Metallica, from signing up right away (Garth Brooks and AC/DC remain hold-outs until this day).
The music industry believed, in a naive way, that Apple cared about selling music, when the truth was that Apple, and Jobs, cared about selling content as a means to drive hardware sales, whether it be iPods, Nanos, laptops, or iPads. They were a technology company, not a music company. Content was merely a means to an end.
So inevitably, the deal began to sour a little and some executives who had been very much out there shilling for and promoting iTunes stepped back (as did some artists. I wonder how Jobs felt when U2, iTunes' No. 1 fan, chose Blackberry to sponsor its tour?). The industry tried various solutions to come up with competitors to iTunes, this monster that they had very willingly created, and every time they have come up short. To be sure, there are other players (R.I.P. Zune) and other music services, but iTunes and Apple’s dominance is so supreme that they are merely also-rans. Now I just laugh when I see the term, "iTunes killer."
There are some folks who now look at iTunes as the album killer, and by extension, an invention that in some ways, did the music industry harm. But they miss the point. Jobs saw the future with a clarity that they could not. He gave consumers a way to legally purchase music, if they chose to, in a way that they could afford, artists and labels be damned (Though I firmly believe that Apple should give artists the option to sell their albums only as complete sets if that is their wish).
Though his team of designers, engineers and braintrust remains largely intact, it’s impossible to conceive of anyone taking his place, of developing the cult of personality that he represented in his signature black turtle neck and blue jeans (Those Moscone Center events were like religious rallies, so fervent and blindly devoted were his followers).
The 1-2 punch of iTunes and iPods made it so that we could carry our music, lots and lots of it, with us wherever we went in our pocket. It's hard to imagine that even 10 year ago we couldn't do that.
For all his inventions and ways he changed our lives, what I can't quite get my head around tonight and what is so ineffably sad is that his brilliance meant nothing in the face of fighting cancer. When it came to that mighty foe, he was a mere mortal just like anyone else. In some way, I hope he froze his body so he can be revived when we figure out how to do that. No matter when it is, I have no doubt he'll emerge still ahead of the curve.