The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind…
With the iPod and iTunes, Steve Jobs created the definitive business model for music in the digital age. MP3 players and digital music stores already existed, of course, but he knew better than others what to make of them – “Creativity is just connecting things,” he said. “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.” Apple, till recently, was a niche computer manufacturer. Today it is an electronics consumer product giant. And it began with the iPod.
U2’s Bono remarked that “The people who invented the 21st century had their consciousness shaped by music”1. He was referring specifically to Steve Jobs who was a child of the sixties and seventies. Steve Jobs was a huge fan of Bob Dylan and briefly dated Joan Baez. While talking to Rolling Stone in 2003 he said “We grew up in a generation where music was an incredibly intimate part. More intimate than it had been, and maybe more intimate than it is today, because today there’s a lot of other alternatives.”2 The current generation, according to him, had so much to choose from – video games and TV which, for him, was ‘the most corrosive pieces of technology’ , though magnificent if used differently. Music, he thought, needed to be reinvented for the digital generation.
And he assembled a brilliant team to do that – Jonathan Rubinstein, head of Apple’s hardware division, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s designer and Tony Fadell, an engineer who, at the time, was hawking an idea for a portable music player. He had been rejected by Sony but was soon picked up by Apple. Several prototypes down the line, the team came up with a model which met Steve Jobs’s standards of simplicity and elegance – three pushes for a song and an utterly clean design – no battery door or switches. Something so simple that the soundscape emanating felt like a natural extension of one’s personality. And the following years yielded variants of increasing smallness and simplicity (iPod Touch, iPod Mini, the iPod Nano).
But the real key to Apple’s success was iTunes. Record labels had been used to eking out maximum advantage from the consumer. Napster had upended them but they still wanted to retain the upper hand. Their digital outlets rented rather than sold music. And they wanted locks on the music to ensure it could not be shared. Steve Jobs, on the other hand, had no problem riding the wind in the direction it was blowing. His business strategy, in any case, had always been to provide products and services in a design and on terms convenient to the user. But iTunes when it was introduced was up against an impasse – people were getting music for free so why would they want to pay to get it from iTunes? Steve Jobs, however, had a hunch that people would prefer to do things legally rather than illegally if the price was right and the system was simple. And he went with this idea to major record labels and got them to set up a one-stop music superstore with him which by itself was a major achievement and speaks volumes for his powers of persuasion. iTunes was set up shortly after than and it functioned in signature Steve Jobs fashion – the music was great, easily downloadable with each track costing 99 cents only.
One million tracks sold in the first week and ten million by the end of the first year. iTunes is now the largest seller of music – digital or otherwise – in the United States, having sold more than 5 billion songs globally, not forgetting that in addition to this, Apple has sold a lot of iPods off its back. Apple must, in fact, be the richest player in music today. This is thanks to a vision which privileges the customer, a vision which record labels have willy-nilly had to cooperate with and which all media companies are reckoning with one way or the other. Steve Jobs was a creative genius who went against conventional wisdom as if he just couldn’t do otherwise– to quote Bono in Rolling Stone again “He’s a creature of quite progressive thinking, and his reverence for shape and sound and contour and creativity did not come from the boardroom.”3
Business for Steve Jobs was more than business. As he said so himself, Apple was quite simply his life. This integrity, the infusion of his intuition and inner voice into his corporate vision led to a powerfully creative cocktail making him quite simply the best at whatever category of product he produced. EMI revealed that Steve had begun designing ads for the inclusion of The Beatles on iTunes long before he was awarded the license to do so simply because he was such a great fan. Such passion and personal involvement was a crucial ingredient in his success.
With the introduction of the App Store on iTunes, Steve Jobs has created a single platform for software programs to be used on iPods, iPhones and iPads. Over a billion apps have been downloaded from the App Store making iTunes an inescapable part of the digital world. Most importantly, it has made legal download possible at reasonable prices. For all of us and especially for music, Steve Jobs “saw the future and brought it to life”4. Women on Record thanks him, mourns him and pays heartfelt tribute to him.
4 Michael Bloomberg, Mayor, New York City.