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iTunes Music Store's 20th Anniversary
My relationship with music has evolved throughout my life as a result of new formats, devices, and services. My taste, however, has largely remained the same thanks to a few select rappers and groups. There’s a reason no one asks me to select the music during a dinner party.
I started with cassette tapes. I recall receiving an MC Hammer tape as a gift and not really understanding the point of listening to music. It was fun for a few minutes, but then I would get bored and go back to Legos. Eventually I discovered that one could record songs onto blank cassette tapes from the radio to create custom mixes although that introduced ads and babbling from DJs.
Then came CDs. I received a Green Day album as a gift and encountered the same problem: fun for just a few minutes. The first change that impacted by my listening habits came in the form of a device: the Discman. Now I could listen to music without being tied to my little stereo. Music became a little more fun but I’d still get bored with an artist after a few songs. I would constantly swap CDs to satisfy a mood.
One day it all changed thanks to the MP3 format and Napster application. Now I could download any song I wanted at approximately 2-5 kilobits per second. Sometimes I would leave a few downloads running all night and hope that by the time I woke up for school a few had completed. The problem was storage. My Performa 6300’s 1.2 gigabyte hard drive was close to being full, so I stored my MP3 collection on a 100 megabyte Zip disk. This forced me to constantly delete and reprioritize my collection.
MP3s were awesome, but I was tied to my computer to enjoy
my music. A device was needed. Around this time I got my first job as an intern at a startup in Palo Alto, CA named gig.com. Their goal was to build an “internet locker” for storing and streaming a music collection. Great idea, but way too early. Since it was a music company every employee was given a Rio 500 which had a whopping 64 megabytes of storage (approximately 14 songs). The fun was back, but one had to constantly manage the device and swap songs slowly using iTunes over a USB 1.0 connection.
My neighbor purchased a CD burner which represented another step change. 650 megabytes per CD! Now I could travel with a packet of CDs each ready to play approximately 14 songs. Most importantly: these were my mixes. I made mixes for genres, moods, and occasions. Fun and variety were achieved, but now I had the inconvenience of carrying around a packet of CDs. At some point I got my own CD burner and CD burning software finally allowed one to burn CDs without frist converting to WAV files. Yes, for some time you needed 650 megabytes of hard drive space just to burn the data to a CD.
Time for an unfortunate, nerdy misstep. I purchased a MiniDisc player (specifically the Sony MZ-R55). It was so cool looking, and popping those little discs in and out of the player felt futuristic. Each disc held 74 minutes of music, but it took literally 74 minutes fo transfer the data. One of the benefits to MiniDiscs was the ID3 tag data could appear on the little remote you held (or clipped to your clothes) while playing music. The remote had a tiny screen that would display the artist and song name. This sounds insignificant but at the time it was helpful to browse songs by name before hitting play.
When I showed up to college with the MiniDisc player, listening to MP3s on the go was arguably still niche and difficult to navigate. People were amassing large collections on their computers and listening using applications like iTunes and Winamp. Something was missing.
The iPod. At $399 it was a tough sell so I continued recording and swapping Minidiscs for a year while I saved money. I recall initial reactions focused on existing products that had more storage for less money. But, as I’ve repeated to anyone who will listen since first using a Mac, they were ugly, unintuitive, and slow. Instead of up, down, left, right, the iPod allowed you to scroll quickly using a simple, circular motion. Scrolling had acceleration which somehow felt both magical and natural. One could navigate playlists and long lists of songs, and transfer them quickly from a computer. Slow downloads and slow CD burning all of a sudden felt archaic when one watched the speed of file transfers onto an iPod using a FireWire connection. Songs transferred in seconds! My first iPod was the 10 gigabyte second generation model purchased in 2002. The moving scroll wheel was replaced with a capacitive wheel that didn’t physically move. This was tricky in cold Ithaca winters when one constantly wore gloves outside.
Now we had fun, elegance, beauty, convenience, and speed. The last piece for Apple to fix was the source of MP3 files. We were stuck using LimeWire on the Mac which meant the occasional corrupt file, inconsistent ID3 tags, no album artwork, and breaking the law.
One more detour is necessary. In 2002 I joined Apple as a summer intern in the Hardware Engineering department. I worked in the Build to Order lab ensuring that new third party hardware worked as expected with current and soon to be shipping Apple software and hardware. This was a dream come true.
Interns were fortunate to meet with and hear directly from executives including Jon Rubinstein, Tony Fadell, and… Steve Jobs. I remember receiving an email saying that the next executive’s name would not be shared. This was it. We gathered in building 4 and in he walked. He talked about many subjects including his personal life when someone asked what his biggest mistake was.
Music came up. He discussed the experience of downloading and ripping music and how it wasn’t good enough. Less than a year later the iTunes Music Store launched. During the announcement I recalled sitting in that room as an intern listening to him talk about owning music in the digital age. He was telling us Apple’s plans almost a year in advance. Incredible.
The iTunes Music Store launched on April 28, 2003. Somehow 20 years have passed. I remember updating to the new version of iTunes, searching for a song, and clicking “Buy.” The song downloaded in seconds. Finally. No more LimeWire. It was now easy to get MP3 files that had high quality album artwork, correct labels, and no random blip or scratch sounds.
I didn’t have a lot of money in college so my collection grew slowly at first. A few months after the launch, Apple announced that 100 million songs were going to be given away as codes in Pepsi bottles. I was more of a Diet Coke with Lime kind of guy at the time, but I knew it was time to make the switch. As a part of my college meal plan I could purchase bottles of Pepsi with lunch, dinner, and maybe a snack or two throughout the day. Not every bottle included a code though which meant a wasted opportunity.
People quickly discovered that if you tilted the bottle at a precise angle, you could see if the cap had a sufficient number of characters to represent a code. Boom. My collection exploded. I started buying multiple bottles at a time. I also looked insane standing by refrigerators for several seconds at a time while tilting bottles and carefully looking at them.
For some reason I thought it was fun to save the bottles and organize them into a grid even as the collection grew to over 100 bottles. Eventually it was time to grow up… and just save the caps. I found them in a little box in 2017 when I moved in with my girlfriend (now wife and mother of the cutest kid in the world). She (rightfully) made me throw them away. Fortunately there is photographic evidence.
Now… I no longer feel connected to music. The playlists I so carefully organized disappeared during Apple’s journey from iTunes to Apple Music. My purchased songs are gone too. Perhaps I need to pay $20 per year for iTunes Match? I no longer feel compelled to organize music in Apple Music or Spotify (the Kleins have a family account which is primarily used to play Raffi nowadays). Because music is infinite it feels cheap. Easily discarded. Boring. I assume my feelings towards music are also a result of never being in an environment where music is playing. I also don’t feel I have time to truly listen to music. If I want background noise or if I’m driving/commuting I prefer listening to podcasts. I find them both more entertaining and educational. There are also podcasts to match moods similar to how I used music in college.
Thank you for joining me on this tale of my life through music. Hearing that it was the iTunes Music Store’s 20th anniversary got me thinking about all of these devices, formats, and naturally my bottle collection.