At yesterday’s 2019 Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced iTunes is over.
It’s understandable. iTunes never had the best UX, and its purpose as a music store was made semi-obsolete by consumers’ preference for streaming music instead of owning it.
Now, instead of using iTunes as a one-stop shop for music, podcasts, and video, Apple will offer users three distinct apps: Apple Music, Apple Podcasts, and Apple TV. This change will take place beginning with MacOS 10.15 Catalina.
Meanwhile, what happens to all the customers like me who purchased music through iTunes over the past 18 years? Well, as Pitchfork reports:
In a statement, Apple clarifies that through the Music app, users will continue to “have access to their entire music library, whether they downloaded the songs, purchased them or ripped them from a CD.” The iTunes Music store will still be available.
… for now, anyway.
That’s slightly comforting. But it also marks the end of the iTunes era.
So, as an old school digital music fan, I feel like this is a good time to look back at what iTunes meant — to me, at least — and why streaming music services may surpass it, but they can’t quite replace it.
But to do that, I need to first go back even further…
1996: Radio, Radio…
In 1996, I became a DJ at WERG-FM, the Gannon University radio station in Erie, PA.
I was not a Gannon student. (It’s a long story.) The point is, there were a lot of CDs at the station, and whenever a CD left the regular rotation, the DJs could request to take it home. I wound up with a few hundred CDs that way, mostly from obscure acts, local bands, and college radio darlings who never found mainstream success. (Gene’s 1997 album Drawn to the Deep End remains one of my all-time favorite albums that maybe six Americans have ever heard of.)
When I left Erie to attend college in 1997, my growing CD collection came with me.
1998: Play It Again, Sam
In 1998, at college in Pittsburgh, I got a part-time job working at Sam Goody.
Sam Goody was part of the Musicland group of media stores, which included Suncoast Motion Picture Company and Media Play. At Sam Goody, we had a huge wall of VHS tapes, but most of our store’s floor space was filled with CD racks. My time there was spent alphabetizing CDs in their long plastic cases, changing out the weekly yellow sale price slips for new releases and special discounts, and making sure the LP-sized cover art wall for our top 20 best-sellers was displayed in the right order.
I also wound up buying dozens of CDs with my employee discount, and getting twice as many for free during our monthly purge of the promo bin. (Hello, lifelong love of the Afghan Whigs album 1965.)
In a sign of things to come, all of the Musicland brands were eventually bought by Best Buy, which shut them all down over the next decade.
After graduating college, I retired from the retail world and got a full-time job making videos… but I missed having access to new music, so I also volunteered as a music reviewer for a website called Splendid.
Splendid was a music review site based in Chicago, but they had volunteer writers from across the U.S. Their motto was “we review everything,” which was a bold claim to make because the site’s P.O. Box got more promo and DIY CDs mailed to it every week than the site had writers to review them.
As a volunteer, I was expected to review at least 3 CDs every week. This involved listening to each album a few times, writing a review of between 200-1000 words, scanning the CD cover to use as an image for the article, and recording three audio tracks from each album to serve as in-article previews. Every few weeks, I’d get another pouch of 20-30 CDs to review, along with the occasional stray DVD, self-published novel, or indie comic book.
This was, basically, a part-time job all its own. Which I did for free, because I got to hear new, random, undiscovered music from bands most people would never hear about otherwise. (And, occasionally, from artists who would go on to bigger things, like this 2002 interview I did with future Grammy and Oscar nominee Tegan Quin of Tegan and Sara while they were touring to promote their second album, If It Was You.)
Needless to say, my CD collection grew exponentially during this year and a half.
2005: A Whole New iTunes World
In 2005, I bought my first MacBook. It came with iTunes.
I was downsizing my belongings because I planned to move to London. That never happened (it’s another long story), but the downsizing did, and its most visible effect was on my now-tiny CD collection.
In the space of a few months, I digitized several hundred CDs using iTunes.
(This was doubly handy, because as a then-new freelancer who frequently struggled to make ends meet, if I ever came up short for rent, I’d just digitize a few dozen more CDs and sell the physical copies to my local CD resale shop.)
Suddenly, a collection that once took up most of my bedroom wall now fit entirely on my laptop, and I’d never have to lug boxes and crates full of CDs around again from new apartment to new apartment. Crazy!
But the craziest part of all wasn’t that I could also buy new music through iTunes, and therefore avoid having to buy CDs altogether. (I wouldn’t start doing that until 2009 anyway, because old habits die hard.)
No, for me, the most important feature of my new life with iTunes was the playlist function.
Or, more specifically, the play counts.
Have I Mentioned That I’m a Numbers Geek?
Back at WERG-FM, I was the guy who loved putting together top 5 lists, top 20 countdowns, and the Top 100 Year-End Countdown of 1996. (Our #1 song that year was “Down” by 311, because the ’90s were a strange decade.)
This rankings obsession stems back to my childhood love of radio countdown shows, Dial MTV, and pop culture lists in general. In 7th and 8th grade, I was glued to the radio every night for the WJET-FM Top 10 at 10, a nightly 10 p.m. countdown of the day’s most-requested tracks. (Bell Biv Devoe’s “Do Me” topped that list for a scandalous number of days in 1990.)
All of which is to say that when I realized iTunes allowed me to create smart playlists that would track my total play counts for every song I added, FOREVER, and thus enable to me to see my most-listened-to songs from each year, in real time, year after year… well, I was now prepared to be an iTunes customer for life.
And I had the playlists to prove it.
From 2005 to 2019, I kept an automatically-updating playlist of every year’s 100 most-listened-to tracks. I also kept a list of my Top 200 all-time most-played songs on iTunes. (My tastes may have changed over time, but it’s hard to crack a leaderboard filled with songs that have a 10-year lead.)
I also created a new custom playlist every January. It consisted of over 700 songs (744, to be precise) which would serve as my primary playlist for that year. It would also absorb the 150-200 new songs I’d buy, on average, throughout the year. Maintaining this yearly list was my biggest music geek pastime, because it involved following all kinds of self-imposed rules based on genre, gender balance, and all-time play counts.
I keep mentioning the all-time play counts for one big reason: I’ve had the same iTunes library since 2005.
I have a library of over 2500 albums, and close to 15,000 songs, and I’ve copied it over to all five MacBooks I’ve ever owned. It includes playlists for every screenplay or creative project I’m working on, plus 16 different greatest hits lists based on my personal listening habits.
Basically, I have 14 years’ worth of one long uninterrupted musical journey in iTunes.
And today, that journey ends.
2019: Streaming, I Guess?
Look, I’m not a total Luddite. I subscribe to Spotify and I enjoy it.
(I even manage several playlists there, because of course I do.)
But you know what I don’t enjoy about Spotify?
Not being able to see my all-time play counts.
I know, I know… I can make a last.fm account and link it to my Spotify account, and then last.fm will track my Spotify plays… but doesn’t reading that sentence sound like an asinine amount of work for something that a music listening service should offer automatically?
There are other things I’ll miss about iTunes too… like being able to listen to my own library without being bombarded with the distraction of new music in the process… or being able to create smart playlists that evolve in real time with my listening habits… and maybe I should have saved some of those CDs I digitized after all, since there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to access them in the future if Apple discontinues iTunes support down the line.
Most of all, I’ll miss the idea that I could have one continuous music-listening experience that lasted from device to device, for the rest of my life, that was mine.
I’ll miss looking up an old song in my library and seeing the last time I played it — sometimes 10 or 15 years ago — and remembering where (and who) I was back then.
iTunes was my music collection, my mood, and my own personal record of the life I’d lived on my laptop for over a decade. I intend to keep playing the library I’ve compiled there until I no longer can, even if I can’t add anything new to it. And I’m sure streaming will prove to be more cost-efficient, more user-friendly, and more conducive to finding new music and staying connected to the beat of the moment.
I just wish all those moments were still adding up.