The music business is messy. It’s filled to the brim with individuals and conglomerates each looking to get a piece of the revenue pie. Unfortunately for the artists, and the suits who market, promote, and often leech off those artists, music streaming has ushered in a general decline in music sales since the turn of the century.
The advent of Napster, an eyepatch-wearing website that originated as a music piracy service, gave way to the regulation of digital music files. Apple’s iTunes followed soon after, creating a trend that pushed web-based services to the forefront of the music industry, leaving CDs to slowly rot on Wal-Mart’s shelves.
But now, with Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in the rearview, the industry is signaling yet another shift. The tech behemoth announced the end of iTunes, which would effectively shutter the largest unified music marketplace on the planet.
Apple regularly spearheads technological decisions. The dismissal of the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 annexed audiophiles from iOS devices and subsequently ignited an industry wide race to seal up the analog standard for sound reproduction. Though Apple’s (and the industry’s decision) came at a cost to users, it was a cost-saving measure for the companies, allowing them to accelerate the development of wireless alternatives to 3.5mm cans, thereby introducing consumers to a new product marketplace.
The same can be said about the unfortunate addition of notches on phones. Essential Phone was the technical progenitor, but iPhone’s virality normalized public acceptance of missing screen real estate.
Thus, the death of iTunes is unsurprising. As music streaming becomes ubiquitous and its related revenues are on the rise, Apple can save money by ditching the more expensive licensing agreements to save money. And every penny counts, especially when the recent US-Chinese tariffs could increase manufacturing expenses.
Corporate dollars aside, like the abolishment of the headphone jack, the end of iTunes arrives at an interesting time. Apple recently announced the revival—or continuation, since it never really died—of its iPod Touch products. Effectively an iPhone without a SIM card, iPods thrived on Apple’s music purchasing service.
But more than the incongruity of iTunes-less iPods, the internet without iTunes presents a bigger problem of music accessibility.
After numerous delays, the Japanese role-playing game Persona 5 released in western markets in April 2017. It was the continuation of a series that hadn’t released a main series game in nearly a decade and, like one of its taglines, the game made good on its intentions to steal the fandoms’ hearts.
By my estimation, Persona 5 is already a classic. For years, the Persona series failed to capture gamers’ attentions beyond a vocal minority. Persona 3 and 4, released on the PlayStation 2, were critically acclaimed, if publicly understated, games that threaded together detailed, turn-based combat with enthralling stories.
Both games’ atmospheres were strengthened by their soundtracks. Series composer Meguro Shouji hand-crafted highly recognizable earworms for 3 and 4: Persona 3 featured a hip-hop and electronic driven soundscape to fuel the technologically advanced city of Iwotodai, while Persona 4 drove home the mellow vibes of Inaba, a lazy countryside town.
This trend carried into Persona 5. Meguro returned to the ones and twos to compose an acid jazz-inspired soundtrack that successfully highlighted the game’s setting and plot elements, from the hustle and bustle of Shibuya, to the villains’ twisted psychological musings and protagonists’ carefree youth.
The soundtrack immediately struck a positive chord with fans. JRPGs, regularly experiment with sound, but more times than not the elegant and regal instrumentals, like those featured in Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy, end up as standard fare.
So, when Atlus Sound Team decided to bring the Persona 5 soundtrack to the west, it was time to rejoice. Though the 110-track album was regularly listed on importer websites like Play-Asia, the $29.99 price tag on the iTunes store offered the best song-to-dollar ratio.
Even though the album dropped in the west in January 2017, at which point streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify were ubiquitous, Atlus refrained from posting the project for play on streaming sites, likely to recoup costs for the licensing agreement – creators on iTunes can earn as much as $.60 per song or $6.00 per album purchase compared to the $0.007 that Apple Music pays out per stream. And this doesn’t even account for the price disparity in the global iTunes marketplace.
Inevitably, in a world without streaming, and in which digital piracy is far from slowing down, the iTunes store was a beacon of hope for geographically stranded fans. Apple’s curation of the largest music licensing service ever—it currently boasts over 43 million songs—gave new hope to the music fanatics looking to build out their collections. The ease of posting music to and downloading it from sites like SoundCloud or DatPiff was counter-balanced by the financial security for artists and audio quality for consumers that iTunes professed.
Though music purchasing isn’t going anywhere—as much was made clear at WWDC on June 3—the path for Japanese and other non-western releases is dreary. There is an inherent devaluation of purchasing music with iTunes’ shelving. Sure, the software was more than a music store, offering data sync capabilities, video, podcasts and more. But the emphasis on music, specifically owning music, is baked right into the name.
For now, nothing has changed. All of iTunes features continue to function as per usual in the hours following WWDC. Still nothing is for certain. It’s about time to make those CD backups of all the music I downloaded.
My Mac doesn’t have a disc drive.