✖️ What if iTunes didn’t happen the way it did? 🍏
Alternative histories, Spotify, playlist culture, genre visualization, metadata
Thanks for the warm response to last week’s piece on the coming decade of the music business. This week, we’re back to the usual newsletter: a piece from my hand and highlights of noteworthy articles and graphs from other people.
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What if iTunes didn’t happen the way it did? 🍏
We all love to think “what if…”
What if Napster had managed to get its legal issues resolved? Would there be a Spotify now? What ecosystem would have emerged?
Last week I listened to a podcast interview between Tim Ferriss and Tony Fadell (“the father of the iPod”). They went into a piece of music tech history I wasn’t familiar with. Turns out iTunes launched as a somewhat re-engineered version of a startup’s software Apple acquired. This startup was called SoundJam and they had made some music software that would run on Macs, and could sync libraries with Rio music players. There’s a screenshot of it below and it kind of reminds me of WinAmp which I avidly used until Spotify came around. Note the chrome UI element which was characteristic for iTunes for a long time.
But there was another company Spotify was looking into acquiring. They were called Panic and developed a player named Audion. Also similar to WinAmp, it was more feature-rich than SoundJam and counted skins and visualizations among its features.
Audion didn’t end up getting acquired by Apple, because they never ended up meeting. The Audion team was already in talks with AOL and wanted to bring them together with Apple for a meeting. That meeting got canceled when AOL couldn’t make it, and that was the end of that.
The team behind SoundJam became the first developers to work on iTunes and after being lead developer for iTunes, one of SoundJam’s creators is now Apple’s VP of consumer applications.
Every product has a philosophy behind it and sometimes this philosophy can change the interfaces of a whole space. Look at how Tinder changed dating with its left-right swipe interface: not only a newcomer like Bumble decided to go for that, but so did the incumbent OkCupid. Or take Snapchat and the way its format influenced Instagram Stories and TikTok. This happens in music too, where some of the biggest influences can be traced back to IRC and Napster.
I think iTunes’ legacy is playlists. It really put the playlist front and center, which later on was also at the base of early Spotify. Spotify initially had no way to save artists or albums: you could star tracks and drag stuff into playlists. That was it.
It makes me so curious: if Apple had acquired Audion instead of SoundJam, would iTunes have been playlist-centric? Would the unbundling of the album have come about in the same way? Would we have the same type of ‘playlist economy’ as we see now?
If you’re curious to see what iTunes looked like upon launch, here’s a video of Steve Jobs demoing it (from 4:32 - excuse the pixels, we’re digging deep into YouTube’s archives):
Bo Plantinga looked at Spotify chart data from The Netherlands to visualize trends in genres in popular music. One of the most interesting findings in her visualizations echos the importance of local repertoire in the streaming age. In her charts you can clearly see local repertoire coming to dominate streaming charts.
The core charts of her data visualization project are visually awesome to look at, so do make sure to click through to her article where Bo also provides links to interactive graphs.
The infographic of the week goes to ROSTR, who looked at the agencies behind the artists booked to appear at Coachella. One of the findings: just 4 agencies - Paradigm, WME, CAA & UTA represent almost 75% of the lineup.
Chuck Fishman explains the impact of accents and umlauts on artist names at popular music services, highlighting the importance to take good care of your metadata. Turns out some services won’t return any results if you don’t have the artist name spelling 100% correct. So one may want to consider the implications of their artist name before building a career on it.
Having done product at music services, I’d actually argue that this is poor UX on behalf of the services. You want to be accommodating for your users: not everyone can find all the right accents and umlauts on their keyboards, let alone remember the placement of them in artists’ names. As a music service one of your key KPIs is either the amount of transactions (music sold) or listening time. You want to reduce any friction users may experience towards those KPIs: having a great search engine is an important part of that.
For The New York Times, Mark Binelli wrote a long read about hologram music performances. What struck me is a common assumption that new technologies are often marketed to younger generations. However, if you look at who is ‘performing’ (Orbison, Bowie, Whitney Houston, Callas) the demographic quickly skews to an older audience.
Following their recent announcement to collaborate with scientists at the University of Manchester to create a green blueprint for touring, Massive Attack is now continuing touring by train. I think it’s excellent, but unfortunately very hard for many artists even in parts of the world where train infrastructure is great.
For more info on green touring, here are two excellent guides:
The Green Touring Guide (PDF). A thorough 50-page guide covering most aspects of touring in-depth.
“Customers can now purchase soundtracks without purchasing the base game.”
Video game platform Steam now lets its users buy video games directly. Previously soundtracks had been offered as downloadable content and tied in with video game expansions, storylines, and other in-game things people might pay for. It’s good seeing Steam dedicate its team’s hours to updating the app’s architecture to better accommodate for music. Very curious to hear whether this opens up more revenue for soundtrack composers.
(if that’s you and you’d like to share data - drop me a line)
New on MUSIC x GREEN 🌱
Every week I share the new projects posted to MUSIC x GREEN: the directory for a more sustainable music business.
Reducing electricity related gas emissions at music festivals: an academic study into making festivals more carbon neutral
The Smart Energy Guide: how to make temporary events’ use of energy smarter
Plastic bags better for the environment than cotton tote bags? It depends
Rapanui: a sustainable merch firm
Powerful Thinking: a think-do tank to reduce festivals’ carbon footprints
You can check all of them out by heading over to MUSIC x GREEN and clicking on the “NEW ✨” filter.
I’m aware of a small bug with the submission form. After submitting, it said“Something went wrong”. Don’t worry: submissions are coming through successfully. I’m working on fixing the bug. Meanwhile I’ve switched the previous form out with a link to a Google Form. 🛠️
Written while listening to rave group RMB’s 1995 debut album This World is Yours.