For the last decade and a half, the music industry was shaped heavily by iTunes. Released in 2003, the platform helped the music business acclimate to changes in technology and shifted it toward digital downloading. For many years, digital downloading was extremely lucrative and accounted for the majority of record sales. Recently, however, that number has dwindled as streaming has emerged as the more favorable option.
As a result, many reports unfortunately point to iTunes potentially being ushered out as early as the end of next month. The process began with Apple Music’s debut in June 2015. Since then, Apple has been pushing its customer base toward streaming music rather than downloading it from iTunes.
Now that sales of iPhones and other devices are declining, Apple is refocusing its brand on subscription services; this, of course, includes Apple Music as well as a Netflix-esque video service it will announce early next month. From there, attention may be turned away from downloading on iTunes and toward streaming.
This decision will have widespread effects across multiple industries. Ironically, Apple Music — and other streaming services — will be negatively affected due to increased pressure from labels and recording artists. Since streaming does not pay as much as digital sales, Apple’s decision to remove the feature option may give labels sufficient reason to pressure artists into augmenting its streaming royalties. Perhaps this will come in the form of removing songs and albums from streaming services until rates are increased, or maybe labels will push to pass legislation that establishes a price floor for streaming royalties. Regardless of the method, competitors like Spotify, Amazon and Google will also be forced to increase their rates to remain competitive.
Getting rid of iTunes will (and should) also make the “windowing” method for new music releases more popular as long as labels are smart about it. “Windowing” is when a recording artist withholds new material from streaming services for a period of time. For example, Taylor Swift kept her 2017 album “reputation” from Spotify during its first week of release. Other artists, like Kanye West and Beyoncé, have done the same thing in the past.
This is an easy way to potentially increase sales, but only if artists are strategic. The smart thing to do would be to keep the streaming release date secretive. Beyoncé’s self-titled, fifth studio album was kept away from all streaming services for an entire year after its release. Many fans did not know when it would appear on Apple Music and Spotify, or if it ever would, which likely pushed them to purchase it outright. Similarly, her sixth studio album “Lemonade” has yet to appear on any streaming service almost three years after its release, so the majority of its sales have been downloads. Of course, this technique can alienate a large number of fans and increase music piracy, but it definitely has the potential to increase the number of pure music sales without the need for platforms like iTunes.
Interestingly, iTunes’ death may actually aid music distribution in some ways. There is seemingly a growing sense of music nostalgia among millennials, which means old-school music paraphernalia — like CDs and vinyl records — are making a strong comeback.
The industry needs to leverage this. It is conceivable that a label or recording artist could set up their own way to facilitate music downloads, such as a secure Dropbox, and attach a digital download file to every purchase of a CD or vinyl LP. In this case, fans can be satisfied with having a physical copy for decorative purposes as well as a digital copy that will actually be used for consumption. Either way, labels are happy with being paid more than they would if the album were streamed.
Alternatively, artists could also attach digital downloads to every purchase of merchandise (T-shirts, buttons, pens, shot glasses). Essentially, they can give fans the option to digitally download music directly from their websites.
In any case, the era of digital downloading is mostly over, and its decline is not something that the recording industry will be able to halt. Apple’s eventual termination of iTunes is only going to add insult to injury, but hopefully the music business will be clever enough to implement solutions to offset the effects.
Willard Givens is a sophomore writing about the music industry. His column, “From The Soundboard,” runs every other Monday.