Monday, June 10, 2019

The end of iTunes

Earlier this month, Apple announced it was ending iTunes, news that was met with a shrug. It seems that many people hated it, and it did, indeed, seem a relic because, as the chart above shows, revenue from streaming music overtook digital downloads some time ago. But when it was introduced, iTunes was revolutionary and a perfect example of “disruptive technology”. Times have changed.

When iTunes was announced in 2001, it created a way to load music onto the company’s iPod music player (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPod). In so doing, it began to usher in the era of digital music. When they introduced the iTunes Store in 2003, it became the first legal way to buy and download digital music and created the then-radical idea of allowing customers to buy individual songs, not just entire albums. Some artists hated this, preferring to think of their album as a kind of unitary entity, but consumers loved it.

In 2005, Apple added support for podcasts to iTunes and the iTunes store, which made the medium much more widely available and easy to use. That development killed off some of the independent software, called “podcatchers”. However, as iTunes has declined, it’s no longer the only way that people get their podcasts, and various other ways, such as Stitcher Radio, though there was controversy about that (see also below), relating to Stitcher placing ads on podcasts they provided, without sharing revenue with the content creators.

It’s probably fair to say that the end of iTunes won’t affect (or, apparently, bother…) many people, since most people now stream their music or download it from one of those services. And, people will still be able to buy music through Apple, just not using iTunes.

Desktop Macs will be like iOS devices (iPhone, iPad), with three separate Apps, one for music, one for podcasts, and one for movies. Making Macs work more like iOS devices will appeal to some people, especially those new to the “Apple ecosystem”. Backups of iOS devices will be handled in Finder, which is the basic level of the MacOS and includes the desktop.

To some of us, however, it’ll be annoying to have three different Apps to manage digital audio-visual content and a fourth thing to handle iOS device backups. Also, the history isn’t good: When the Podcast App was first introduced to iOS, replacing iTunes, it was terrible: It was frustratingly hard to use, and it was difficult to add podcast subscriptions. That got better with upgrades, but there will be an opportunity for third-party developers to make a “better iTunes” to re-merge the functions. There are companies making podcast apps for iOS, so it seems natural to have fully integrated Apps, at least for audio content.

I seem to be one of the few people who actually didn’t mind iTunes’ shortcomings because of how easy it was to make playlists to organise music and podcasting libraries. I also used iTunes to create the MP3 versions of my podcasts because it was easier and faster than the other methods I’ve used. When iTunes goes, I may end up changing how I make podcasts, too.

Still, people complained about the “useless” features of iTunes, and there is one that even I don’t use anymore: Burning CDs of music. In fact, modern Macs don’t even have CD drives anymore, and we don’t have a disc player hooked up to our TVs, either. It was convenient and easy to use back in the day, though. iTunes also worked the other way: Creating MP3 copies of physical CDs, but we did that years ago (and there are other Apps that specialise in creating digital audio files from physical media).

I don’t always want to stream music—sometimes I want to buy it. So, given how confusing everything is, I decided to look at the alternatives. It’s important to note that all of the streaming sites also allow “offline listening” (downloads) of music, but it’s not clear from their websites what happens to those downloads if a customer quits the service. Only two of the services offer digital sales to New Zealand.

Any talk about pricing of digital sales has to begin with the granddaddy, Apple’s music store. Apple customers outside the USA have always subsidised American consumers by paying higher prices—sometimes dramatically higher—than do buyers in the USA. This has been true for all products sold by Apple, including their computers, phones, and so on, as well as digital music.

I looked at Apple’s iTunes Store the other day as I was researching this post. I saw several albums that were priced at US$6.99 in the US store, which works out to NZ$10.52 each. But in the NZ store, the same albums were priced at $16.99-$17.99 (US$11.29 – US$11.95). Some weren’t available at all.

Next I looked at Amazon’s Music. Most of the albums I looked at on iTunes were available from Amazon, with an important caveat: NONE of the albums were available as digital albums for people in New Zealand. Physical CDs were mostly US$9.99 (NZ$9.49) or US$9.99 for digital version (in the USA). A notable exception was an album available as a digital download on iTunes for US$6.99 in the USA, and Amazon offered the physical CD for US$5.99 and the digital download was US$16.99 (again, not available in NZ). Another one was US$9.49 and ($16.99 for the USA-only digital downloads). Meanwhile, Amazon Music subscriptions are NZ$9.99 per month for an Individual, or $14.99 per month for a family. It is available for all platforms.

Google Play was developed for Android and Chrome operating systems, or for anyone on the web. It is the closest to the Apple iTunes store, and its digital downloads, at least on albums I checked, were available in New Zealand. They ranged from $9.99 to $13.99 which appears to be NZ dollars (I didn’t buy anything, so I can’t be sure). Subscriptions are $12.99 for an individual and $19.99 for a family. There is a free service, too. There is an iOS App, but reviews show it's had a mixed reception. Third-party developers have made players for the MacOS, though it can also be accessed on a Mac through the web.

Apple Music is $14.99 per month (the US rate is US$9.99, which today is $15.02, and that means that, unusually, pricing is quite similar). There is no free, ad-supported version. It reached 10 million subscribers in six months, something that took Spotify six years to achieve.

Spotify has a free, ad-supported service (which I have). Spotify Premium, which removes Spotify-added ads and also adds some features, is $14.99 per month for an individual, and a family version is $22.50 per month. There are iOS and Mac Apps available (I have both).

Stitcher Radio describes itself as “an on-demand Internet radio service” that’s also used for podcasts. It uses a mobile phone App and is not available on desktop machines. People can buy a Premium subscription for $4.99 per month (or billed annually for the equivalent of $2.92 per month). The “premium” version removes the Stitched-added ads, and provides access to “premium podcasts”.

Pandora Radio is only available in the USA, so I didn’t bother looking into it.

At this point I have no plans to subscribe to a streaming service, though I may revisit that. I don't listen to radio, so I'm not sure that streaming music would have any value to me. This is important to me because I only listen to music and podcasts when I'm using my desktop computer. Because neither any subscription I had nor the service itself will last forever. That means that, if "offline" songs are all deleted when the subscription ends, it’s theoretically possible that one could spend a lot more money to subscribe to music than to buy it outright. So, I think some caution is wise.

I plan on trying out at least some of these services in the months ahead, and, if I do, I’ll share what I find. One thing is certain, though: Later this year, everything will change for my digital music and podcast listening, whether I do anything or not. Times have changed.

Related: “Apple Music vs. Spotify” By Time Hardwick, MacRumors

The graph comparing streaming and downloads of music and movies at the top is of this post is from Statista, as is the chart in the middle of this post on paid digital music consumption.

1 comment:

rogerogreen said...

I always found iTunes frustrating. I used to listen to podcasts (Coverville, 2political). The latter, in particular, was difficult to find. In any case, my work people wouldn't let me upload "unauthorized" software at work, so I haven't used it in a few years. I DID use to burn CDs, but my current computer doesn't have a disc drive either.