Apple is nixing iTunes. The fans — and the haters — bid farewell.

"We have to remember it came along when it was easier to steal music than it was to buy it online. Apple made the medium commerce-friendly," a musicologist said.
Image: iTunes, a media player from Apple, launched in 2001.
iTunes, a media player from Apple originally focused on music, launched in 2001.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

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By Daniel Arkin

When music critic Leor Galil was in college in the early 2000s, he spent countless hours curating his sprawling iTunes library — burning CDs from his hard drive, downloading MP3 files from the internet, endlessly sorting through his personal digital record store.

"It was my whole world back then," said Galil, who writes for the Chicago Reader, an alternative weekly.

That's why the company's decision to kill off iTunes on Apple computers after 18 years felt to Galil like the end of an era. And as the tech behemoth announced plans to split iTunes into three standalone apps — Music, TV, Podcasts — the software's legacy was coming into focus.

iTunes, launched to much fanfare in 2001, helped turn the computer company into a big-league player in the traditional entertainment industry, anchoring the digital music marketplace of the aughts.

The program's music store, brimming with hit singles and back-catalog rarities, eventually widened to include movies and television shows from leading Hollywood studios as well as e-books. The store evolved into a one-stop shop for consumers who were just starting to grow accustomed to buying media online that had no physical manifestation.

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"iTunes made a major contribution to the music industry," said Nolan Gasser, a composer and former chief musicologist at Pandora, a popular internet radio service that — much like Spotify — eventually took over some of the cultural real estate that Apple once monopolized.

"We have to remember it came along when it was easier to steal music than it was to buy it online," Gasser said, referring to the heyday of legally dubious file-sharing programs like Napster. "Apple made the medium commerce-friendly. It made it easy to purchase individual songs. It gave people tremendous access."

iTunes did not lack for critics, however. In recent years, it had become a laughingstock among tech journalists and design buffs, who ragged on the software for its increasingly crowded, clunky interface and apparent irrelevance in the age of cloud-based storage and on-demand streaming.

But the program's defenders — from obsessive audiophiles who cherished their customized libraries to entertainment executives who resented the underground world of music piracy — nonetheless found continued value in the tool.

The files in an iTunes library still give some consumers a sense of ownership and security at a time when most media companies are pivoting to streaming, offloading reams of data to cloud-based storage systems.

"We treat corporations like they're librarians, but they're not. It's great to have a library of MP3s that you can control," Galil, the music critic, said.

iTunes's store also gave consumers an aboveboard way to download music, wrenching millions away from the clutches of Napster and peer-to-peer programs like Limewire — and conditioning consumers to start paying for certain digital content, from hip-hop albums to action movie rentals.

“Consumers don’t want to be treated like criminals and artists don't want their valuable work stolen,” Jobs said in the company’s announcement in 2003. “The iTunes Music Store offers a groundbreaking solution for both.”

In the years to come, though, Apple clearly sees the financial upside in moving away from individual sales in favor of subscription-based streaming, according to David Arditi, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington, who studies the intersection of music, culture and technology.

"They're putting their eggs in the basket of Apple Music," Arditi said, referring to Apple's $10-a-month streaming music service. "We've seen that the average consumer spends around 45 dollars a year on recorded music. But a company like Apple sees that and figures they're better off charging 10 dollars a month, or 120 dollars a year."

In that sense, iTunes fell victim to the same cultural trends and financial forces that helped Netflix vanquish DVDs and Blu-rays: Why curate your media library when an algorithm can do that for you?

CORRECTION (June 4, 2019, 3:31 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Apple's change to iTunes. The program will still be available on Windows-based PCs; it won't be killed on such PC desktops.