MP3@25: 3 – iMP3

MP3@25 | 1: Tom’s Diner | 2: Napster | 3: iMP3 | 4: At the Movies | 5: Legacy | 6: Timeline | 7: Gift Shop

In the year 2000, the MP3 created chaos within the portable sound industry.

The MP3 also made Napster possible.

And Napster was killing the recording industry.

Only one man could save them all. Maybe.

Steve Jobs holding the very first iPod, 2001.

It wasn’t just the fact that the iTunes Music Store, which launched on 9 January of 2001, somehow managed to convince a large portion of Napster’s old user base to once again pay for digital music that turned Apple into the world’s number one digital audio brand. That status was finally achieved nine months later, on 23 October 2001, when Jobs took to the stage to unveil the iPod.

Steve Jobs reveals the first iPod, 23 October 2001 (9:12)
The world’s first portable MP3 player, Korea’s MP Man

In introducing the iPod, Steve Jobs foresaw that the key to capitalising upon digital music’s appeal could lie in shifting away from the fact that MP3s were easily ‘pirate’-able to the fact that they were easily portable. While the iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player to hit the market (that honour goes to Korea’s MP Man, released in March 1998), and it wasn’t even the most portable (Flash drive-based MP3 players that were already on the market were significantly smaller and lighter, yet could only hold a single album’s worth of music), the iPod made it possible to carry an entire personal music library anywhere.

American Sony Walkman television commercial, 1981.

Up until this point in history, a person’s music library consisted of multiple tangible formats – vinyl records, Compact Cassettes, and Compact Discs. Each of these formats required its own device for playback. In 1979, the Sony Walkman revolutionised listening by making it easy to carry around a single album’s worth of music, which allowed listeners to create their own personal, cinematic soundtrack to their life – what became known as The Walkman Effect. The iPod took the Walkman Effect and exponentially expanded it – not only could a person create a custom soundtrack for daily life, they could now do it in real time thanks to the ability to choose on the fly from one’s entire music library.

Usually a marketing dynamo, Apple’s original television commercial for the iPod was an abject failure.

Lisa Simpson dances like an iPod silhouette ad in The Simpsons, season 20, episode 7: MyPods and Boomsticks (originally aired 30 Nov 2008)

The original iPod commercial (January 2001) focused on the process of ripping a Compact Disc into MP3s, using a proprietary cable to transfer the the MP3s to an iPod, and then dancing unattractively for what feels like an eternity. The commercial was panned, Jobs was outraged, and a replacement campaign was commissioned – which Jobs originally rejected, but became an icon: the ‘silhouette’ campaign. Launched in 2003 and designed by art director Susan Alinsangan at Chiat/Day, the silhouette campaign focused on the anonymous enjoyment of music. It was an immediate hit, and the campaign was retained, though with incremental evolutions in style, for a decade – and became so ubiquitous that it was ripe for parody.

The Museum of Portable Sound’s own version of the iPod ‘silhouette’ commercial, 2016.

As successful as Apple’s digital music initiatives were, they weren’t without controversy.

In 2003, Apple found itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit filed by one of Steve Jobs’ biggest heroes – the surviving members of The Beatles.

When Apple Computer began in 1979, The Beatles filed a lawsuit against the company for trademark violation over their apple-shaped logo. As a condition of the settlement of that lawsuit, Apple Computer promised never to use their logo to advertise products related to music recordings. Fast forward to 2003, and Steve Jobs had blatantly disregarded this, slapping the Apple logo all over the iTunes Music Store and the iPod. Sadly for The Beatles, they waited to sue Apple for breach of contract until the music industry had been all but decimated and Jobs held all the cards, delivering the (at the time) only truly successful digital music service. It wold take nearly four years for this second lawsuit to be settled, and another three years for The Beatles’ back catalogue to be sold via the iTunes Music Store.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) – technology used to prevent the copying of digital music files – had been insisted upon by the major record labels in their deal with Apple’s music store. By 2009, the severe inconvenience for users was beginning to take its toll on the (now relatively stable*) digital music business.

(*Stable for Apple and the major labels, perhaps, but definitely not for the artists whose music is the foundation upon which the entire industry is built.)

On 6 January 2009, Jobs took yet another risk and declared that he would remove Apple’s ‘FairPlay’ DRM from the digital music files sold in the iTunes Music Store. The risk paid off at the time, but pressure was building to shift from downloading music files (which the customer owned, and could copy or resell at will) to a subscription model, where music files were streamed over the Internet from ‘The Cloud’ – in short, music would no longer be owned, but rented.

On 2 September 2012, a somewhat confusing news story was published by The Sunday Times of London, claiming that Die Hard actor Bruce Willis was preparing his will and, having learned that his extensive iTunes music collection was rented rather than owned, he was not able to bequeath the collection to his daughters. Willis was allegedly outraged, and had announced to an unverified source that he was planning to sue Apple for the rights to his own music collection. The story spread like wildfire, but was debunked the following day in a Tweet posted by Willis’ wife, Emma Heming Willis:

Though the story was not true, it briefly ignited a public conversation about the mothballing of music ownership in lieu of renting streamed content. However, much like Apple’s removal of the 3.5mm headphone minijack from the iPhone (paving the way for the dominance of wireless Bluetooth headphones manufactured – purely coincidentally, of course – by Apple’s newly-acquired Beats By Dre company), this tectonic shift in the consumption of music occurred with little fanfare or objection from consumers.

Steve Jobs passed away from a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer on 5 October 2011.

He personally selected his successor at Apple, Tim Cook, who completed Apple’s shift from MP3s to streaming in 2015 with Apple Music.

Tim Cook remains with Apple at the time of this exhibition’s launch. His biggest success as head of the company to date has been the Apple Watch. Really.

Exhibition Home | < Back to Part 2 | Onto Part 4 > | Gift Shop

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