Happy 10th, iTunes

You don’t have to pay 99 cents to watch the music videos Yahoo News commissioned for your birthday

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

by Virginia Heffernan

Ten years ago, Apple first cut the ribbon on the iTunes Store, unleashing a cocksure new approach to copyright, to pricing, to retail—and eventually to music itself. That was April 28, 2003; U2’s “Stuck in a Moment” and Beck’s "Sea Change" were the day’s top-selling single and album.

The music business didn’t know what hit it; the very next year, the once-mighty Tower Records declared bankruptcy.

Old-timers will recall that before iTunes, CDs could be found at chaotic and dingy Tower and HMV superstores. If you were hip, you ventured into the digital gray markets of Napster and LimeWire. Acquiring music—which no longer involved the romance of small record stores—had become unsavory business in the 1990s. You were either overpaying for CDs that had to be loaded onto a computer, or you were cheating artists and everybody by torrenting tracks of dubious origin.

Then came the ever-lighter iPod and iTunes, its sparkling outfitter. Those silhouette ads, with the white earbuds. Headphones were no longer an inconvenience or an indulgence; they were mandatory.

U2 at first kept a firm hand on the top iTunes slots, but also Coldplay and Sarah MacLachlan—stuff that could stir up a vast sweeping atmosphere, half melancholia and half grandiosity, in the pedestrian head.Ninety-nine cents.

An ingenious figure. Two little stemmed apples, upside-down. It turns out that was just what we wanted to pay for songs by Kanye West, OutKast, the Strokes and then almost anything featuring Timbaland. iTunes was never just a store, agnostic about its wares; it was a magazine at first glance, and eventually a source of dogmatic musical editorial. On June 19, 2007, iTunes chose Sara Bareilles’s “Love Song” as its Song of the Week. The next month, it went to No. 1 in the iTunes Store. iTunes was telling us what to buy, and we listened.

In 10 years, the iTunes Store has sold some 25 billion tracks. It is now the biggest retailer of music in the world. And so, at Yahoo News, we thought that rather than pontificate longer, we’d turn for enlightenment to the figures most affected by the rise of iTunes: musicians.

To this end, we asked some of our favorites—Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing, Max Sollisch of Dolfish, Bob Nastanovich of Pavement, and Therese Workman and Tyler Wood of Oh My Goodness—for tributes to iTunes.

The songs are still coming in, but we’re starting off with a doozy by Mike Doughty called “Drunk iTunes Buying (49 Songs at 4am)”—it’s PG-rated but, yeah, there’s some blackout downloading in it. Doughty also made a video in case you want to try to play the song at home.

As for the Cleveland band Dolfish, songwriter Max Sollisch managed to tease out the ironies in Apple’s pricing scheme in his little masterpiece, “Dollar Store.” Bob Nastanovich, who has been touring with the 23-year-old Sollisch, made a bonkers lo-fi video to match. Pavement superfans: There’s grist for the mill here, so watch closely.


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