Was Steve Jobs Good or Bad for the Mus(ic)?

Last week, I was observing Yom Kippur, along with other members of The Tribe. It’s a time when we not only atone for our sins, but also reflect upon the past year, especially remembering those who’ve left us during that time. Growing up, it was not uncommon to ask if some prominent world leader or captain of industry was good or bad for the Jews. Often, it was a mixed answer. Having contemplated the passing of Steve Jobs on an empty stomach, I have similar mixed feelings about his legacy on the music front while fully appreciating the visionary he was in creating and marketing technology that’s changed our lives.

Let me explain. Try to remember a time before there was iTunes. It was truly the darkest of the dark ages for the music business, especially the recording industry.  There was this relatively new format, MP3, that allowed music files to be compressed so that they could easily and quickly be distributed over the internet. And then there was this thing called Napster that allowed millions of people to download millions of copyrighted musical tracks of their favorite artists – for free! And then there were its progeny like Grokster, Gnutella and Kazaa spreading the gospel of free music.

The labels justifiably cried foul because this “sharing” was really stealing despite the sophistry of Google shills such as Larry Lessig and his ilk. But the labels largely had themselves to blame.  Why? Well, Napster, Grokster, SterSter (ok, I made that one up) and all the others wouldn’t have gained so much traction if the labels had actually listened to their customers who were demanding the availability of their music in this new format. Instead, what did they do? They dragged their feet, locked up the content with “digital rights management” tools or DRM and formed alliances that distributed only some, but not all of the major label’s content and largely locked out the indies. With no really good legitimate download service to cater to this market, the pirates naturally stepped in. The labels spent the next several years wringing their hands, suing their customers and clinging to these label-owned download services, the names of which I don’t even remember anymore.

Enter Steve Jobs. He created this thing called the iPod. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Anyway, Apple’s goal wasn’t to sell music but to sell lots and lots of iPods – which they did. But they needed the music to be legitimately available for people to put on their iPods. So he created iTunes. Yes, it took someone outside of the record industry to finally create a viable, legitimate download service and to get the labels  on board. And while some naysayers in the industry said you couldn’t compete with free, others of us who drink bottled water (I suspect Steve Jobs did, too) maintained you can compete with free based upon quality and service. And he was right. And, at least some people started paying for music again. And it was good.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, nothing that time and a little market evolution can’t fix. Remember, Jobs’ goal was to sell iPods, not music. So he priced the downloads cheaply and at a one-size-fits-all price point of 99 cents. And as someone who has been – and soon will be again – a music publisher, he created a pass-through so that iTunes only got permission from the labels. The music publishers who represent the songs that are recorded by the labels and the songwriters who create them didn’t get paid by iTunes but had to rely on the labels to account for their share. OK, the music publishers were a little groggy when this was going down and didn’t protect their turf as well as they could have. Why is this bad? Well, record labels have occasionally been known to employ some creative accounting practices when it comes to paying artists and publishers. But these things can and will be addressed and fixed.

The larger issue is a cultural one. Awhile back a colleague of mine and I were musing about the business over single malt scotch. He’s a few years older than me and told of how appliance stores used to throw in a free box of Tide (remember powdered laundry detergent?) with every washer. Like Steve Jobs, all the appliance store cared about was selling the hardware. My friend said that music has become like the box of Tide. Not an article of value in and of itself, but merely the ancillary content to be run on the hardware. While it’s great that people are paying for this “content”, treating music as a fungible commodity ultimately devalues it and the craft and artistry of those that create it. That’s why I feel Steve Jobs’ legacy in the music business is mostly – but not completely – a positive one. At least not yet.

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