Apple CEO Steve Jobs holds up a version of the iPod Nano during an Apple special… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)
Less than a decade ago, a recording keyed to one song — the single — was considered dead in the water. Even though it had long been a critical part of the way music fans bought and enjoyed music, the single had become a marginal facet of the music business.
Meanwhile, the record industry was waging a life-or-death battle over music piracy because the Internet had blasted open floodgates that allowed people to share their favorite music with one another across the globe, without bothering to pay for it.
And then along came Steve Jobs, armed with Apple's iTunes and iPod.
Photos: Steve Jobs | 1955-2011
In some respects, Jobs, who died Wednesday at 56, rescued the music business while giving music lovers unprecedented new freedom to find, store and enjoy music with an ease previous generations only dreamed of.
"What made Steve Jobs truly great," U2 singer Bono said Thursday in a statement, "is that he was only interested in doing truly great things. He was bored by an easy ride or easy profit. In a world littered with dull objects, he brought the beauty of clean lines and clear thought. [He was] one of a very small group of anarchic Americans who through technology literally invented the 21st century. We will all miss the hardware-software Elvis."
Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, noted that "What he's done with the iPod and the iPad rank on the same level of importance and significance as the invention of the Walkman, the cassette, even the LP and the phonograph in general.... We counted on him as a world to show us how we listen to music and how we consume it. Now that he's gone, there's a vacuum in that area and it will be interesting to see how, or if, it can be filled."
The impact of iTunes on the sales of single songs can hardly be overstated. During iTunes' first year in operation in 2003, 30 million digital downloads of songs were sold. Within two years that figure had mushroomed to 1.2 billion song downloads.
In a very short time, the paradigm had done a 180-degree flip: Prognosticators were counting down the days until the album, whether stored on CD or digitally, would be dead and buried because of the public's resuscitated appetite for individual songs. Jobs and iTunes can claim most of the credit for that dramatic turnaround. Jobs' response? In recent years he committed his company to working harder on similarly revivifying album sales.
"He was a true visionary who forever transformed how fans access and enjoy music," Recording Industry Assn. of America Chairman and Chief Executive Cary Sherman said Thursday in a statement. "With the introduction of the iTunes software and other platforms, Steve and Apple made it once again easy and accepted to pay for music."
His death left those in the music business scrambling for words to characterize the seismic shifts his products unleashed in their world and beyond.
"To be a genius in any field is rare enough; to be a genius in three is impossible," Warner Music Group Chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr. said Thursday in a statement. "Steve did the impossible. His incomparable brilliance in technology, design and business transformed not only the music industry, but many others, and in the process, changed our world."
"Steve had an incredible ability to harness the power of innovation to satisfy and stimulate consumer demand in a way that few have ever been able to achieve," Roger Faxon, chief executive of the EMI Group, said in a statement Thursday.
Yet he also was the focal point of new complaints that arose because of the changes his hardware and software brought with them, including the decimation of the brick-and-mortar record store business.
A significant number of artists and music executives initially balked at iTunes' pricing structure, which put the value of a single track at 99 cents. Many groused that it would be impossible for anyone to profit by selling single tracks for pennies. Various artists temporarily or steadfastly refused to sell their music on iTunes since it was born. Among the highest profile acts were the Beatles, Garth Brooks, Led Zeppelin, Kid Rock, Prince and Radiohead.
Some, such as Brooks, Radiohead and Kid Rock, protested their albums being cherry-picked for individual tracks; others, including the Beatles and Prince, were historically unhappy with the financial deal iTunes had to offer; many eventually reached agreements.
iTunes also launched a new wave of competition — and backbiting — both among the record companies themselves and between them and iTunes officials as they jockeyed for prime real estate on the iTunes homepage. As earlier generations had done in lobbying for the best display space in major retail outlets, marketing executives, talent managers and musicians themselves got involved in making the case for iTunes to feature their releases prominently.
Although known largely for his technological expertise, Jobs also was a passionate music fan.