What if iTunes never happened?

Would the record business be in better shape if iTunes never happened?

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read

Apple introduced iTunes on January 9, 2001, but it wasn't that big a deal; world domination took years to fully develop. I admired the effort, and Apple figured out a way to get people to pay for downloaded music. That's a good thing.

My biggest problem with iTunes is that it doesn't sound as good as a CD or LP, and Apple hasn't even bothered to offer high-resolution FLAC downloads for those who care about sound quality. No, Apple instead spearheaded the race to the bottom for sound quality. Worse yet, you can sometimes buy the CD for less than the price of the iTunes album; I paid $7.99 for the new Spoon CD, "Transference," on Amazon.

On balance, did iTunes help or hurt the music business? Steve Guttenberg

Why would anyone pay more for lower-quality sound? Or why does iTunes regularly charge the same price; downloads should always be a lot cheaper than physical product, shouldn't they? I guess not; buyers happily pay a premium for instant gratification. I don't get it.

So I'm left wondering, would CD sales have tanked if iTunes never appeared? Maybe Tower Records and a lot of great local record stores would still be around. I don't know about you, but I discovered tons of great music in small, neighborhood record stores. In NYC it was easy to score great deals on used CDs, at lower prices than on iTunes.

Maybe that's what I find so unpalatable about iTunes, the way it crushed the retail side of the record biz. In the pre-iTunes era you probably bought your tunes in your town, didn't you?

The music business was also a lot healthier than it is now. EMI may still have the Beatles catalog, but it's teetering on the brink. I don't think any of the other majors are doing all that well, and small labels aren't doing a lot better. Downloads and iTunes haven't really taken up the slack of plummeting CD sales.

Granted, few music lovers are shedding tears over record company losses, but before you kick them one more time, remember their marketing expertise put a lot of bands over the top.

What do you think? Would the music industry and musicians be better off if iTunes never happened?