Adrian Crawford

iTunes is officially a 20-something


While the 21st century might be old enough to legally enjoy a beer after work, one of its most crucial contributions to the world has another year to wait. That’s right; iTunes, everyone’s former favorite music player, turns 20 on January 9, 2021. So crack open a sparkling cider or a root beer and take a trip down memory lane with me.

Not so humble beginnings

Picture it: the year is 2001. You’re lying in bed, still shocked that the world didn’t end last year, listening to Usher sing about why he can’t date some woman because she reminds him too much of his ex. You look over at your iPod to see that, after ripping the song from a CD you bought at FYE, you renamed it, “Just Date Her Bro,” and let out a soft chuckle. Life is good.

The ability to edit metadata was just one of the many unique features of iTunes. Originally released on January 9th, 2001, the music player was introduced as the “World’s Best and Easiest To Use Jukebox Software.” This was no doubt a lofty title, and for quite some time, it lived up to it.

iTunes laid the groundwork for modern streaming platforms, with such features as iTunes DJ, the music shuffling feature, or Genius, which would put together playlists of songs from your library that made sense together. Sound familiar? If you currently use Spotify, it certainly should. 

However, the similarities don’t end there. iTunes also included sound enhancement properties like equalization and crossfade, the ability to select custom playlist artwork, and even library sharing over wireless networks. While it was a little clunkier, iTunes was really a lot like your favorite streaming service, sans the streaming.

How iTunes became a crucial part of all our lives

As Apple’s entire line of products grew in popularity, so too did iTunes. This was, of course, planned. In 2005, Apple expanded the capabilities of iTunes to include video, e-books, podcasts, and mobile apps, and until the 2011 release of iOS 5, you couldn’t even update those mobile apps without iTunes. In fact, up until this update, you had to use iTunes to even activate a new iPhone.

So, as with just about everything Apple has ever designed, iTunes was intended to create a reliance so that users either absolutely had to use it, or found it too taxing to ever try something else. And for a while, it worked. Unfortunately, this attempt to intertwine the platform with every part of an Apple user’s experience is part of what ultimately led to its downfall.

The collapse of a giant

Following Apple’s attempts to turn iTunes into a holistic media platform, the company received a lot of criticism for creating a service that was far too bloated. Some even went so far as to call the company hypocritical, as it had very openly slung insults at Microsoft for trying to do the same. Of course, this wasn’t the entire cause of the music player’s fall from grace, but it was a major contributing factor. People simply grew tired of having to use iTunes to do just about anything, and rightfully so.

By the mid 2010s, paid streaming platforms were gaining a lot of traction. As good of a feeling as it was to get a $25 iTunes gift card from your aunt and spend an hour choosing which songs to use it on, it was a much better feeling to get all the songs you could want for $13/mo. Apple knew it had to respond quickly.

This response, of course, came in the form of Apple Music, as well as the creation of other media platforms such as Apple TV and Podcasts. While Apple was smart to create its own paid music streaming platform, it has proven to be too little, too late, as platforms like Amazon Music and Pandora still have just about as many subscribers, and Spotify remains practically untouchable.

So why do we even still have iTunes?

Just like any nostalgic platform from our youth, iTunes is still out there, watching over us, stepping in when we need it and minding its business when we don’t. While it can still hold a full music library, it is mostly used to connect your iPhone to your Mac or PC and back up files. However, even this function is becoming more and more obsolete, as younger generations become increasingly comfortable with storing all their documents and data on iCloud rather than backing it up with hard copies.

And at the end of the day, maybe there’s a small part of us that knows we need iTunes. Not to function, but to hold on to a small part of our childhoods we aren’t quite ready to part with. At the very least, we need it to stick around until next year, when it can finally have a beer with us.

Nate Butler is a writer and van builder (yes, van builder) based out of Denver, Colorado. When he’s not writing about the fall of music players, you can find him decking out a camper van, playing fetch with his dog, or wrestling some rock.