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The Most Important Media Innovation Since The Internet Turns 10

This article is more than 7 years old.

First, we had vinyl, audio's standard for decades. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, the audio cassette rose in popularity, and we bid adieu to the cultural relevance of our record collections (not to mention our 8-track cartridges). The 1990s brought the next battle of the format wars, the compact disc, music storage's next evolutionary stage. Then came the Internet, and the advent of Napster and online music distribution. And now, the reigning champions, the MP3 and iTunes, which effectively made every previous format obsolete, and completed music's journey from actual object to ethereal digital presence.

As the iTunes Store celebrates its 10th anniversary this week — and the folks at Apple have their birthday cake and eat it too — I've been thinking about how the revolutionary media player, library and sales portal has upturned the way we consume media.

What began as a way to download and play music — legally — has become the new standard for buying, playing, and organizing our electronic A/V passions. We’ve come to expect instant access to content. We see a song or TV show or movie, we buy it, and we watch it or play it or listen to it in mere moments.

As the folks at Apple have their birthday cake and eat it too, I've been thinking about how the revolutionary media player, library and sales portal has upturned the way we consume media.

In the decade since it launched, the iTunes Store has become not only music's biggest retailer, it's also captured two-thirds of all TV show and movie sales. In the first quarter of 2013, the service recorded $2.4 billion in revenue.

Together, iTunes and the iTunes Store represent the most important media innovation since the Internet.

But in marking the anniversary and thus reflecting on music's fickle format history this week, I've also become extremely nostalgic for my old media consumption habits. I even miss CDs.

Yes, those silvery digital objects. When CDs usurped records and cassettes, their groove-less surfaces seemed to reflect the impersonal computer-age future. They were reviled by audiophiles, who found the sonic quality inferior and the quiet playback eerie. A laser reads the music? Where are the pops and scratches? The clunk of the needle? It made no sense.

CDs were also denounced for shrinking album art from the LP's 12-by-12 inch canvas to a roughly five-inch square postage stamp. (Though cassettes were even worse.)

But now, in light of iTunes, the compact disc seems old-school. Retro-cool. Even a savior: At least the format had cover art and liner notes. And fragile and annoying as those plastic jewel cases were (are), it was kind of nice to see your music collection neatly organized on shelves.

Your music collection used to occupy a physical space. Remember that?

That's why even those soul-less compact discs — probably music's last manifestation as a physical thing you buy — tug at my heart strings. Almost as much as the hundreds of records I've collected since I was a kid. I still own them all, from the 1970s-era soundtracks to "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever" to the New Wave, punk and blues albums I'd discovered in high school and college. Between the vinyl, CDs, cassettes, 45s and 8-tracks, I've carted around hundreds — maybe thousands — of pounds of plastic throughout my 20s, 30s and 40s.

Like my collection of books, which are a kind of exterior manifestation of my knowledge and brain's hard drive, my material music collection feels like a part of me. Worn album covers evoke memories. Flipping through the piles feels like "This Is Your (Musical) Life." In the mix tapes and burned CDs I made, or friends made for me, handwritten liner notes express fealty to a favorite grouping of tunes. These tangible objects define me in a way an MP3 never could. iTunes seemed to drive a final nail in the jewel cases that contained my past.

I've been seduced by convenience and ease of access. Still, I don't think iTunes will ever truly capture my heart.

So you can understand why, when I finally downloaded iTunes a few years ago, it felt like l was betraying my music collection.

But then, gradually, it began to grow on me. After stealing about 4,000 songs from a friend's iTunes library (thanks, Ted!), I came to fully appreciate the pleasures of the "shuffle" feature. I could create playlists at the touch of button. I felt powerful, a sea of music at my command. When I needed to find that obscure Clash or Al Green or Beethoven song, there's no need to go fishing through hundreds of dusty cardboard sleeves. I simply type a few letters into the search feature and voila. Instant access means instant mood-setting, or instant dance party. I'm the DJ. I'm the star of my own radio show again, just like during my college days (minus the pointless, meandering banter).

Yes, retro guy has gone futuristic. I've been seduced by convenience and ease of access. Still, I don't think iTunes will ever truly capture my heart.

I still have my old music. And if I ever get too nostalgic, I'll slip a vinyl platter from its sleeve, and set it on the turntable. I'll carefully wipe it clean. And like entering a time machine, I'll enter that crackling world of ELO, XTC, BTO or REM.

I'll even settle for a compact disc and the sounds of pure digital silence. But like an LP, it's imperfect. And if one of my scratched CDs should skip a beat, so will my heart.


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This program aired on May 3, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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