“There are no second acts in American life,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once (sort of) mused. But what about in American software?
Over the past few weeks, we have gotten a glimpse at what may be the much-loathed iTunes’ new, more appealing identity: a destination for popular bands to stream their albums for free in the days and weeks leading up to their in-store release dates.
Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake and David Bowie have all previewed their new LPs in full on iTunes, and swarms of fans are dusting off Apple’s musty old software for a free first listen. Remarkably, iTunes is now consistently gaining mentions in articles in which the primary focus is not on the lackluster quality of its once-groundbreaking media program.
For all of Apple’s wizardry over the past decade, it would be one of the company’s most miraculous acts if it could re-train PC owners to willingly and happily open up the horrendous flotilla of bloated computer garbage that is iTunes. Many of us have spent a little over a decade building up an aversion to iTunes, suffering through sputters and crashes and restarts and power-downs before we switched to more lightweight, efficient programs. If Adobe Flash is the refrigerator of computer software, then iTunes was always the freezer: I associate iTunes not with downloading music, or with library management, but with the spinning rainbow wheel that appears before I am forced to CTRL+ALT+DEL my way back to a functional state.
And yet here I am in 2013, opening up iTunes with an eager grin on an almost weekly basis. In these late spring months, Apple has been aggressive and wildly successful in exclusively debuting the major summer releases. Daft Punk cracked a hole in the Internet on Monday afternoon by suddenly making “Random Access Memories” available as a gratis stream on iTunes on Monday afternoon; other acts, in addition to Timberlake and Bowie who have unveiled long-awaited albums on iTunes include Vampire Weekend and The National.
The Early Album Santa has been a role traditionally played by NPR and, more recently, hipster landing page Pitchfork.com. Now Apple is elbowing its way in, easily attracting the biggest acts in music due to its ubiquity and scope. I can think of no better way to get users that had been turned off through the years to revisit and poke around the recently revamped iTunes than to offer free, exclusive, eagerly-anticipated music that is available through no other legal channels.
And maybe, just maybe, you will come to discover that you don’t loathe iTunes quite as much as you did back when it was insta-crashing your candy-colored iMac.(And also, perhaps, you'll be so moved by the music that you'll purchase the album while you're there.)
It's a brilliant move by Apple, to offer an overwhelming, no-strings-attached good against its most maligned property. On the one hand, everyone hates iTunes. On the other, everyone loves music, especially new music by their favorite band. Unless you hold the staunchest of grudges against it, you will probably pinch your nose and begrudgingly fire up iTunes if it is the single outlet to listen to your favorite band’s new record for free.
Don’t get me wrong: iTunes will still exist primarily as an outlet to purchase digital copies of movies, TV shows, music and books. It’s not scuttling all of that wildly-profitable stuff to become a launchpad for Billboard megahits.
But given Apple’s monolithic status, iTunes could also transform itself into something much more essential for a younger set of music listeners who have abandoned it for Spotify or The Pirate Bay, and relegated iTunes to punchline-status. Were it to become a jukebox of pre-release albums, iTunes could once again be the place you visit to hear new music.
Now about that clunky redesign...