Steve Jobs And The Music Biz
Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is quite good. From the Apple II to the iPad, from Steve Wozniak to Tim Cook, from Buzz Lightyear to WALL-E, from Jobs barefoot and unbathed at the beginning of Apple to Jobs in mock turtleneck and jeans introducing the iPhone, it’s an interesting story. The book is an easier read than most biographies, reading more like a novel, particularly for the first two thirds of the way through. It is well researched. Isaacson interviewed Jobs more than 40 times during the process of writing the book, but it didn’t end there. He also interviewed more than a hundred others while putting it together. Some of those interviewed were close to Jobs, but many were not. The result is a balanced take on a complex individual.
Though he never asked Isaacson what would be in the book, Jobs knew enough to know it wasn’t going to be a fluff piece. Near the end of his life, very sick and in his bed, Jobs told Isaacson, “‘I know there will be a lot in your book I won’t like.'” When Isaacson acknowledged the truth of that statement, Jobs said, “‘That’s good. It won’t seem like an in-house book.'” No danger of that, as Jobs’s difficult personality and his strange, sometimes bizarre behavior comes shining through.
Jobs brought searing focus and a critical eye to anyone and everything he encountered. He was unapologetic and often impolitic as he expressed his views. In so doing, he improved just about everything he touched, including personal computers, movies, smartphones, music players and tablet computers. In other words, he was both genius and asshole, largely for the same reason. He possessed a “binary world view,” meaning, as Isaacson explains:
Colleagues referred to the hero/shithead dichotomy. You were either one or the other . . . The same was true of products, ideas, even food: Something was either “the best thing ever,” or it was shitty, brain-dead, inedible. . . . The finish on a piece of metal, the curve of the head of a screw, the shade of blue on a box, the intuitiveness of a navigation screen–he would declare them to “completely suck” until that moment when he suddenly pronounced them “absolutely perfect.” He thought of himself as an artist, which he was, and he indulged in the temperament of one.
Jobs was, among other things, a music lover. As the new century dawned, that love of music combined with his vision of the computer (more specifically, the Mac) as comprehensive digital hub, led him to tackle the music business. Isaacson explains:
By 2000 people were ripping music onto their computers from CDs, or downloading it from file-sharing services such as Napster, and burning playlists onto their own blank disks. That year the number of blank CDs sold in the United States was 320 million. There were only 281 million people in the country. That meant people were really into burning CDs, and Apple wasn’t catering to them.
One of Apple’s first moves was to buy Soundjam, a Rio player interface for the Mac developed by former Apple engineers. This was retooled and became iTunes, which was made available to Mac users in 2001. Apple needed a digital music player, and it was Jobs’s vision to make that player and iTunes work together. Unlike the digital players currently available, the player would be intuitive and it wouldn’t try to do too much. Instead, it would allow iTunes to manage its music on the Mac.
While all of this was going on, people were stealing music left and right:
[Jobs] knew, however, that the best way to stop piracy–in fact, the only way–was to offer an alternative that was more attractive than the brain-dead services that music companies were concocting. “We believe that 80% of the people stealing stuff don’t want to be, there’s just no legal alternative,” he told Andy Langer of Esquire. “So we said, ‘Let’s create a legal alternative to this.’ Everybody wins. Music companies win. The artists wins. Apple wins. And the user wins, because he gets a better service and doesn’t have to be a thief.”
It’s easy now, in a time when you can buy digital downloads of albums from Amazon or an artist’s website, to forget what a huge departure this was from the thinking at the time. For example, the record companies were hung up on keeping albums together, while Jobs was insistent that the public have the right to buy individual songs. Consider that in the context of today’s world where many, if not most, artists offer a free download of a song when an album comes out and individual songs are available everywhere. More important, at this point, the record companies were still pretty much in charge of the music business. No one thought that they would do a digital sales deal. Jobs knew they had no choice and that it would be good for them and for Apple. After Jobs put together deals with Warner Music’s Roger Ames, Universal’s Doug Morris, Interscope-Geffen-A&M’s Jimmy Iovine and Sony’s Andy Lack and Apple had the iTunes store up and running, Apple predicted they would sell a million songs in six months. They did it in six days.
Isaacson chronicles the reaction at Microsoft on the day of the iTunes announcement. “‘We were smoked.'” This succinct (and true) statement made by the head of Windows development comes from an internal Microsoft email. Bill Gates went into a bit more detail in his email late that night, “‘Steve Jobs ability to focus in on a few things that count, get people who get user interface right, and market things as revolutionary are amazing things.’ . . . ‘This is very strange to me. The music companies’ own operations offer a service that is truly unfriendly to the user. Somehow they decide to give Apple the ability to do something pretty good.'”
The iTunes store fed the iPod and the iPod fed the Mac, which was great for Apple. But the whole thing exploded into something really huge for the wider world and the music business when the system was made compatible with Windows. Microsoft knew that would happen from the moment the iTunes store was announced. The same fellow who said they were “‘smoked'” said “‘When Apple brings this to Windows . . . we will really be smoked.'” When Windows iTunes was announced, Bono declared, “‘That’s why I’m here to kiss the corporate ass. I don’t kiss everybody’s.”
Microsoft’s Zune was killed by Apple and the iPod, though one has to wonder why it ever lived in the first place. The Walkman, which first taught us about portable music, died too. After one of his meetings with Apple, Sony’s Andy Lack flew to Tokyo for a large company meeting, bringing along brought an iPod. “‘Here’s the Walkman killer. There’s no mystery meat. The reason you bought a music company is so that you could be the one to make a device like this.” But Sony never made such a device.
Isaacson points out that Sony was incapable of making an integrated device and music platform like the iPod and iTunes, partly because of its corporate organization. Like most big companies, Sony had divisions with their own profit/loss issues that prevented intra-company collaboration, a problem Apple didn’t have. In addition, Sony worried about cannibalization. Would traditional music sales be hurt? Apple, on the other hand, didn’t care so much about cannibalization. Even when Jobs initially resisted the move to Windows, cannibalization wasn’t the real issue for him. The iTunes move to Windows by definitioncannibalized sales of Macs, something that didn’t matter in a company unfettered by divisional profit center issues, so long as it made money for the company. Which it did, because the additional iPod sales and music sales more than made up for the loss of Mac sales. Sony couldn’t think that way, so it faltered. By 2007, the iPod was responsible for half of Apple’s total revenues. Three years after the iTunes store launched, the 1 billionth song was sold.
The iPod made Apple cool to everyone – not just fans of the Mac. Apple was so cool, in fact, that Bono called Jobs in 2004 looking for help launching U2’s new record, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Isaacson: “Over the years, U2 had spurned offers as high as $23 million to be in commercials. Now [Bono] wanted Jobs to use the band in an iPod commercial for free–or at least as part of a mutually beneficial package.” As part of the deal, Bono wanted a U2 version of the iPod. And he wanted it black. Jobs initially demurred, saying that all iPods had to be white. He soon relented, though, and work began on the U2 commercial. Then the deal unraveled. U2 began having second thoughts, and so did Jobs. Apple called in British designer and Apple VP Johnny Ive to go to Dublin to see Bono. Bono really admired Ive, so much, in fact, that he said he’d “‘drink his bathwater,'” but once Ive showed up in Ireland with a black iPod with the red click wheel, they skipped the bathwater and went right to the pub. After a few pints, they called Jobs and closed the deal. Later, after several more drinks, Bono calls another Apple exec and says, “‘We’re both a bit drunk, and we’re happy with this wonderful iPod and I can’t even believe it exists and I’m holding it in my hand. Thank you!'”
Jobs was a huge Dylan fan. In 2006, Jobs made his second attempt to put together a deal to sell a comprehensive digital Dylan boxed set. Sony had quashed the first attempt, but it had new leadership (Lack was out by then) and the deal came together. As a part of the deal, Dylan agreed to appear in a television ad for the iPod, featuring his new record Modern Times. Jobs was all over this, involved in every aspect of the production. The first commercial was jettisoned when Jobs hated it (it was on the wrong side of the perfection/shit dichotomy), so Dylan was convinced to shoot it again. By the time this happens in the book, the reader isn’t surprised. It’s vintage Jobs, and it almost always improved whatever he was working on. Isaacson: “This time it was done with a gently backlit cowboy-hatted Dylan sitting on a stool, strumming and singing, while a hip woman in a newsboy cap dances with her iPod.” The commercial was a blazing success for Apple. And for Dylan, too. Modern Times topped the charts – the first time for a Dylan record since 1976 – on the strength of the ad. As Isaacson explains, things had come full circle. The artists wanted to be associated with the company, rather than the other way around.
Jobs radically changed things in the music business. Not to the way they are now, of course, because they’ve continued to change. At this point, we don’t really know where those changes will take us. But the changes Jobs wrought, and the continuation of those changes, are the direct result of his seeing things as they could be, rather than how they are. As Bill Gates noted, he had the ability to focus on a few things, the important things.
This is not to deify Jobs. As stated, Isaacson’s biography paints the picture of a genius asshole or, if you prefer, an asshole genius. Either way, and despite his faults, Jobs was a true genius–not of computing or programming, but of design and function. Jobs intuitively understood both and he bolstered that understanding with careful study and by recognizing and utilizing talent in others. He gave us what we wanted before we knew that we wanted it. Jobs could do this because he understood the interface between technology and people better than anyone. This understanding allowed him to revolutionize computing and, in turn, the music business.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines.