There have been a handful of unfortunate deaths this week. Civil Rights activist and former SCLC leader Fred Shuttlesworth passed away, as did scholar and professor Derrick Bell. And of course, Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
Salute to those brothers. They are true examples of living beyond yourself and for a greater purpose, as all will have long-standing impacts on lives even after having passed away.
Speaking from a musical and popular culture perspective, Jobs’ death is especially notable, as he (and Apple) singlehandedly revolutionized and seized the recording industry via iTunes and changed the way music is created.
I caught this roundtable featuring Young Chris and Young Guru when it first came out a couple years ago, and some of Guru’s words have stuck with me ever since. On the heels of Jobs’ passing, his words have never rung more true and immediately popped into my head, especially in trying to gage his immense social and cultural impact.
(jump to the 3:00 mark)
Discussing the state of hip-hop, weighing the pros and cons of being signed to a major record label (this is 2009), Guru said this: “You can only predict the future so much. I can only tell, like, yo, ‘if you give all your songs to Steve Jobs, he’s gonna own the industry. In 10 or 15 years, this man is gonna own the industry. Hands down. You gave it to him. You gave him your music.”
He continues, saying, “Now I’m a Apple user, I have been for years. I understand, I see where Steve Jobs is going. But in 15 years, everybody is gonna buy they’re music off iTunes.
“He don’t even make the music! All he gotta do is have the site up and running, and he makes money. You the supply the content. The labels gave that away to this man for free.”
That could have been overstated a bit, but shit, in five short years, Apple became the the number one music retailer in the United States in 2008. 50 million customers, four billion songs and the world’s largest music catalog.
There’s no doubt that Jobs, essentially, owned the music industry. Or at least, the actual music part of it. Though iTunes accounted for just 19 percent of music retailing in 2008, the next closest online store competitor was Amazon at six percent. Moreover, digital sales, which were at 46 percent in 2010, are expected to finally surpass physical CD sales as early as next year.
Jobs’ team came in and not only jacked the biz — in the process of taking control the computer, smart phone and tablet industries, and pretty much monopolizing MP3 players — but significantly altered label-artist relationships, financially and creatively, shifting much of the focus toward singles as opposed to albums, complete bodies of work.
On the money aspect, Guru made key points as well. “If you look at iTunes now, and I can go on there and buy this song, this song and this song, that means I break down your album.”
“The whole industry — publishing, all of that — is set up based off albums. So now we gotta restructure — this ain’t even, this is not going on. But you have to restructure the whole industry to base it off songs now, because the publishing deal don’t make sense the way that it’s structured.”
When total album sales initially began to decline, toward the latter half of the first decade of the 2000s, this — along with the lust for ringtones — was a major reason why. Especially in hip-hop, where fans can be particularly fickle, the ability to pick one hot song to buy, instead of an entire album, can be enticing. Between 2005 and 2006, when hip-hop sales dipped for the first time in its 30 years of existence, and according to the RIAA, mobile phone and digital downloads increased 98 and 71 percent, respectively.
As a result, for many artists, the “change in medium” — a voyage largely pioneered, directly and indirectly by Jobs — from physical to digital, and collective to individual has affected how records are made and albums are put together. So the great album, the idea of an album as a body of work, has slid to the side giving preference to buzzing Billboard burners.
Instead, it seems to me that there are far albums that are mere collections of hot singles. The songs are good, no doubt, but as a body of work? As a cohesive piece of art with themes, layers, etc.? I’m not so sure.
I really became conscious of this mindset in November 2006, when Hov released American Gangster but opted to pull it off of iTunes, citing that, “as movies are not sold scene by scene, this collection will not be sold as individual singles.” Of course, it’s on iTunes now, available song by song or as an album, but the point still stands that there is something to be said regarding the construction of an album.
A great linchpin of early hip-hop albums — and all great albums in general, from Kind Of Blue to Innvervisions to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — is a sense of continuity. You could tell the mood of the times, or at least their perspective on the mood of the times, by listening to the album. There were hot tracks, absolutely, but The Chronic ain’t The Chronic and Ready To Die ain’t Ready To Die without the skits. Some of that has gone by the wayside as a result of digital music and singles have taken prevalence over albums. (This is why MBDTF, WTT, Section.80, Return of 4Eva, and others were so good to me. They’re bodies of work before they’re collections of singles, like say, Tha Carter IV or even Teflon Don — which I enjoyed a lot, but still say Deeper Than Rap > Teflon Don, as a body of work.)
Technologies effects on music are profound but often go overlooked. Digital music and Jobs’ iTunes is simply the latest. When 45s came into play, they held 3-4 minutes of music on each side. Thus songs were shorter, helping set the format for radio records being 3-4 minutes. By the 70s LPs allowed for longer songs, and cats took full advantage (compare Birth Of The Cool to Bitches Brew).
None of this is to diminish Jobs’ achievements, but rather to enhance them, as it makes his contributions that much more significant. While many remember him for being on the avant-garde of computers, smart phones, tablets, MP3s and communication, his greatest influence, for many, may come in a realm he did not even set out to conquer.