Less than a decade ago, a recording keyed to one song — the single — was considered dead in the water. Even though it had long been a critical part of the way music fans bought and enjoyed music, the single had become a marginal facet of the music business.
Meanwhile, the record industry was waging a life-or-death battle over music piracy because the Internet had blasted open floodgates that allowed people to share their favorite music with one another across the globe, without bothering to pay for it.
And then along came Steve Jobs, armed with Apple's iTunes and iPod.
In some respects, Jobs, who died Wednesday at 56, rescued the music business while giving music lovers unprecedented new freedom to find, store and enjoy music with an ease previous generations only dreamed of.
"What made Steve Jobs truly great," U2 singer Bono said Thursday in a statement, "is that he was only interested in doing truly great things. He was bored by an easy ride or easy profit. In a world littered with dull objects, he brought the beauty of clean lines and clear thought. [He was] one of a very small group of anarchic Americans who through technology literally invented the 21st century. We will all miss the hardware-software Elvis."
Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, noted that "What he's done with the iPod and the iPad rank on the same level of importance and significance as the invention of the Walkman, the cassette, even the LP and the phonograph in general.... We counted on him as a world to show us how we listen to music and how we consume it. Now that he's gone, there's a vacuum in that area and it will be interesting to see how, or if, it can be filled."
The impact of iTunes on the sales of single songs can hardly be overstated. During iTunes' first year in operation in 2003, 30 million digital downloads of songs were sold. Within two years that figure had mushroomed to 1.2 billion song downloads.
In a very short time, the paradigm had done a 180-degree flip: Prognosticators were counting down the days until the album, whether stored on CD or digitally, would be dead and buried because of the public's resuscitated appetite for individual songs. Jobs and iTunes can claim most of the credit for that dramatic turnaround. Jobs' response? In recent years he committed his company to working harder on similarly revivifying album sales.
"He was a true visionary who forever transformed how fans access and enjoy music," Recording Industry Assn. of America Chairman and Chief Executive Cary Sherman said Thursday in a statement. "With the introduction of the iTunes software and other platforms, Steve and Apple made it once again easy and accepted to pay for music."
His death left those in the music business scrambling for words to characterize the seismic shifts his products unleashed in their world and beyond.
"To be a genius in any field is rare enough; to be a genius in three is impossible," Warner Music Group Chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr. said Thursday in a statement. "Steve did the impossible. His incomparable brilliance in technology, design and business transformed not only the music industry, but many others, and in the process, changed our world."
"Steve had an incredible ability to harness the power of innovation to satisfy and stimulate consumer demand in a way that few have ever been able to achieve," Roger Faxon, chief executive of the EMI Group, said in a statement Thursday.
Yet he also was the focal point of new complaints that arose because of the changes his hardware and software brought with them, including the decimation of the brick-and-mortar record store business.
A significant number of artists and music executives initially balked at iTunes' pricing structure, which put the value of a single track at 99 cents. Many groused that it would be impossible for anyone to profit by selling single tracks for pennies. Various artists temporarily or steadfastly refused to sell their music on iTunes since it was born. Among the highest profile acts were the Beatles, Garth Brooks, Led Zeppelin, Kid Rock, Prince and Radiohead.
Some, such as Brooks, Radiohead and Kid Rock, protested their albums being cherry-picked for individual tracks; others, including the Beatles and Prince, were historically unhappy with the financial deal iTunes had to offer; many eventually reached agreements.
iTunes also launched a new wave of competition — and backbiting — both among the record companies themselves and between them and iTunes officials as they jockeyed for prime real estate on the iTunes homepage. As earlier generations had done in lobbying for the best display space in major retail outlets, marketing executives, talent managers and musicians themselves got involved in making the case for iTunes to feature their releases prominently.
Although known largely for his technological expertise, Jobs also was a passionate music fan.
"Steve was a magnetic personality and a fierce intellectual debater of all things music, ranging from piracy to specific discussions about lyrics," Lucian Grainge, chairman and chief executive of Universal Music Group, said in a statement.
His engagement in creative and musical content discussions endeared him to many artists. Yoko Ono characterized him on Thursday as "a dear friend," and rockers Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart called him "a beautiful genius who put music right in our pockets."
The iPod and more recently the iPhone have frayed some nerves in the world of radio, by enabling listeners to have hundreds of their favorite songs at their fingertips wherever they go, rather than hoping and waiting to hear them emerge from the speakers of their car, portable or home radio receivers.
"The iPod and iPhone competed to some degree with traditional radio, but in many ways they became complementary," Jeff Pollack, a leading media consultant, said Thursday. "A lot of radio people were thankful when Apple decided to include an FM receiver on some models like the Nano, and with the Echo [radio app] system, it has made the iPhone a great way to listen to radio, and that has really helped.
"The iTunes store made it so easy and fun to buy songs that users started pirating music less," Pollack noted. "He took the music business away from the labels and focused on the user's experience."
Stevie Wonder said Thursday that he sought Jobs out late in his life to express his gratitude for matters that went well beyond what he and his company did for music.
"The one thing people aren't talking about is how he has made his technology accessible to the blind and the deaf and people who are quadriplegics and paraplegics," Wonder, 61, said. "He has affected not just my world, but the world of millions of people who without that technology would not be able to discover the world.
"His company was the first to come up with technology that made it accessible without screaming out loud 'This is for the blind; This is for the deaf.' He made it part of the actual unit itself. There was application inside the technology that allowed you to use it or not use it.
"The iPhone, iPad touch, iPod touch, all these things, even now the computer, are accessible to those who are with a physical disability," the 25-time Grammy Award winning singer, songwriter and instrumentalist said.
"In another sense, he has given the blind eyes to see the world, the deaf ears to hear the world," Wonder said. "I had wanted to meet him for a long time, and I'm just happy that before he passed away, I was able to meet him and say to him, 'Look, you've changed the lives of millions and millions of people you may never ever meet. Truly you've been a blessing for those of us who need that kind of technology to do more things, to be part of this world, to be in this millennium."