On April 28th, 2003, moments before I was about to interview Steve Jobs at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, I was jittery. Anticipation? Nerves? Excitement? You bet. All of those visceral emotions were firing. Knowing Jobs’ storied reputation as an irascible and exacting Silicon Valley CEO had me on edge. But I had prepared a tight set of questions. Secretly, I was hoping he might enjoy the line of inquiry. In turn, I would have a lively and candid report for my editors at Time.
What I didn’t know was that the interview was taking place on what would turn out to be one of the most important days in Apple’s history: The launch of the iTunes Music Store.
Once again, Steve Jobs had done the impossible. This time he had orchestrated a historic deal with recording artists and the major labels, permitting music to be legally sold and downloaded over the Internet. After spending more than tens of millions of dollars developing the back-end infrastructure–digital jukebox, store, indexing and payment system–Apple had created the first acceptable alternative to “free” unauthorized file-sharing services like Kazaa, which at the time accounted for some 200 million illegal downloads worldwide.
The landmark agreement came not a moment too soon. The mainstream music industry was desperate to stem the bleeding from lost sales. Artists wanted to be paid for their work. Consumers just wanted easy access to the world of music.
“People don’t want to steal music,” the English soul singer Seal told me at the launch event. “The whole process of downloading music is convoluted, time consuming. And people do it because there’s no viable alternative. And now there is.”
On launch day, the iTunes Music Store had only 200,000 tracks, and the store–and the iPod–only worked with Macs. Today, Apple is the number one music retailer in the United States, and its storefronts for movies, TV shows, and apps–all descendants of the music store–are hugely successful.
Looking back, it’s almost silly to recall the intensity of skeptics back in 2003 questioning whether legal music could catch up to the pace of free and illicit Internet files. When I spoke with Jobs, even he expressed uncertainty whether consumers would convert en masse to paying via the iTunes Music Store. Sixteen billion downloaded songs later, we know the answer.