The Real Music Man

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When Steve Jobs announced yesterday that he was stepping down as CEO of Apple, it marked the end of an era. You could argue whether the worlds of personal computing or communication would have been fundamentally different without Jobs and his steady parade of irresistible toys - desktops, laptops, tablets, phones. After all, other companies have been competing with Apple in these fields all along. But you simply cannot argue about his impact on the world of music.

Steve Jobs is not a musician, or a record producer, or a composer, at least not as far as anyone knows. But he has profoundly changed the way we hear music, the way music is produced, the way music is marketed. His twin masterstrokes, the iPod and iTunes, didn't just make music more portable - we'd been heading in that direction since the Walkman 30 years ago. His innovations made music easy to find, to manage, to sort and re-sort, and to hear even in a noisy environment.

Of course, this came at the cost of sound fidelity; you have to compress the sound quite a bit, meaning the lows become mediums and the highs also become mediums, changing the dynamic nature of the music dramatically. This in turn has affected how many modern recordings are made. But despite some inevitable pushback, it seems that most people are willing to give up the sonic purity of a beautifully-mastered recording with a wide dynamic range for a convenient sound file that they can actually hear in the car. And most record producers seem willing to follow suit.

Jobs' inventions have helped make music an almost ubiquitous part of our lives. It's a great irony that the cutting edge of Western technology has brought us closer to something that musicologists have long described, often with barely-disguised envy, in traditional cultures like those of sub-Saharan Africa or native Australians: the central role of music in daily life. Ancient cultures will have music for births, deaths, and every milestone in between. There are songs for chores, songs for hunting, songs for calling the livestock. Now, we have playlists for going into labor, for a long car ride, for a quiet date, for a hopefully hotter date, for hitting the treadmill. And don't forget about marketing - there is hardly a better way to break a new band than to get their music onto an iTunes commercial.

Some say Jobs' iWorld has cheapened music. Or they worry that the easy access to almost any music will make it less likely that people will MAKE music themselves. Well, there seem to be more bands then ever, and iTunes is a key way for artists and labels to actually make money; it offers an easy, relatively affordable, legal alternative to file-sharing.

For a guy who never recorded a song, or signed a band, or founded a label or a music festival, Steve Jobs has probably had more of an impact on the music world than any other person in the last quarter century - and possibly since Thomas Edison. Apple will no doubt continue, but what has distinguished Apple, and made it such a rarity among organizations of this scale, is that its corporate vision has essentially been a single individual's vision - and that individual has just left the building.