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The Day I Invented iTunes

The following is something I wrote for a tech site newsletter back in 2004. I recently rediscovered it and thought  I’d post it here while I finish my next restaurant review.

Let me tell you about the day I invented iTunes. Unlike Al Gore inventing the internet, it’s true. Well sort of. I didn’t invent it. But I should have. And therein lies my tale.

I had “The Idea” way back in 1997. At the time I was in a band, struggling to get noticed in a world of bands. In the mid 90’s, we had a distribution deal with an independent distributor. Short story shorter, we ended up not getting paid for most of the cd’s sold through them. We couldn’t afford the loss of the product but we chalked it up to experience. The next distributor we talked to asked for 100 play copies (freebies for radio and print). We sent them and the company promptly folded, leaving us with 100 fewer copies and a very bad opinion of the music industry. How did this lead me to “The Idea”? A bit more history is required.

I’d been using computers since the days of the Apple IIe and the IBM PC, so I was fairly literate as a “user”, but certainly had no programming or development experience. In 1993, I’d heard about this latest greatest thing in the computer world…it was called the World Wide Web. I knew I had to “get on”, even though I wasn’t really sure what that meant. I remember vividly the day in 1994, I hooked up to the Edmonton Freenet at 9600 kbps using a borrowed Toshiba 1200 laptop (green screen, 10MB HD, weighed about as much as Thanksgiving Turkey.) Back in those days, the NCSA Mosaic web browser hadn’t been developed yet and all browsing was done using Lynx for DOS, a textual link browser. It was plain, a bit confusing and unbelievably exciting. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m looking at information on a computer in Switzerland.” Now that dates me huh? Worse yet, I remember watching B&W TV and playing Pong (and liking it). As cool as it was, the web was not yet ready for prime time, at least for someone like me.

Then in late ‘94 or early ’95, I get my first look at the Mosaic (later to become Netscape). OK now -this- is interesting. Almost as soon as I saw the thing, I knew our band had to be on the web. If I could browse a site in Switzerland, someone in Switzerland could find out about -us-. And that might mean they’d book us for the fabled “European Tour” (which, sadly, they never did). At the very least they might want a CD. After several months we had our first website. But talk about a straight up learning curve. There was almost no information on how to do this. And what there was, was confusing. There was no Internet For Dummies. Not that I would have ever read something with a title like that but that’s a whole other column. The first year in it’s existence, our website got over 3000 visitors. It was amazing. Of course way back then, the web was a much smaller place so there wasn’t nearly as many choices and generating traffic on a site was a lot easier. But 3000 visitors; from around the world. Cool. The first web site incarnation was pretty much what we all now call a business card site. Some contact information, band bio’s and some pictures and even online order form. No security, no online payment processing and not too exciting by today’s standards, but not bad for back then. It was online at a time when companies like Coke (1998) and Sony (1996) weren’t. Cool. One day in my travels on the web, I noticed some chat about this company called Progressive Networks (later to become Real Networks) and this software I could download (at 14.4 kbps by then…oooh) which would allow me to record an audio file digitally, put it on my website and people could listen to it. For a band trying to get their music heard, this seemed like the Holy Grail. Within a week I had one of the first band websites in Canada and maybe North America with audio. Way Cool.

Now we press the FFwd button a bit to early 1997 and a conversation I had in a Denny’s in Calgary, before or after a gig. I don’t quite remember. We’d just been screwed twice by Distributors and were getting frustrated by our lack of progress and how much it was costing us to get exactly nowhere. It was a bit more of a spew on my part than an actual conversation as my tablemates politely nodded and said uhuh…oh…hmmm. The highlights of the spew where something like this:

“There’s these new technologies…MP3 compression (1996), CD burning (1995), web based eCommerce. Independent Bands need a way to get their music heard. Independent Bands need a way to sell their music. Most CD’s suck except for one or two songs…except ours. People should be able to buy music for a buck or two. Not a whole CD. Just the song or songs they want. Maybe they could order a CD with the songs they picked. They should be able to preview the music on the website, purchase it on the website and download it from the website. What a great flippin’ idea!

Sound familiar? At the end of that conversation I was so jazzed by the concept, I went and wrote it all down and said “I need to start a company and make this happen. It’s the Next Big Thing.” Nothing stood between me and success but failure. Problem was I couldn’t convince anyone around me that this was anything but some obscure tech thing that might be interesting but had no real long-term viability. You must realize that this is all taking place in Edmonton and Calgary. Not exactly beacons of high tech at the time. People were (and mostly still are) more interested in sucking as much oil out of the ground as possible…and cows. Technology and Art, especially the combination of the two, were simply not on anyone’s radar. The other little problem was that I was flat broke, in the hole actually, and living in a warehouse. In hindsight, I should have hitchhiked to Palo Alto and knocked on doors until someone listened. I didn’t. Instead, I made a weak attempt at getting the thing done. Threw up my hands and said “The technology’s too new, too expensive, I’ve no help, I live in a warehouse, I eat 3 times a week whether I need to or not. I give up. Let someone else do it.”

Several have tried and failed. I never thought Napster (1999) would fly. I remember the first time I checked it out. I thought, “Cool, but how in the world do they think the can get away with this?” You could smell mega-lawsuit from day one. Other attempts from the recording industry have been spectacular flops. Napster 2.0? Give me a break. Personally, I think the music industry listened too much to the software community whispering in their ear. Don’t -sell- music, -license- it. Restrict its use. Make people keep paying. KaChing! What the industry didn’t and mostly still doesn’t understand is that music is Art. It is a business, yes. Artists and people involved in producing and distributing music need to eat more than 3 times a week. (Notice I mention Artists first?) But the reason mainstream music has become so insipid and un-listenable is that the people involved in making it think of the business before they think of the art. It’s a recipe for crap. Imagine some freakish world where The White Album stopped playing after a period of time and required you to upgrade to The White Album v2.0. I imagine the industry is wishing they’d figured a way to do it back then. They are sure trying hard now. iTunes seems to be getting a lot of the things right, although I still think it is too restrictive in terms of secondary use, but at least you can get what you want, when you want and artists and the business are making some money.

Looking back, I can’t say that “The Idea” would have worked at the time. Maybe it needed 10 years of incubation and technology advancements for it to fly. Maybe I’d be having lunch with Steve Jobs discussing the way we could interface my website business with his iPod. Maybe… Thing about a good idea is that if you don’t do it, make it happen, someone else -will-.

If you have an idea, stick with it. Starve. Push. Hitchhike. Go places you don’t think you can. Take risks. Lose it all. Win Big. It’s what being an entrepreneur is all about. Don’t get caught saying, “Reminds me of the time I invented…” Hmmm…Maybe Al did invent the Internet after all.

Oct 22/04

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