How Apple Changed Music and Steve Jobs Made Rihanna (and the Cast of Glee and Lil Wayne and Taylor Swift, etc.) a Record-Breaking Star

Written by Hunter Schwarz on . Posted in Music

Apple marked the passing of its co-founder and former chief executive Steve Jobs Wednesday, calling him “a visionary and creative genius.” In the coming weeks, much will be said of Jobs and how he revolutionized the  way we live. Evidence of his impact can be found in pockets carrying app-filled iPhones, DVD collections sprinkled with Pixar films and of course, the Billboard Hot 100.

Before the launch of the iTunes digital store in 2003, the record industry was facing the unprecedented threat of online piracy. Consumers were freed from forking over $15 for an album with one hit song and a tracklist full of filler by file sharing services such as Napster. Suddenly, an industry that had made record profits in the late ’90s with this model (think Chumbawamba, Eiffel 65, Natalie Imbruglia, etc.) scrambled to restore revenue by resorting to lawsuits.

Apple changed music and provided an alternative when it signed deals with the five major record labels to offer their artists’ music on the iTunes digital store, which made Jobs, a man who didn’t even play an instrument, one of the most influential men in popular music history; the “father of digital music,” as Billboard called him this week.

An ingenious marking campaign with silhouettes dancing with their iPod earbuds in ensured that Apple’s product would be the king of MP3 players. In 2005, Billboard finally added digital downloads to its tabulation of the Hot 100, and suddenly, the sleepy charts of the early ’00s came alive.

The period from 2002-2005 were a rather dull time for chart watchers. Record companies had killed off the physical single to force consumers to buy full length albums which meant the only way to have a chart smash was to rule the airwaves. From 2002-2005, the only songs to go No. 1 on the chart were hip-hop and R&B songs which occupied the penthouse for weeks on end and the occasional American Idol coronation song. The streak was broken by Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” in May 2005 (it was No. 1 the week I graduated high school) which also became the first song to ever sell a million downloads.

The following year, the chart landscape was completely different with hits by artists as diverse as James Blunt and Justin Timberlake who rubbed shoulders with Chamillionaire and Ludacris. The charts were democratized in a way never before possible, and the charts reflected the true diversity in musical tastes. While there were only eight different No. 1 hits in 2005, there were 18 in 2006.

The effect of Steve Jobs, the iPod and iTunes is felt in the charts this week. Adele’s “Someone Like You” returns to No. 1. The song first shot there a month ago on the strength of digital downloads and returns as radio catches up, a common pattern for songs in the digital age. Rihanna also scores her 20th top 10 hit, setting a record for the fastest time to do so among solo artists.

The span between her first top 10 hit, “Pon De Replay,” to her latest, “We Found Love” feat. Calvin Harris, is six years and four months, besting previous record holder Madonna by five months. Interestingly, Rihanna’s recording career lines up with Billboard’s embrace of iTunes. Her debut single was released six months after the Hot 100 began tracking digital sales. While there are other reasons the singer has tabulated so many hits in such a short time, such as her rate of releasing new music or constant feature credits (half of her top 10 hits feature another artist), it’s not a stretch to say her success is a product of the iTunes era.

But Rihanna isn’t the only artist to have rewritten Billboard’s record with the aid of iTunes. The cast of Glee, Kelly Clarkson, Lil Wayne and Taylor Swift are among those who have made a significant impact on the chart made possible by iTunes. Records held for decades by legends like Elvis Presley and the Beatles have tumbled in the past five years as hits materialize on the Hot 100 entirely thanks to rabid fans downloading songs. But how long can it last?

Facebook’s F8 conference held in September introduced new ways of integrating music into social media, and noticeably absent from the conference was the “old guard” of music distribution. But “old guard” meant more than the nation’s biggest music retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy. iTunes, Amazon and eMusic weren’t invited either. Instead, streaming services like Spofity and Turntable.fm were promoted, suggesting that the record industry might be headed into a digital revolution 2.0. What implications that has for the Hot 100 is unknown.

Rihanna is the perfect pop star for the digital age. She has yet to produce a No. 1 album, but in just over five years, she has racked up an incredible 10 No. 1s (If she continues at her current rate, she’ll break the Beatles’ record for most No. 1s—20—by 2017). Her chart record suggest consumers are willing to spend $1.29 for a song, but don’t necessarily want her whole album. Marketing an artist like her before iTunes would have been an entirely different beast and in the age of streaming music, it could change again. If streaming digital music is the way of the future, how will Billboard react? Will there be even more people willing to stream a Rihanna song than there is to download it? Will different artists benefit from it more?

Billboard has always adapted to the times when compiling its lists (even if they’re one or two years late), so the answers to these questions will come. If Spotify and streaming music do indeed make iTunes a thing of the past, however, they’ll still have Steve Jobs and Apple to thank for laying the foundation for digital music in the 21st century.

Here’s what happening on the rest of the Hot 100:

  • Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” holds at No. 3 for a sixth consecutive week. Anyone know the record for most weeks in third place? They’ve got to be up there by now. The song’s sales figures are dropping but airplay is on the rise.
  • LMFAO prove they’re more than a one-hit wonder. Summer might feel like a distant memory, but “Party Rock Anthem” is still a top 5 hit while “Sexy and I Know It” moves 10-6.
  • The week’s highest debut is B.o.B.’s “Strange Clouds” feat. Lil Wayne. Remember how I said Lil Wayne has iTunes to thank for his chart records? He does, but he can also thank the countless artists who have asked him to contribute a verse or two to their song.

Here’s this week’s top ten:

  1. “Someone Like You” – Adele
  2. “Moves Like Jagger” – Maroon 5 feat. Christina Aguilera
  3. “Pumped Up Kicks” – Foster the People
  4. “Stereo Hearts” – Gym Class Hero feat. Adam Levine
  5. “Party Rock Anthem” – LMFAO feat. Lauren Bennett and GoonRock
  6. “Sexy and I Know It” – LMFAO
  7. “Strange Clouds” – B.o.B. feat. Lil Wayne
  8. “Without You” – David Guetta feat. Usher
  9. “We Found Love” – Rihanna
  10. “You Make Me Feel…” – Cobra Starship feat. Sabi
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