Music downloads may only have about four years left

A new era begins.
A new era begins.
Image: Reuters/David McNew
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All signs point to music heading toward a post-iTunes world.

Ownership of songs and albums, which saw its own transformation from physical to digital in the 2000s, is now steadily being edged out by massive streaming catalogs and monthly subscription models—a shakeup confirmed by recent reports from the Recording Industry Association of America and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, among other industry groups.

One prominent music analyst is putting a date on it. Midia Research founder Mark Mulligan, who’s spent more than a decade scrutinizing the digital-music market, predicts the music download business will stutter at around $600 million in 2019—a depressing fall from $3.9 billion in 2012, when Apple’s iTunes Store (the world’s preeminent downloads platform) was at its revenue peak. In 2015, downloads declined by 16%, and they look to slide as much as 30% more this year.

By 2020, Apple’s budding streaming service, Apple Music, will likely be 10 times bigger than the company’s download business. ”This is the point at which Apple would choose to turn off the iTunes Store,” Mulligan writes.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that cut-off date as a real possibility. Apple is trying hard right now to pivot toward a services-based model of business—so it’s putting everything it’s got into Apple Music, and shunting the already-unloved iTunes to the side. In 2020, if global streaming revenue does hit the 2012 iTunes Store download-revenue peak as it’s predicted to do, there may be little incentive for the company to keep propping up iTunes.

That’s not to say music fans will take the change in stride, however. In a recent blog post that went viral, one customer described the colossal headache of migrating from iTunes to Apple Music, including having hundreds of his personal files deleted.