iTunes at Twenty

Original Story by Brad Hood (2023-06-23)

This spring marked the 20th anniversary of the iTunes Music Store, which debuted in 2003 in the wake of Napster (and similar legally dubious peer-to-peer downloading services) to revolutionize consumer music distribution. Many fans felt justified using peer-to-peer services because for many years they had been forced by the major labels to buy entire CD albums to obtain one hit song. But the iTMS disrupted that paradigm by offering individual tracks from all the major labels at a low price, initially just $0.99. Digital downloads became a prominent form of music consumption in the decade that followed, though it has now largely given way to streaming. Even the names “iTunes” and “iTunes Music Store” have been retired and replaced by “Apple Music.” Some readers may even be surprised to know that you can still buy music from Apple, but there is no doubt that the iTMS permanently altered the landscape of music consumption.

IMAGE: iTunes Music Store Advertising U2 at Launch

U2 has a longstanding relationship with Apple and iTunes, and there are several milestones of note along the way. U2’s music and imagery were used in some of the earliest iTMS marketing (including an exclusive EP at launch), the band infamously released Songs of Innocence as a free iTMS exclusive in 2014, and their catalog was reissued in 2017 as part of the “Mastered for iTunes” program. But there is one period in time, when the iTMS was still relatively new, that the partnership between the band and the brand was at its peak, and that is worth recalling in more detail.

I think I first became aware of U2 when “Pride” broke into the top 40 on US Radio in 1984. That was a time when I listened to American Top 40 every Sunday and bought my favorite songs on 45. But I didn’t fall hard for them until the release of The Joshua Tree in 1987, the same year I got my first CD player, and I soon found myself exploring their back catalog of albums. When I finally got around to their live album, Under a Blood Red Sky, there were two songs that I didn’t recognize, “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” and “Party Girl.” As much as I enjoyed those live versions, I was curious to hear the studio recordings, and that led me down the path of searching out singles and b-sides that were, at that time, only available on vinyl (and the odd cassingle). That search was not, I might add, an easy one in the Southern US in the late 80’s and early 90’s. We forget how easy the Internet has made it to acquire records from all over the world, but at the time few shops stocked imports and even fewer import singles. However, with the help of various record shops, mostly in New Orleans and Dallas, I managed to amass a collection of basically everything U2 had produced in the studio to that point.

I have since acquired cleaner versions of those old 45’s, but some of my first copies were pretty scratchy and worn. Nevertheless, I did what was the norm back then; I made myself a mix tape of U2 singles and b-sides. A friend of mine owned an integrated stereo with a turntable and a cassette deck which made the process pretty streamlined; I could just hit pause on the recorder while I flipped or changed the record. Finally, I could listen to those “rare” songs on my Walkman or in the car. The sound quality wasn’t great, but having them all in one place was the point.

By the late 90’s, some singles from the early 80’s had been reissued on CD and a handful of tracks had appeared on compilation CDs here and there, but many early releases remained unavailable digitally, including U2’s very first release, the Three EP. The inclusion of “Party Girl” on U2’s first best-of collection in 1998 rekindled my interest in those old singles. I purchased my first CD burner (a real beast from Sony in an external enclosure) in 1999, and I had soon taught myself how to rip vinyl and burn a mix CD. My old mix tapes had a new lease on life, but I must say that the clarity of digital audio really highlighted every scratch and pop on my battered old 45’s. I even tried downloading other people’s rips on the original Napster, but for the most part they were no better than my own attempts.

IMAGE: U2’s “Vertigo” available exclusively on iTunes first!

Fast forward to October 2004: the iPod, Apple’s digital music player originally introduced in 2001, was the hottest piece of tech on the planet, and the iTunes Music Store was changing how people bought music. “Vertigo,” U2’s lead single for the How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb album, was featured in one of Apple’s famous “silhouette” iPod commercials and was available as an exclusive on iTMS for a time. Later that same month, a U2-branded black and red iPod was announced along with a career-spanning digital box set, touted as the first of its kind, that would contain over 400 tracks, including all of the band’s albums as well as “rare and unreleased tracks.” That digital box set was to be called The Complete U2.

Needless to say, I downloaded The Complete U2 as soon as it became available in November 2004, which was day and date with How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. I remember spending that morning listening to the new album and retagging the box set tracks into separate albums and singles instead of a 67-disc mega-album. The Complete U2 mostly lived up to its name. It encompassed every U2 album including 2 previous fanclub-only releases, both best-of sets, and the Passengers side project. Most singles and b-sides were also present, with a few notable oversights here and there, as well as live albums recorded in Boston (1981) and Dublin (1989). More interesting to longtime fans were the Unreleased & Rare album, which contained outtakes from various albums, songs from soundtracks and compilations, and previously unreleased remixes and edits; as well as the Early Demos EP, the first and still only official release of a November 1978 recording session. But what was most exciting to me was to finally have clean, well-mastered digital versions of the pre-War singles including Three, and these sounded fantastic compared to my old mixtapes and vinyl rips.

IMAGE: U2’s The Complete U2

Thinking back again about how the ways we listen to music have changed over the years, I recall being all in on the progress of digital music in 2004, but that was still a time of transition. I purchased an AirPort Express that year so that I could wirelessly connect my iTunes library to my stereo. That way, I could listen to my entire music library from my laptop. However, iPod/car audio integration was still dodgy at the time, so I was still burning a lot of CDs for listening in the car. From The Complete U2, I burned Unreleased & Rare, the 2 live albums, and some 80’s and 90’s b-side compilations. (You may recall that when it was first released, The Complete U2 was copy protected, but the DRM did allow you to burn a playlist to a CD from iTunes.) My absolute favorite, however, was a CD containing all of the tracks from the vinyl collections 4 U2 Play and U2 PAC 2, with the early demos tacked on to the end for good measure. In fact, I still listen to that CD to this day, though I have since reburned it from the higher-quality iTunes Plus files, which were upgraded in 2009. It’s one of a few CDs that I keep in my car in case I forget to bring my phone. I have included that playlist for readers who may be interested in giving it a listen.

Except for the early demos, all of those pre-War tracks are now available on CD on deluxe album reissues, but I still have nostalgia for The Complete U2 versions as the original digital single releases. Though the files are lossy, the tracks are well mastered and sound true to the original vinyl releases, and the ones I am most familiar with due to repeated listening across many years. It is hard to believe that the iTunes music store was introduced over 20 years ago, and that we are coming up on the 20th anniversary of The Complete U2. Few things make you feel older than your favorite band’s “career-spanning” box set turning 20, but I have very fond memories of that time in U2 fandom, of finally being able to listen to those pre-War songs in clear digital audio, and of the biggest band in the world partnering with a resurgent tech juggernaut that was revolutionizing the music and tech industries simultaneously. Since streaming has become the primary way people consume music, I doubt that we will ever see the likes of The Complete U2 again, but it has turned out to be quite the milepost in U2’s career and in the rapidly changing history of recorded music at the turn of the century.

U2 Play: The Singles 1979 – 1982

Additional Discography Links

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