Farewell, then, to the iPod, which finally mixed that killer reel. On May 10, Apple announced that it was discontinuing the iPod Touch, the latest iteration of the MP3 player launched in 2001.
It is worth remembering how revolutionary the iPod was. Those of us who grew up with the Walkman would use every available minute on our blank tapes: the remaining 35 minutes on a TDK D90, after your home-recorded copy of, say, Snoop’s doggy style or Blur’s Parklife might be jam-packed with a motley crew of bonus tracks recorded from Radio 1. But you were still confined to 90 minutes of listening. And now this little gadget could fit – wait, what? – 1,000 songs? It was mind-boggling.
The MP3 player had been around since 1998 and the iPod’s storage capacity was no record: Creative’s Nomad Jukebox, released in 2000, could hold around 2,000 tracks. But Apple’s design and marketing genius made their product immediately eclipse its competitors. The classic iPod was – is, because I can still hold my seventh generation black model lovingly in my hand – a tactile marvel. Perfectly palm-sized, it had an interface in which fiddly buttons were banished in favor of the delightfully intuitive click wheel. The thumb, which has become so prominent in our swipe-focused tech world, has become a key player here, swiping back and forth in order to peruse the proud owner’s music library (a gesture captured with wistful reverence in Edgar Wright’s 2017 film baby driveras its young protagonist selects another track on one of his many iPods).
Having this library in your pocket was a remarkably liberating feeling. The choice of what to listen to during the ride was staggering – will you stick with the first click with Abba Gold or Abbey Roador will you spin through the alphabet to Ssurvivor (Destiny’s Child) and surreal pillow (Jefferson Airplane), or beyond?
Basically, the music was yours – made up of albums you owned, whether you spent many evenings patiently “ripping” your CD collection to your iTunes (I was lucky to have a girlfriend already early 20s, otherwise I might have had trouble finding one) or spent your disposable income in the endless aisles of Apple’s digital music store. Of course, there were also the illegal downloaders – peer-to-peer file sharing continued long after Napster closed in July 2001. But I suspect that music fans who dumped huge amounts for free of material on their iPod ended up regretting it – stuck in an endless scroll through Bob Dylan and Jay-Z’s entire catalogs, they lost sight of what they really loved.
That, of course, is where we find ourselves today: a digital landscape dominated by Spotify and other streaming platforms, in which music isn’t exactly free, but neither is it owned. Instead of a collection that has grown and grown over the years, we have an endless reservoir of recorded music. You can “like” an album and “follow” the artist, but the transaction is so small it seems meaningless, and your “library” is not yours at all.
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The iPod was also a Pandora’s box: together with iTunes, it played a crucial role in “unbundling” albums, a process that many artists (such as Radiohead) hated because they felt their bosses- of works were stripped of certain parts – a meaning only confirmed. by the “shuffle” randomization function. But it now feels like a symbol of simpler times: with a gadget designed just to play music, we weren’t checking Twitter, half-reading a long viral read, and WhatsApping our moms.
The smartphone offers access to well over 1,000 songs, but it’s also an incredibly powerful distraction zone, taking you away from focused listening. And you know what? Joni Mitchell is not on Spotify. But it’s where it should be: on my record shelves and on the humming hard drive of my trusty iPod.
Tom Gatti is the editor of Long Players: Writers on the albums that shaped them