A few years back I lost my iPod classic. This wasn’t back in 2010 when the iPhone 4 became the dominant selling phone of the day. This wasn’t 2012 when the iPhone 5 reached comparable storage capabilities to the iPod. It wasn’t even 2014 when the iPod Classic was discontinued.
This was 2018. Three years ago. I held onto that thing well past its use-by date and into the realms of vintage hipsterdom. I was manually downloading albums from the internet (okay, I was pirating them), loading them into iTunes, then plugging in my little metal rectangle with a physical cable and filling it with the latest music. In 2018. The same year NASA landed the InSight probe on the surface of Mars, I was manually putting music onto an obsolete metal box to carry around with me like a caveman.
When I was unwillingly separated from my little portable library I quickly had to get to grips with the new world of streaming that I had been thrust into like a time traveller from a simpler age.
Adele, who made headlines recently for having such clout that she was able to get Spotify to redesign its interface to allow for the better appreciation of albums, is right in saying that streaming services alter our interaction with music.
Having come round fully to Spotify and other streaming services, all of which I had used previously but none of which I felt ever edged out the iPod classic, I felt my relationship to music being changed in a very tangible way. To use the time traveller metaphor again, I was discovering the modern world and not exactly loving what we had done to the place.
For starters, I no longer own my own music. Yeah, I pay a subscription to get access to it but it isn’t mine. If there are suddenly licensing issues, the music disappears. That’s if it was even there in the first place. Streaming services are great for most things but a lot of dance music and up and coming artists are poorly represented. Plus the apps themselves rely on connection to the internet. If you’re in a dodgy service area, like, say, most of the non-metropolitans areas of this country, you can struggle to smoothly move through the catalogue.
The catalogue itself is also a problem. Elon Musk thinks that we are already cyborgs because part of our thinking, our processing, is heavily reliant on these external computer devices we carry with us at all times. That’s why you don’t need to remember anyone’s phone number any more, or who played what character in which film. Your phone has all the info you need. Or Musk is actually a cyborg and trying to make it less weird.
That argument applies to music too. By the time I lost my iPod I think I had close to 20,000 songs on there. Because of the space available to me, I would download whole discographies of artists whose music I like simply because I could. I had all of The Beatles, everything Bob Dylan had ever done, all of Fela Kuti, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. I had every great song ever done by anybody, and none of it was accessible subject to the changing winds of licensing agreements or phone coverage. I could listen to all of it when I wanted, where I wanted.
Spotify and other streaming services offer freedom but they also offer disconnect, ambivalence, a loss of personal connection. Each week, new music comes to me via algorithmically designed playlists like Discover Weekly and Release Radar. Often, it’s great. I might listen to a song once, click the little heart, and off it goes into the system, maybe to never be played again. It might pop up on some playlist months down the line once it’s totally forgotten and I’ll have a moment of rediscovery but also unsettling uncanny. I’ve been here before.
Having a whole album downloaded to your iPod — much like having an LP record — generally meant you were inclined to listen to the whole thing as the artist intended, as Adele recently made clear. Without being forced into doing so by my own Luddite tendencies, I probably wouldn’t have listened to more than just Pumped up Kicks by Foster the People or Take Me to Church by Hozier and never discovered both these tracks come from great albums and that both of these artists have really great extensive catalogues.
When you’re listening to a playlist on Spotify, you don’t know who made each track, when they made, or why they made it. It’s a fundamental truth that art is better when you understand the context of it, know what the artist was experiencing at the time or trying to convey. That’s why they put little explainer plaques next to abstract art at galleries. With streaming, there is none of that. You’re just drinking from the fire hose of great music without any sense of where it comes from or why. That might not be an issue to everyone but it’s always irked me.
On an iPod, if you thought you might like a song, you were stuck with it. Just because I enjoyed a bit of Fever Ray did not mean I would like all of The Knife, but since that was all the new music I had uploaded recently, I forced myself to listen to it and enjoy it. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it did not. But still, it forced you to confront and engage with music in a way that seems to have been somewhat lost in the modern era.
The iPod classic was a game changer in terms of musical discovery. First released in 2007, It had 120gb of storage, with the later model coming in at a whopping 160gb. This meant you could carry around 40,000 songs which, at the time, was more music than anyone at any point in human history had ever had access to instantaneously. It also had 36 hours of battery life, meaning it could go for a week or so without needing a charge. If you were studious, you could liquidating entire libraries of CDs into this little metal box and listen to them literally wherever you were. The fact that it was so hands on meant that you had to know exactly what you had in your collection and where it all fit in together as part of that artists body of work.
In a way, I’m glad my iPod disappeared out of my life in the way that it did because I was never going to give that thing up willingly. If the universe hadn’t decided to take it, I would in all likelihood, be scouring various Pirate Bay mirror sites for new albums to listen to as I rode my penny farthing to and from work to out content on a typewriter.
I’m actually not alone in my love for that thing, either. When Apple killed off the iPod Classic in 2014, there was a huge outcry. Prices for the classic shot up on eBay to over four times their original price. Even now they’re considered collectors items.
In writing this I have discovered a whole subculture based around keeping the iPod alive. This guy modifies them to increase their capacity and this guy spent $320 upgrading his when it reached the end of its lifespan. I guess if I really wanted to I could pick up where I left off, but all that music is gone now and I’m far too heavily plugged into the Spotify algorithm to wrench myself free and have to discover music on my own again.
The debate around how music ought to be consumed is snobby and pretentious, something this article has no doubt contributed too. It’s also been going on for pretty much as long as there has been music. There is no right way to enjoy a song. All I’m saying is that the medium changes the message and Adele knows what she’s talking about when she says we need to adjust our listening habits. Who knows, we might start to appreciate music in a whole new way.