Last month’s quietly-announced death of the iPod Classic signaled the end of the device that ushered in Apple’s dominance in the music marketplace. Ever the user experience advocate, Steve Jobs began Apple’s resurgence in 1998 with the unveiling of the iMac, but it was the iPod that made Apple such a dominant cultural force. Had the iPod tanked, the iPhone would at the very least, look greatly different than it does today—and at the most, would possibly be non-existent.
For as game-changing as the iPod was, it barely lasted to its teenage years. By contrast, both the Sony Discman and Walkman made it to their twenties. The device had its critics who hated everything from its ubiquitous circular wheel to its sometimes inexplicable way it categorized music (some albums wouldn’t show up under an artist’s name, only to appear under ‘Compilations’). Whether people loved or hated the design, even in death, few will debate the enormous impact the iPod had on music during its run—from the way we listen to music to how we purchase and value an artist’s output.
In the pre-iPod age, people were physically limited as to what they could carry. There were only so many cassettes you could fit into your backpack. Compact discs made it easier, but a travel envelope that you could easily tote around could still only hold about 24 CDs. Contract that with a device where your entire music library could literally fit into your palm.
Thanks to file sharing programs like Napster and Kazaa, people could instantly access a band’s entire discography. Larger thumb storage devices meant you could easily swap dozens of albums with your friends. And if you were willing to pay for the product, sites like Amazon would even cut you a deal, selling new releases for $3.99 or less, or about a third of what a CD cost in 1992. It didn’t matter how much you collected, the iPod could dutifully shoulder the space burden. What would have taken years to collect in the 1980s and ‘90s could now be available in a matter of minutes.
“I think the way people consume music has been sped up,” said Anthony Fantano, founder of the music review blog The Needle Drop.
Fantano’s YouTube site contains album reviews, some of which have garnered more than 300,000 views. He hosted a radio show that was picked up by National Public Radio, and he’s appeared at South by Southwest. Although he never owned an iPod, he did purchase an iPhone, which he used to store his music.
“I think devices (like the iPod, iPhone), combined with the fact that people can listen to so much so quickly from so many different eras of music, so many different countries, so many different artists, and different genres … It leads to maybe some fans being a little overwhelmed without completely knowing it.”
Fantano’s music journey began with cassettes in high school. Later on, when he moved to CDs, he picked up albums from BMG-style “buy 12 albums for a penny” promotions, as well as other people burning CDs for him. For work, he primarily listens to albums through his computer, but for pleasure, he’ll use his iPhone.
“When I have the iPhone with me, maybe sometimes I feel slightly overwhelmed by all the music that I will throw onto it without even thinking about it,” Fantano said. “It takes a minute or two to sift through everything I got and actually decide what I’m going to hear…only to maybe switch it to something else halfway through.”
The inherent habit of switching or skipping tracks was made easy by devices like the iPod. Ironically, the mass circulation of the iPod brought music back to its 1950s roots in some ways. All of a sudden, the music industry became more fixated on isolated singles again, rather than the album.
“Back then (in the ‘90s), if you wanted to hear the songs off the record, you had to buy it. Today, we’re only buying what we like in music. And sometimes we’re not even doing that,” Fantano said.
Eric Ziegler, store manager of the Omaha record store Homer’s, agreed.
“NSYNC would not have sold 40 million copies if iTunes had existed back then,” Ziegler said.
Ziegler has been a store manager for Homer’s for 19 years. During that time, he’s seen the store go from three Omaha locations to just one. His own album collection goes into the thousands. He’s also seen the medium by which music is sold change significantly over the years.
“I remember my first record was [Van Halen’s] Panama,” Ziegler said. “I bought it at Target.”
Ziegler took the traditional path of most Gen-Xers for music purchases: first records, then cassettes, then CDs. He bought his first iPod two years after its release.
“It was easier to mow the lawn with an iPod than a Discman or a Walkman,” he said.
The discontinuation of the iPod still leaves room for other MP3 players to fill its absence, but none are as widely circulated as the iPod. As of 2012, there were about 350 million iPods sold. Its assumed replacement, either the iPod touch or the iPhone, both have far less storage space, which won’t matter much for a casual music fan, but will for people whose album collection runs into the hundreds. As a result, some nostalgia for the deceased iPod has already begun to filter into the marketplace. On Amazon, a new $259 160GB iPod Classic is now selling for about $480.
Speaking from his corner desk, which was stacked shoulder-high with used vinyl and boxes of new CDs, Ziegler said he still preferred buying the physical product over MP3s. When he drives, he prefers to listen to CDs to an auxiliary iPod connection. Despite the iPod and software like Spotify and iTunes, CDs are still considered a dominant media, Ziegler said.
“Working at a record store, no piece of media has died,” he said. “You had the vinyl resurgence. The cassette resurgence. I’m waiting for an 8-track resurgence. People still come in looking for 8-tracks.”
The iPod may be dead, but it’s not forgotten. In fact, part of its soul still lives on in that little black rectangle we all carry in our pockets.