Tom Gatti wrote a rather lovely eulogy for the iPod for the New Statesman. I was nodding along until I got to the last sentence of this excerpt, where I think my brain played a subliminal record scratch:
Crucially, the music was yours – made up of albums you owned, whether you’d spent many evenings patiently “ripping” your CD collection to your iTunes (it was lucky I already had a girlfriend by my early twenties otherwise I might have struggled to find one) or spent your disposable income in the infinite aisles of Apple’s digital music store. Of course, there were the illegal downloaders, too – peer-to-peer file-sharing continued long after Napster was shut down in July 2001. But I suspect the music fans who dumped enormous quantities of material onto their iPod for free ultimately regretted it – stuck in an endless scroll of the entire Bob Dylan and Jay-Z back catalogues, they lost sight of what they actually liked.
“Regret”? What is Gatti talking about? Anyone who has immersed themselves in an artist’s catalogue has used that as a jumping-off point and a way to develop their musical taste. If you spend enough time with a single artist, you will go through their highs and lows, their “new sound” album, their “return to form”, their masterpieces, their throwaway tracks. And then you will discover the artists they inspired and drew inspiration from. Piracy, for all its ills, is one reason why any music fan’s library these days has breadth and depth that would be unheard-of in the days of milk crates full of records.
Which is, of course, where we find ourselves today: a digital landscape dominated by Spotify and other streaming platforms, in which music is not exactly free, but not owned either. Instead of a collection that has been expanded and cultivated over years, we have a bottomless pool of recorded music. You can “like” an album and “follow” the artist, but the transaction is so low-stakes that it feels meaningless, and your “library” is not really yours at all.
A low-stakes transaction is a recipe for discovery.
But I do sympathize with Gatti’s other argument: these music libraries do not belong to anyone. For all music customers won by encouraging record labels to drop DRM, the labels clawed their way back with a reverse bargain: anyone can listen to all the music they want for $10 per month. But there is no way for that to be a sustainable business model if all that music could simply be walked off with, so we are back to having DRM-encumbered libraries.
As I said at the beginning, a device like the iPod touch is rather redundant for the way we consume music nowadays. However, I think a device like the iPod shuffle still makes a lot of sense. Its main characteristics, what made it an ingenious and very successful device back then, still make it an interesting and appealing device today: […]
With all the shit in the world in the last few years, listening to music has become even more of a refuge and safe space for me than it ever was before.
But, for me at least, the incredible technological convergence of every single use-case into a deck of cards-sized pocket super-computer means that when I do want to only listen to music – there are a million beeps, boops, and badges fighting for my attention.
An underappreciated feature of the iPod (because it wasn’t a feature you could market during its heyday) was that it was only an iPod. Not also a mobile phone and internet communicator.
For all the new things added to Apple Music in the past couple years — animated covers, Spatial Audio, a dedicated section for songs that friends have texted me — all I really want most of the time is to put on a record and listen to it uninterrupted. I do not care what device that is on.
Hall bought an Android-based Sony Walkman. I know Sony has a few of these players and I am sort of intrigued by them. Not enough to buy one, though; that is what my turntable is for. Sometimes, I just want to escape and, for me, music provides that venue. I wish the experience on my existing devices were better suited to that. Unfortunately, the incentives for streaming services are not always aligned with these modest goals.
But this does not have to mark the end of the personal music library. The iPod was a signifier of that, but its death — which really happened several years ago; the iPod Touch is more like a stripped-down iPhone than an iPod, but never mind — does not mean personal libraries have to go away. You can still buy music on iTunes, Bandcamp, and elsewhere. Vinyl records often come with download codes. And, yes, there are still plenty of places to acquire music illegitimately. I will keep building my personal music library in a way unencumbered by DRM, without rights negotiation issues, and free of dependence on third-party services. If you care about the music you listen to, I encourage you to do the same.