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11 May 2022

Farewell to the iPod – and the age of the personal music library

The iPod, with its “shuffle” feature, was often accused of pushing listeners away from the album. Now it feels like a symbol of simpler times.

By Tom Gatti

Farewell, then, to the iPod, which has finally shuffled off this mortal coil. On 10 May Apple announced that it is discontinuing the iPod Touch, the last iteration of the MP3 player that was launched in 2001.

It’s worth recalling just how revolutionary the iPod was. Those of us raised on the Walkman would use up every available minute on our blank cassettes: the 35-odd minutes left on a TDK D90, after your home-taped copy of, say, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle or Blur’s Parklife, could be crammed with a motley crew of B-sides from CD singles picked out of the bargain bin at WH Smiths, or 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 portable MP3 player had been around since 1998 and the iPod’s storage wasn’t record-breaking: Creative’s Nomad Jukebox, released in 2000, could hold around 2,000 tracks. But Apple’s design and marketing genius meant its product immediately overshadowed its competitors. The classic iPod was – is, for I can still hold my black seventh-generation model lovingly in my hand – a tactile wonder. Perfectly palm-sized, it had an interface in which fiddly buttons were banished in favour of the delightfully intuitive click-wheel. The thumb, which now figures so heavily in our swipe-driven tech world, here became a key player, brushing forwards and backwards in order to flip through the proud owner’s music library (a gesture captured with nostalgic reverence in Edgar Wright’s 2017 film Baby Driver, as its young protagonist cues up another track on one of his many iPods).

To have that library in your pocket was a remarkably freeing feeling. The choice of what to listen to on the commute was staggering – will you stick at first click with Abba Gold or Abbey Road, or will you spin on through the alphabet to Survivor (Destiny’s Child) and Surrealistic Pillow (Jefferson Airplane), or beyond? 

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. 

Which is, of course, where we find ourselves today: stuck in 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. 

The iPod was a thing of wonder; it was also something of a Pandora’s Box. Apple’s digital iTunes store, which opened in 2003, “unbundled” albums, making individual tracks available to download for 79p each – a development that many artists (such as Radiohead, who boycotted iTunes until 2008) hated as they felt their masterworks were being stripped for parts. This sense was only confirmed by the randomising “shuffle” feature, which was so popular that in 2005 Apple launched a miniature version of the player designed to do nothing else.

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If the iPod allowed some users to embrace a post-album world, for others it only deepened their relationship with their music collections. The same could not be said for the iPhone, launched in 2007, the year after Spotify. Yes, it offers access to significantly more than 1,000 songs, but it is also a powerfully addictive multi-functional zone of distraction, serving users dopamine-triggering notifications and nudging us away from concentrated listening. And as far as Apple is concerned, it’s the future of its business.

We are not, however, helpless to resist. There’s no denying the unstoppable tide of streaming, but the present vinyl revival shows many music fans flocking back to physical media: UK vinyl sales have increased by more than 2,000 per cent since 2007 (in 2021, 5.3 million records were sold in the UK, the highest total since 1990). Meanwhile, in the US, CD sales increased in 2021 for the first time in 17 years. As the pandemic years pushed even more of our lives online and onscreen, returning to analogue formats felt like a small but important act of resistance, something that would reascribe value to music, demand our full attention, and – more shallowly – look really good in our Zoom backdrops.

Though its function was purely digital, the classic iPod, with its pleasing weight and stubborn lack of internet connectivity, seems part of that older world of physical music. In the age of the smartphone, it now feels like a symbol of simpler times: with a device created purely to play music, we weren’t also checking Twitter, skimming a viral long read and WhatsApping our mums; and our simple carousel of album covers (did you bother to add the artwork? Of course you did) was free of the algorithm-driven suggestions that constantly intervene in our “user journey”. And you know what? Joni Mitchell isn’t on Spotify. But she is where she should be: on my record shelves, and on the whirring hard-drive of my trusty iPod.

Tom Gatti is the editor of Long Players: Writers on the Albums That Shaped Them

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This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato