HomeNewsRIP the iPod. I resisted you at first, but for 20 years, you were my musical life | Dorian Lynskey
RIP the iPod. I resisted you at first, but for 20 years, you were my musical life | Dorian Lynskey
May 12, 2022
It’s the end of the iPod era. The news that Apple is pulling the plug on the iPod Touch, and thus the entire 21-year-old line, is curiously timed for me because I only recently retired my iPod Classic. Every month for the past 30 years, I’ve made a compilation of my favourite songs. It’s a time capsule of musical memories.
For the first decade I used cassettes to make my compilations. This required a lot of creative editing, tense retakes and hovering over the pause button like a predator. After that, the simple drag-and-drop of an iTunes playlist felt miraculous. Even once Spotify arrived, I kept this up for years as an act of commitment: love a song, buy a song, own a song. But for boring technical reasons, the computer that housed my music could no longer handle the iTunes store, so I had to download songs on one device, transport them to another and individually add them to the library, a process which was almost as laborious as making a tape. Reprogrammed by touchscreens, my fingers found the iPod’s click wheel increasingly alien. Why was I still doing this? I didn’t know. So I stopped.
I never owned a Touch, so its demise doesn’t move me any more than that of the Nano and Shuffle five years ago. I did my sic transit gloria routine back in 2014, when my model, the iPod Classic (mine was 160gb), was discontinued.
It is a sturdy little brick with just one job: music, and lots of it. I could listen to it non-stop for more than three months and never repeat a song. It is stolidly oblivious to the internet and its galaxy of distractions. It knows nothing of the cloud. The Touch, by contrast, always struck me as a glittery dilettante which didn’t carry nearly enough music, but it was still popular with people who wanted a specialist device with more memory and battery life than an iPhone, at a fraction of the price. Good for kids, too. Once smartphones got better and cheaper, and streaming destroyed downloads, the need for a separate music player evaporated. So it goes.
Yet the iPod still has advantages over streaming, and not just the fact that it won’t pay a podcaster millions of dollars to talk nonsense about vaccines. Everybody has their own Spotify experience but we’re all drawing from the same pool of music, which is vast but limited. My iPod contains many songs that streaming does not acknowledge: forgotten B-sides culled from old CD singles, bootleg remixes plucked from filesharing platforms, sundry rarities downloaded from now defunct websites, albums snarled up in copyright issues, the catalogues of Spotify exiles Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. It is a unique collection of music, curated over many years, in which each song represents an active choice. It’s mine alone.
Still, I’m well aware that I’m not the typical music consumer, and it would be hard to argue that the world’s most valuable company should continue to cater for collectors who simply must own the Chemical Brothers remix of Spiritualized or MIA’s debut mixtape. Like the turntable decades earlier, the iPod has gone from being a mass-market device for anyone who loves music to a niche product for the hardcore. Apple is not in the niche business.
Now that the agile upstart has become a knackered warhorse, laden with nostalgia, it’s worth remembering that the iPod was contentious when it was launched back in October 2001, holding a then-remarkable 1,000 songs. What the author Stephen Witt calls “the most ubiquitous gadget in the history of stuff” did more for Apple – paving the way for the iPhone and iPad – than it did for the music industry. While the arrival of the iTunes store 18 months later helped to stem illegal filesharing, the iPod still allowed users to unbundle individual tracks from albums; download sales never came close to making up for collapsing CD revenue during the music business’s lost decade. I was initially grumpy about the iPod, complaining that it devalued music and drove a bulldozer through the concept of the album. A shuffle function? Barbarians! Eventually, of course, I bought one and loved it.
As we now know, the album survived as an artistic entity. Whenever I read an article declaring the death of something, I’m pretty sure that it’s not really dead: vinyl made a comeback, and even clunky, fallible cassettes are enjoying a modest revival for reasons that I don’t entirely understand. Yet the iPod, as opposed to the broader concept of the digital music player, relies on one company, so it is as dead as something can be, devoured by the very revolution it launched.
My own iPod sits on my desk, battery drained, silent as a paperweight, but I know that if I fire it up, I will have almost 20 years of my musical life in the palm of my hand. That’s me in there.