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The End of the iPod Classic: On the Merits of a Music Player 

Wednesday, Sep 18 2013

Apple hasn't come out and speechified it yet, but lots of smart people in the tech industry think 2013 will be the last year for the iPod Classic. That's the lovely little music player that propelled longtime underdog Apple to the corporate Mount Olympus, helped turn the recording industry into a ghost, and changed the way most of us listened to music. Nowadays, of course, streaming over the Internet, not storing files on portable hard drives, is the growing form of music consumption. Industry analysts accustomed to six-month product cycles take it as a sign of impending doom that Apple's biggest pocket jukebox hasn't been updated since before their moms joined Facebook. They're probably right.

The demise of the iPod Classic, whenever it comes, will symbolize and probably speed up a major shift that's taking place, from our owning some finite amount of music to our renting a sliver of all music. And like any end, some good feelings and useful limitations that were once an important part of our experience with music will probably go away with it.

I once put my very first iPod, a 40GB second-generation model, into the very large hands of my grandfather. He drove submarines in WWII, ran a company that made photographic lights, and played Nintendo into his 70s — so he liked gadgets. When I told him that this glowing little white box could hold 10,000 songs, his brow furrowed. He looked at me in a funny, almost pathetic way. At first I thought he was rendered speechless by the technology, but then he said he just couldn't understand why anyone would want to carry around 10,000 songs.

That was the thing with the iPod — once you had the ability to tote, say, all nine discs of the Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968 in your back pocket, it seemed important to do so. And the iPod encouraged you to listen to all this music. My consumption, and the diversity of what I regularly listened to, went through the roof after the iPod liberated portable music from the fragile and space-hogging compact disc. By making it easy to carry and listen to stuff I wasn't sure I'd like — Glenn Branca, Vashti Bunyan, Gwen Stefani's first solo album — and thus giving me a chance to get my head around it, the iPod changed my life. (After half a dozen listens, though, it was jewel-case clear that Love. Angel. Music. Baby. would remain unlistenable.)

Forty gigabytes sounded immense but disappeared quickly; my current 80GB iPod has been full since the day I bought it. But when music streaming services like Spotify and Rdio arrived a few years ago, I came to see the large-but-limited volume of the iPod as a useful feature.

Let's recall that in the CD era, when you went on a trip, you had to decide which six or 12 out of your dozens or hundreds of CDs to bring along. I believe we benefitted from this situation. With a limited supply, you got to know those dozen CDs well, learned to make them work for almost any circumstance. Each CD had an intrinsic value, because it was one-twelfth of the entire universe of music available to you. The very fact of its presence provided a small but real motivation to keep giving it a chance.

Music, it turns out, is a good like any other. When you have a lot of it, you're less inclined to value it. Conversely, the less you have, the more you treasure all of it. So in this era of infinite Internet streaming, it makes perfect sense that we perceive music to be less valuable than ever. And not just "valuable" in the sense of feeling obligated to pay for it. This is a stupendously first-world problem, but there's a real indifference generated by the fact that at any Internet-connected moment, I can click to a streaming service on my smartphone or laptop and play any one of more than 20 million songs. At no cost. On the surface, this is insane and pretty cool. (Unless you're a musician who wants to make money from people listening to your songs. Then it's just insane.) But my investment in each streaming song, my motivation to get something out of it — my appetite — is reinforced by nothing but my own curiosity and ambition. Which is how unlimited streaming can make new music seem as desirable as a 57th slice of free pizza.

There is an ideal balance between going around with only 12 CDs and having so much music at hand that it doesn't matter much. It's called the iPod Classic. Even the massive, 160GB-capacity of Apple's largest model is finite. A full one will feel almost bottomless, maybe, but to get that feeling you first have to invest in music by acquiring all those songs and putting them on there. One-hundred-and-sixty gigs is a lot, but the near-infinity of a streaming-service library is vertiginous.

Another important thing about the beginning of the end of the iPod era is that it foretells an end to the much longer era of owning one's music, at least for some. Whether you acquired them legally or not, you possess the songs on your iPod. You're not renting them temporarily. The music isn't tangible, but it's contained on your own very real hard drive, which vibrates in your hand and makes little hard-drive noises (before solid-state memory became the standard). Even maintaining a so-called "collection" on a streaming service feels transitory, holographic, unreal. It takes nothing but a few searches and clicks to get, and it won't ever be passed down or traded or resold. It doesn't define you the way converting liquid assets into unchangeable music does.

It certainly doesn't offer the same generosity to the people who make the music. In the MP3 era, it was possible for independent artists to support themselves selling digital files online. Good luck paying your rent with the penny-fractions one gets from streaming. Local cellist and DIY poster girl Zoe Keating revealed in a recent newspaper op-ed that in the last six months she made all of $1,610 from 1.2 million plays on Pandora, and $808.01 from 201,412 streams on Spotify. And she's considered successful.

Perhaps getting romantic or nostalgic about one stop on the technology train is like becoming one of those people who believes the world is about to end, and we're all going to have to live in bunkers and eat canned pot roast. (A future for which the iPod is ideally suited, I should add.) Streaming has tremendous benefits — and tremendous costs. So did the iPod. But we're human; we love our gadgets, so how can we not romanticize them? Even now, as its end approaches, Apple's iconic music player remains as perfect a device as the digital revolution has yet created. My 2007 model is looking a little beat-up lately. It's starting to behave a little funny, too. But that's okay. As of this writing, Apple's still selling them.

About The Author

Ian S. Port


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