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

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’s Doggystyle or Blur’s Parklife could be crammed with a motley crew of bonus tracks taped 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 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 their 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: 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.  

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The iPod was also a Pandora’s Box: in concert with iTunes, it played a crucial role in “unbundling” albums, a process that many artist (such as Radiohead) hated as they felt their masterworks were being stripped for parts – a sense only confirmed by the randomising “shuffle” feature. But it now feels like a symbol of simpler times: with a gadget designed only to play music, we weren’t also checking Twitter, half-reading a viral long read and WhatsApping our mums.

The smartphone offers access to significantly more than 1,000 songs but it is also an incredibly powerful zone of distraction, nudging you away from concentrated listening. 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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