Tech Talk

The end of an era in music

The iPod is dead. Its death scene was so prolonged that even the hammiest of actors would consider it “a bit much”. While the Classic – the final version of Apple’s original MP3 player – ceased production in 2014, it wasn’t until May 2022 that the company announced the Touch – the last product to bear the iPod name – was being discontinued.

You could easily see the device’s demise as just the latest in a long line of technologies that slid into obsolescence. Wasn’t it just the 21st century’s Walkman? But the end of the iPod also marks the end of a particular relationship with music. Steve Jobs’ promise at the first model’s launch (“1,000 songs in your pocket”) reflected that mentality: music was something to be collected and cherished.

In the streaming era, music has become, for most people, a commodity to be accessed rather than something to be savoured. While every smartphone has a music player built in, it’s just another app, one feature among many. The iPod was the last culture-defining device to be dedicated to music. The collection it contained was digital, but it was still a collection.

Despite the cyclical news stories about the “return of vinyl”, record collecting is now a niche concern. Many of the albums purchased on vinyl are never played. Instead, they’re like a T-shirt or a pin badge, a way of indicating fandom. The cassette tape, another format that seemed definitively in the dumper, has also returned as an object you can purchase to show your support for an artist rather than as a means of actually listening to their songs.

The conventional narrative of the iPod’s role is that it was the album killer; by encouraging listeners to cherry-pick individual songs it helped push us to the Spotify era where playlists prevail over albums assembled by artists. But the iPod was, in fact, the last hurrah for the idea of a personal relationship to music. As a container for songs, your iPod revealed as much about you as a record collection racked up on a shelf in your living room.

On streaming services, our collections are rented with access to them reliant on a monthly payment. While there are human curators behind some of the biggest playlists, many of the songs that are pushed towards you on Spotify and Apple Music are surfaced by algorithms trained on your past listening habits, predicting what you’ll like next. A collection that you carefully curate is largely a thing of the past.

When it first arrived in 2001, the iPod seemed like a break from another past, ditching physical media for a digital future. But looked at from the perch of 2022, it now seems like a final act for the previous century’s story of recorded music. Jobs’ coup in persuading the music industry to allow him to sell individual tracks via iTunes rather than bundled as albums helped it limp on a little longer after peer-to-peer sites like Napster put CD sales into decline.

In 2014, the year the iPod Classic was put out to pasture, Apple gave (or inflicted, depending on your perspective) U2’s new album Songs of Innocence to every iTunes user. It was a move that fundamentally misunderstood listeners’ relationship with their music collections. And while the iPod lived on for another eight years, the U2 giveaway was a sign of what was to come. The following year, Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” became the first song to pass 500 million streams on Spotify.

The Songs of Innocence intrusion into 500 million people’s iTunes accounts was described by Wired as “devious” and “worse than spam” while Salon said the stunt had made U2 “the most hated band in America”. A week after the announcement, Apple released instructions on how to remove the album, as if it were the Japanese knotweed of popular music.

In the streaming era, services often have exclusives on certain albums and promoting them to subscribers is common. But the U2 controversy was down to people seeing their iTunes accounts as a private space filled with songs that they had chosen, a collection they had created. Your iPod was personal while streaming services offer the impression of a personalised selection.

In the 80s, the British Phonographic Industry music trade group tried to persuade people that “home taping [was] killing music”. But making tapes, like owning an iPod, involved actually caring about music. With streaming, you can take it or leave it.

The death of the iPod is more significant than the demise of the Walkman before it because it represents not simply the end of a particular format but of a way of thinking. Music in the streaming age is just another entertainment option, just one icon to tap among many others. In 2001, having 1,000 songs in your pocket felt magical. In 2022, having instant access to 82 million tracks is unsurprising.

Mic Wright is a freelance writer and journalist based in London. He writes about technology, culture and politics


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