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Giga Bye: In 2014 We Lost the iPod Classic and the Way We Listen to Music Changed Forever

The iPod was supposed to kill the album, but did the end of the iPod do it instead?

by Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy
Dec 11 2014, 6:20pm


Photo via Amazon

In September, as Apple pushed their two newest products— the iPhone 6 and the shakily-received Apple Watch—to the public, eagle-eyed Steve Jobs acolytes poked around the corporation’s official website and noticed an absence in the product range: It turned out that Apple had quietly discontinued the 160GB model of the iPod Classic. The writing had been on the wall for some time, with outlets like Stuff Online proclaiming the iPod would be dead within the year and serve only as a last-ditch product for “music hoarders” and not many others. Those hoarders balked at the gadget’s discontinuation, though, appalled that now the closest iPod storage available would peak at 64GB. Websites responded with “requiems”, “farewells” and “R.I.P”s usually reserved for state funerals instead of MP3 devices. The Guardian reported that Amazon sellers had responded to the item’s diminishing stock by selling it at three times the original retail price, with all the inevitability of an underappreciated retail item turning into a hip rarity overnight. Over the last couple days, places like the Daily Mail have called it the "hottest item this Christmas" as auction prices hit $1,000.

The iPod Classic’s fade to black has been treated with hand wringing and hyperbole that speaks to Apple's control of the consumer market and the brand loyalty the company exercises (Full disclosure: I am typing this on an iPhone—so pot, meet kettle.) But Apple mania aside, the discontinuation really can be accurately deemed the end of an era and a recognition that our listening habits have wildly morphed in the last decade. As much as the iPod was always seen as the device that would kill the album, the iPod Classic, with enough storage to hold entire discographies, was ironically the tool of the album purist, the music historian, the obsessive music librarian. Its demise is part of a broader shift in listening habits toward immediacy and constant turnover.

In 2001 when the iPod originally debuted, the idea of media portability was a new concept to many consumers. CD players had developed with the ability to read MP3 discs, and other companies had been retailing MP3 players for several years. However, the iPod was a game-changer, leveraging Apple's marketing power to solidify the storage abilities of the project: "1,000 songs in your pocket," announced advertising materials for the introductory 5GB model, its luxury status underscored by 50 Cent using it while surrounded by beautiful women in a mansion in the "P.I.M.P." video. By the time the iPod Classic arrived in 2007, that storage was viewed with more apprehension: The iPod was killing the album with its ability to hold more than one disc worth of material and its shuffle function—never mind that CD and Minidisc players had had these capabilities for years.

The argument was that the iPod was largely responsible for the dissemination of albums into stand-alone singles and grab-bag listening fodder. The culture had shifted to the point that the album era had died down, replaced by a rapid proliferation of one-download wonders. “I think the album is going to die,” media consultant Aram Sinnreich told the New York Times in 2007, adding, “Consumers who have had iPods since they were in the single digits are going to increasingly gravitate toward artists who embrace [playlists].”

These days, the Death of the Album argument has duly shifted towards the near-immediate gratification offered by streaming services. If anything, the iPod became one of the last traditional mediums for the album. Will Dunn, editor of the aforementioned Stuff Online, pointed out that the iPod Classic offered a “distraction-free listening experience” lacking in ads to subscribe and data and service charges, making it far easier to get through music on an album-by-album basis, according to The Guardian.

As quickly as the iPod ushered in an era where we could carry around entire record collections with us at any given time, it has become passé, and our listening habits have shifted accordingly. The smartphone has brought the ability to carry around the entire world of digital music—a practically endless archive—via cloud-based streaming services, changing the way indulge in music from day to day. But this shift means new factors control our listening experience, such as what’s actually available. The ongoing Taylor Swift versus Spotify kerfuffle, for instance, takes a hatchet to that “1,000 songs in your pocket” deal, seeing as everything you want to listen to is not at your fingertips. We constantly refresh the albums stored on our devices, and we seek out music based on immediacy. Our attention spans no longer extend to having separate devices for separate purposes, which made the MP3 player market extinct almost overnight. With smartphones, we repeatedly rinse and repeat; consumer options no longer apply, because anything less than everything is too much of an inconvenience.

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The iPod’s silent disappearance from consumer and music lifestyles has not yet been addressed musically. For one thing, it’s too soon; maybe it will be a point of interest once the MP3 player becomes a vessel for nostalgia in the same way that cassettes were in 2014. Music fandom concerns prioritizing the new over the old anyway—being made aware of the hyper-accelerated, memory-loss prone worlds of music and tech seems like a hell of a challenge. This year, there’s been comfort found in drawing attention to the tech and music utopias of the past, from Fatima Al Qadiri’s videogame sprites to Kimbra’s "90s Music" single and video, from the return of Aphex Twin’s deeply-hacked worldview to an almost-incestuous units of retrofitted pop-house UK chart-toppers and beyond.

Recently, I’ve found myself revisiting two very different albums that define this heavy year’s heavy music in very different ways while both focusing on how rapidly our culture accelerates through technological advances and impulses: EMA’s The Future’s Void and Pyrrhon’s The Mother of Virtues. The former finds Erika M. Anderson seething, seeping, and raging across Reznoresque landscapes and pounding guitars, but it remains oddly accessible due to Anderson’s knack for a sly melody. Virtues, the sophomore full-length for the New York-based technical death metal band, a is a harsh and jagged affair with a discombobulating approach to its riffs and vocalist Doug Moore’s gnarled bark.

The Future’s Void is primarily about the fluctuating stuatus of privacy and agency in the modern day. As Anderson remarked in an interview with The Quietus in March, “there would be days where I was more worried that I didn't have as many Facebook 'likes' as another musician.” The album drips with a mutated sense of this particular modern worry, opening with a call to Google satellites roaming the sky and ending with our hero clicking on a blog post about a dead celeb because the grisly details are there. In between all of this, California kids live off selfie royalties, history repeats itself in pushing disastrous “pneumatic” machinery and Anderson immolates herself across the Internet superhighway while paying tribute to William Gibson’s cyberpunk odysseys. This digital age frightens Anderson, and the fear is palpable.

At the same time, the front cover to Future’s Void and the video for "Satellites" find her donning the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, one of the year’s creepiest tech innovations. When asked by The Verge about her feelings regarding the VR headset, she had this to say: "The future looks like a shitty apartment room with trash all over it and a bunch of screens all over it and a blocky, unflattering Oculus Rift." She retains a distance from rapidly accelerating digital life—that distance helps keep you sane, even when you have to buy into the same movement. You can almost hear the shrug. There’s little she can do about it.

The Mother of Virtues makes for a fascinating listen alongside Anderson’s electronically tinged record (in sound as well as outlook), acting as a bizarro-world take on similar subject matter. Technology buzzes on, replacing the old guard and shifting our attitudes in the meantime—or as vocalist Doug Moore puts it, “background chatter is digitally remastered” as society loses themselves in plugging away at smartphones. It’s not uncommon for death metal to sift through the wreckage of our world, but usually the subjects aren’t computerized. The most alarming moment on this album isn’t a proliferation of gory imagery for the sake of gore or misogyny for the sake of childish shock as in much of the genre (hyper-accelerated Internet culture has actually been good for policing/alarming us towards misogyny this year), but the following lyric from the album’s “Sleeper Agent”: “Reality is wilting around me / and my wetware is drying up.” Wetware is a sci-fi term used to describe human brain functions as computer programming as well as to refer to the idea of implanting computer systems under your skin. As the world of software becomes more sophisticated, our wetware—our brains—is increasingly insubstantial in comparison.

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Frankly, writing about this topic can be embarrassing. A lot of us still haven’t found ways to discuss recent technological advances in a way that doesn’t sound like dialogue from Johnny Mnemonic. But the acceleration of technology, the fear that computers are replacing our ideas—Pandora’s and Spotify’s algorithms are eerily good at predicting things we might like—are issues that are closely linked to the way our listening habits work, to our use of this luxury good. The iPod was set to change how we respond to culture, and it did. Now it’s gone, far quicker than we imagined, and everything else is moving quicker, too. If once the prospect of having an entire record library in our pockets seemed farfetched, now the idea of having a record library at all is. The rise of streaming services doesn’t have to mean the death of the album any more than the iPod did—after all, the storage capacity has grown even more—but, the more things speed up, the more control of what’s in that storage is taken out of our hands, the more we’re confronted with infinite choice, the less likely we may be to care about the album or the record library.

We can’t slow down, and that’s worth considering.

Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy is scared about our dwindling attention spans, but not scared enough to stay off Twitter.