I just read Mat Honan’s wonderful ode to the iPod and his prediction: “In all likelihood we’re not just seeing the death of the iPod Classic, but the death of the dedicated portable music player. Now it’s all phones and apps. Everything is a camera. The single-use device is gone.”
I hope he’s wrong.
I hope he’s wrong because music is more than just a device. And while it’s true that our ways of listening to music throughout the decades has changed in ways no one could predict, music is still a very emotional part of our lives. Mr Honan is predicting the end of not just the device but also the personal music library. The shift towards playlists either algorithmically generated or curated by musical experts is drawing listeners from their personal music collections.
Part of me agrees with him. Curating a personal music collection has always been hard work but, in many ways, it was fun and exhilarating work. Do you remember opening up a CD wrapper and listening to songs by your favorite artist for the first time? When radio stations had room on their playlists for only the hits promoted by the record companies and you were able to listen to an artist’s other songs only if you bought the entire album? Remember that excitement? Not all of you do. After all, you had to start listening to your own music in the early 1990s at the latest to still buy CD albums. True, you had to go to a store back then and buy a disc. Later on you could order the disc online and have it shipped to you, which was less work. But you could share that disc with friends quite easily, they could listen and enjoy it and decide if they wanted to own it for themselves.
Mr. Honan talks about piracy and digital music and the newfound ability to get free music. The iPod and the slew of copycat MP3 players it “inspired” weren’t the first to allow us to get free music. When I was a kid we used to record songs from the radio and carry them around on cassette tapes. We used to spend hours creating tapes for ourselves and for our friends. When CDs came along we created copies for our friends and created personal playlists by burning our own CDs with MP3 files from various albums. There was a time when CD players touted “plays MP3” as an important feature. Even before Napster, music was sharable. It was local and you had the benefit of knowing what your friends liked to listen to. We lost a bit of that when we switched to digital downloads, both purchased and pirated.
I cannot imagine a life where I don’t have access to music. I find it hard to believe that I can grow accustomed to not having a personal music collection at all. Sure, I enjoy random streaming services like Pandora because some of the time my listening needs can be met by random music. In fact, it’s so easy and enjoyable it’s what I do much of time time. I’d much rather stream “new songs I can dance to” instead of downloading individual songs to my collection, creating a playlist and then listening to it when I felt like it. That’s way too much work and the alternative is painless. That said, I do like to go back to favorites in my personal collection because they are just that: favorites, songs I like to listen to again and again.
Google Music currently offers one of the best melds of “random” and “personal collection” by creating what they call an “instant mix” out of songs in my collection and based on a single song I own. I love that it plays me songs I know and love in a new sequence, reintroducing me to old favorites that I haven’t heard in a while because they weren’t on my personal radar. The “instant mix” is personal without the hard work.
Music today is all about options. I agree with Mr Honan that streaming of random (curated or algorithmically selected) music is becoming the most popular way to listen to music and that apps on our phones are the easiest way to access. That said, I don’t think that personal collections are going away, we are way too attached to our music for that to happen.
Finally, I want to address the two product features that still cause me to take my iPod everywhere: a long battery life compared to my phone and no connectivity requirement to listen to my music. My first MP3 music player was an iPod Nano, 1st generation, 4GB, which I loved for long flights and road trips. Apple recalled that model two years ago and gave me an 8GB 6th Generation iPod Nano in its place, which I still enjoy. Why? Because I don’t need connectivity to listen to my music and the battery lasts forever, where forever means 24 hours of music playback on a single charge. I have enjoyed music in the Canadian Rockies, on cross-country and cross-Atlantic flights and in National Parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Arches and the Grand Canyon, all places where there is no connectivity. I’d hate to give that up.