Apple made a slew of announcements recently, and predictably the internet exploded with rapture, snark, and tired memes. But, in between all the hype about the iPhone 6 and the upcoming Apple watch, one landmark product died a lonely death. Not with a bang but with a whimper, the iPod classic was officially removed from Apple’s websites on the 9th of September, and that means that shortly they’ll be coming off retail shelves as well. It seems to be a retirement that’s ill-befitting of a device as revolutionary as the iPod – a definitive game-changer. The first time I saw an iPod was in 2003, I was in Year 8 and waiting for a train to school. A bunch of kids from my year were huddled around something on the station benches and when I went over to inspect I caught my first glimpse at the future. It was a third-generation iPod – the one with the click-wheel and tactile buttons that were illuminated in orange on a snow-white face. The kid proudly holding it was from a rich family, and his dad had brought it back for him from a business trip to the States. Right then I knew intrinsically that this was the future. Nothing else would cut it anymore.
At this stage I was still using a Discman, a hand me down with a cracked screen that weighed about a tonne. I’d diligently carry a slip of CDs in my backpack wherever I went, so I was always ready to switch out my tunes should the mood strike. A couple of my more affluent buddies had MiniDisc players, technological triumphs that could hold way more music via physical media and had the ability to record directly from the radio – which was pretty amazing at the time. As soon as the iPod arrived, all that tech was immediately redundant. Of course, initially there were only a handful of adopters that I knew of, largely because the initial price point was so prohibitive. The iPod in the early 2000s was a status symbol, something that either marked you as a die-hard tech geek or a seriously committed music nerd.
I finally got my hands on an iPod in 2005, and by that point it had evolved into a totally different beast. It had hit the tipping point that launched it into a ‘must-own’ category. It was a fundamental need – not a want. The tactile buttons had disappeared from the front altogether, and storage had increased to a massive 60 GB – although my meagre savings meant I settled for the 30 GB option instead. What’s more, the fifth generation model I picked up had a full-colour display and could actually play video. That is, if you could be bothered painstakingly ripping DVDs, then converting them to MPEG-4 AVC and importing them via iTunes – which I did, enthusiastically.
This isn’t supposed to be some sort of ‘back in my day’ sob story about how hard it was growing up with physical media; I’m just genuinely still blown away by the doors that the iPod kicked open. The internet is responsible for giving us near-infinite access to information and content, but it was the iPod that succeeded in making it portable. Prior to the dawn of the iPod, CDs were an investment. Literally, in the sense of buying them, and then physically, in the act of carrying them around. The realisation that I could potentially carry 6,000 songs with me in a device that was the same size as my wallet was fundamentally mind-shattering.
I took that figure as a personal challenge as well, and figured out how to sync my iPod to multiple computers to raid my friends’ music collections. Then I’d access the hidden folders on the device to drag all the music back to my family computer. This was a time when widely available portable hard drives still required external power sources, yet in my hand I had the ability to transmit literally years of my friends’ musical curatorial efforts. You know that “I know Kung-Fu” scene in The Matrix when Neo has every fighting style downloaded into his brain simultaneously? That was how I felt about music. I would sit at my computer, anxiously waiting for the files to copy across so I could immerse myself in new artists and genres.
I discovered a stack of stuff this way – it was like a cheat sheet for learning about music. I first heard artists like Television, Suicide, Atmosphere, Elliott Smith, The Gun Club, Melt-Banana, Wolf Eyes, Japanther, and a stack more this way. Some of them I still listen to, and some I don’t – but I owe a lot to that education process. The legacy of the iPod-ification of our generation is fairly clear: just look at the cultural products that are emerging now. Genre binaries are an antiquated notion; the preserves of golden-era hip-hop tragics and diehard metalheads. Most people understand that infinite access means infinite possibility – why eat white bread when you’ve got a whole fucking patisserie at your fingertips? The iPod paved the way for consumers of music to curate their own playlists and soundtracks that traversed genre boundaries in a convenient manner. Freeing music from its rigid linear structure on physical media was a massive cultural step forward.
Sure, their were some missteps along the way. I don’t think the heady days of the mash-up and new rave genres (which, in part, owe their creation to this process) will necessarily be remembered in the history books. But almost every other element of contemporary culture owes some part of their identity to the iPod. It is to music what the widespread commercial availability of acrylic paint in the ‘50s was to painting. Almost overnight you have entirely new modes of expression, from pop to post-painterly abstraction to minimalism – all as a result of a technological development.
Of course, innovation is a constant forward march – and eventually the iPod was destined to fall under the boots of progress. The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 was the first warning shot in a battle that would pit Apple’s own flagship devices against each other – and the iPod simply wasn’t strong enough. In the end, you can’t blame Apple for retiring the iPod from their stable. After all, they listen to the consumers, and the same consumers who didn’t want to carry a folder of CDs around in 2001 when the iPod was introduced no longer want to carry two devices around in 2014. Still, there will always be a place in my heart for the little device that started it all. Rest easy buddy, you will be remembered.