Published Jul 01, 2005Most analysis of the iPod sees it as ubiquitous fashion statement and logical endgame for an era of portable music, the grandchild of the 45 single and the transistor radio. Its playlists are just portable mix-tapes; its sound fidelity merely replicates digital quality that's been commonplace for a generation; even the CD's revolutionary consumer-friendly feature, the shuffle, is contained in its tiny casing. But it's the potential of iPod's sheer massive size that is leading to a musical revolution not just in how music is heard and understood, but also in how it gets made.
The latest iPod can carry about 15,000 songs, with capacity growing exponentially with each new version, a feature that's revolutionising a few long-held and time-honoured traditions that have united communities of listeners. No longer are fans hindered by backpack capacity, breakability or to some extent though let's not get into the downloading debate fiscal restraint.
Suddenly, every piece of music you own can be carried with you. But when the goofy thrill of Slayer bumping up against Jay-Z on shuffle has worn off, what we'll be left with is an unfulfilled longing for more, newer, bigger and faster, urges that both the technology and the music industry will be sure to feed. But the end result will have a far greater impact on how music is consumed and understood.
In the last two decades we began to see how musicians dealt with the sampler and other technological precursors to the iPod. The compact disc gave record companies the excuse to force vinyl out and have people re-buy what they already owned. The first important side effect of this was waves of reissued back catalogue. The second was relegating vinyl to the second hand market, where hip-hop in particular took full advantage of sampling potential. But while sample culture has always prided itself on its crate-digging acumen, the reissue craze quickly made rarities a quaint idea of yesteryear. As sounds, recording methods and technologies were blended and reshaped, the entire history of recorded sound was up for grabs, and listeners were (potentially) as aware of Louis Jordan as this week's hottest mash-up. The result has been a new sort of temporal distortion, one completely bereft of historical and social context suddenly any music ever recorded is "now."
In the best way, its success can be summed up in two words: listener empowerment. Digital music delivery systems have re-upped the CD replacement cycle and boosted waning music sales Apple's iTunes Music Store (the iPod's retail portal) has sold more than 400 million songs. Just as it had with vinyl, the retail music industry tried to destroy the single in the last two decades in favour of higher-yield full-length recordings but the iPod has revived it. In an iPod world, the song has returned to its place of prominence as the most important unit in music. More than a hundred years of recorded sound, all at the turn of your iPod wheel.
There is a downside though, and it might be seen in the vision of artists competing for headphone time not only with 100 years of hits but with the increasingly shortened attention spans of music listeners. Could slaves to a mentality of "don't bore us, get to the chorus" spell the end of the album-length artistic statement? Will album sequencing become an arcane concept?
Speaking of concepts, the days seem numbered for full-length album statements as well, like the new work by cover subjects Boys Night Out. As the iPod elevates the user to the ultimate DJ, it has the potential to destroy artistic intent. Gone is the pause for reflection caused by (gasp) flipping a record or putting on a new CD. Now a few clicks can string together albums, randomise careers, or remove the "shit" (aka difficult) songs from an album with programming that is easier to manipulate than an alarm clock.
In a media-saturated world already frantic with modern consumption cycles, the iPod contributes even more to shortened attention spans and shelf lives. At this rate at least in the eyes of music industry bean-counters opening weekend numbers for the new Radiohead single will mimic film industry patterns, where this week's chart-topper becomes next week's old news.
Yet these devices, coupled with digital distribution, feed artistic potential too. While CDs expanded single-track capacity to 75 minutes, the iPod is limitless. Now's the time for that three hour single-song tribute to the God of Thunder; alternately, a return to single culture makes creation and consumption more immediate, so artists aren't slaves to full-length statements either. One thing is certain: the digital genie is definitely out of the bottle. Whatever fashionable colours it comes in, whichever company manufactures its successor, nothing will ever sound the same. So hit random, build a playlist and listen to who we are becoming.
Six Steps to the iPod
78 RPM Shellac Record (1895)
An invention of technological genius. The first media that allowed music lovers to bring the performance home. Although unfortunately brittle, these ten inches of heavy material made music into a private affair.
45 RPM Vinyl Record (1949)
RCA Victor introduces a single song format that was both more durable and portable. Load up a box and you were ready to take over the party. The moment when music became the medium of youth culture.
The Transistor Radio (1952)
To the beach and beyond. RCA introduced the box that could bring music everywhere, but only in post-war Japan was it made affordable. Sony took music out of the house and into every social situation imaginable. No wonder a genre was named after an outdoor sport: surf music.
The Cassette (1965)
Although Philips introduced these devices in the '60s, it wasn't until the 1970s that it took off. The dirty, unforeseen fair use friend of the cassette, the mix-tape, showed how we can personalise the listening experience with a sappy love song laden mix-tape that any megalo-corporate record company would claim you have no right to share.
The Walkman (1979)
Sony, once again, wants us to take our music anywhere. Put a mix-tape in it you have the perfect portable personalised musical experience, all without disturbing the drunk next to you on the bus.
The Compact Disc (1983)
There's nothing like a random script. Philips and Sony joined forces to create a data format that could accommodate music, and the players tended to have a random function. Soon triple multi-disc players grew into units that could house hundreds. The artificial DJ was born.