Saturday, 22 October 2011

Gadget so cool no one could resist

Gadget so cool no one could resist-On its 10-year anniversary, Bernard Zuel looks at how the iPod changed the consumption of music.

LET'S not get completely carried away with the iPod. It's not like portable music was new. The transistor radio helped create the go-anywhere teen of the 1960s and confirmed the single as the dominant way to bring music to young record buyers. In the early '80s the Walkman brought rhythm, if not necessarily dignity, to the gym nuts and amplified the idea of music as something that could be part of every aspect of your life. The Discman a few years later meant you could have that for a whopping 74 minutes of uninterrupted - as long as you didn't move - music.

However, the story of the iPod is how it took everything we already knew and multiplied it, for both good and bad.

There was more music: the iPod was marketed initially as ''1000 songs in your pocket'' but it wasn't long before you could have 5000, then 10,000 and more. There was more flexibility: you could have one that was perfect for your six-year-old, another you could pin to your shirt when jogging and a chunky one for long trips.

There was more variety: hit shuffle and the songs never played in the same order again; go online and hundreds of thousands of songs could be accessed. There were more colours!
Eventually, of course, there was ubiquity. Even some of us who resisted the clarion call - in my case, aversion to its poor sound quality - succumbed when high-quality headphones could be matched with the ease of this little box. Now, like millions of others, I can't imagine travelling, even on the bus from my home to the city, without it. The thought that I might let someone else choose my music, in the supermarket as much as on the plane, seems bizarre.
But here's the thing. Like its ancestor the iMac and its successor the iPhone, the iPod in name as much as actual behaviour made the individual the centre of everything. As with any product from the house Jobs built, it didn't initiate societal trends but it built on them, legitimised them and accelerated them. In a world geared to individualism, the ''i'' was reflected in the ''my'', that any organisation, whether public or private, felt it necessary to rebrand. It was my music choice, my time, MyRTA, MySchool.
In basic terms, the iPod helped the return of the single, in this case a downloaded song rather than a seven-inch record, as the main currency of music. In more general, philosophical terms, it made it easier to forget who made the music and the rights they may have to be heard properly and along the way earn a living.
If the sound isn't meant to be fabulous, just functional; if it's just one of thousands of songs on your player; hell, if it's not even a player but a phone, what's it matter if you bought it, copied it or nicked it? Does it have any value beyond being ''stuff'' that's eon your latest iDevice?
Is the iPod's real legacy that it ''celebrated'' music so much it practically killed it?
That's probably excessive. It's just a tool and tools get replaced. Yes kids, even the iPhone will go. And there's talk that better quality compression will soon mean higher quality sound and people might even start asking for speakers you actually want to listen to.
In any case, the iPod revolution has already happened and we all plugged in. Happily.

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