A cultural shift that eventually became a landslide began 10 years ago this month, though almost no one noticed at the time. Apple Inc. rolled out a portable MP3 player it dubbed the iPod, and after a promising opening quarter in 2002, sales dropped more than 50 percent.
The next year, Apple opened the iTunes digital music store; even though it held only 200,000 songs, a natural synergy was created with the iPod. Sales of the portable player quadrupled in 2004 to more than 4 million units. The pocket-sized player with the white ear buds was endorsed in iconic television commercials by bands and artists such as U2, Gorillaz, Feist, Daft Punk, Black Eyed Peas and Coldplay.
Now the iTunes store is the single biggest music retailer in America, with more than 20 million tracks available and 160 billion songs downloaded since its launch. And the iPod is by far the most popular digital music player, commanding nearly 80 percent of the market and piling up a staggering 300 million sales since 2001.
“Even artists who were longtime holdouts, like the Beatles, are now part of the (Apple) ecosystem,” technology analyst Michael Gartenberg says. “They realize this is where consumers are listening to their music and, more importantly, buying their music.”
Undeniably, the iPod and iTunes have brought a previously unimagined portability and convenience to music-hungry consumers, but at what price? Has the ease of distributing, listening and replenishing music made it all feel somewhat disposable?
Technological shifts in how music is made and delivered are nothing new. They created entire industries over the last 100 years. The invention of the phonograph led to the rise of record companies, and radio’s emergence widened their reach exponentially. The introduction of the cassette and then the compact disc culminated in a $16 billion business by the end of the 20th Century, and fueled the rise of portable players such as the Walkman and Discman.
Now the iPod has been central to a new way of making, distributing, and listening to digital music. The iPod was not the first portable MP3 player, but it was the one that changed the music business and the culture around it. In a few short years, the ability to pack an entire music collection in a device that fits in your pocket made the rituals of dropping a needle on a vinyl album, rewinding a cassette or figuring out how to strip the cellophane wrapping off a compact disc seem so quaintly 20th Century.
Not that some diehards don’t still cling to their turntables and CDs. Vinyl album sales have surged in recent years, driven by connoisseurs, audiophiles and young music listeners longing for a deeper, more tactile connection to the music they love. But digital music files now dominate the retail market, which is to say Apple Inc. dominates the digital market.
In the pre-digital music world, acquiring music below the mainstream radar involved something akin to a treasure hunt. If you grew up in a small town or rural area especially, you often had to chase the music, sometimes taking months or years to find a rare limited-edition single by a favorite punk band or an out-of-print album by German art-rockers from the ‘70s. There was lasting value attached to the prize, a physical artifact that became part of your life, a piece of music that also functioned as a small, relatively affordable piece of art.
Now that virtually any song, no matter how obscure, can be located with a couple of clicks, some pundits argue that the iPod has become cooler than the music it contained. Consumers fill their sleekly designed, increasingly compact music players with thousands of songs that are continually recycled. The tracks are listened to over marginally adequate ear buds on an inferior format (MP3 files contain less sonic information than a CD or vinyl album), often to complement other activities.
Despite the emergence of the iTunes store and other on-line retail music outlets, the vast majority of music acquired digitally is done through file-sharing. Many first-generation iPod listeners have no problem buying and replacing their iPods, putting hundreds of dollars in Apple’s pocket for the hardware. But they fill them with music acquired free through illicit channels, which the music industry says has contributed mightily to its huge revenue losses in the last decade.
Yet in recent years there are indications that as a wider variety of music has become available at legitimate digital stores, a viable digital music market is finally emerging. Digital album sales increased 13 percent in 2010 and 19 percent in the first half of 2011, and track-equivalent album sales were up 4.8 percent. The latter figure is perhaps the most important in identifying the impact of the iPod/iTunes era on consumer habits; rather than focusing on albums, consumers are now buying digital tracks and singles at an increasingly high rate.
“People in the last decade are able to sample more music because they can download a song at a time instead of an entire album,” a relatively low-risk purchase that encourages sampling of new artists, Gartenberg says. “The two generations before didn’t know what it meant to buy a single. You either bought the entire CD or you didn’t buy any music at all. Now consumers are still buying entire CDs worth of music, but those CDs are just made up of different songs.”
Despite its massive success, the 10-year-old iPod likely won’t be around to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Stand-alone portable music players are increasingly being replaced by iPhones, smart phones and tablets, as technology companies strive to serve consumers who increasingly want to access their music through cloud-based streaming services rather than having them tied to their hard drives. It means that music will be even more widely and instantly available to more people, taking the innovations of the iPod era to another level – “the paradise of infinite storage” as McGill University professor Sandy Pearlman calls it, ultimately with access anywhere, anytime to every song ever recorded at the touch of a screen.
The iPod landslide has only just begun.
Artists and fans discuss the impact of the iPod:
HOW WE LISTEN:
Alex White, singer-guitarist in White Mystery: “The iPod created a new format for the music-listening public, and a new way for bands to get in their fans' heads, literally, in the form of two white earbuds. My question is, what's the product cycle for portable music players? Was there a 10th anniversary celebrating the CD-playing Discman? Is it the iTunes marketplace that actually makes the iPod so prolific?”
Michael Ackerman, Los Angeles entertainment attorney: “The iPod was a game changer in that it provided greater facility in managing and carrying one's music. In terms of transportation, it can hold a great deal if you use the lower sampling rate (and care less about the sound quality). The shuffle feature, play-list creation features and general catalogue management features were all novel and at the same time essential in that ‘How did we live without that before?’ way.”
Erin McKeown, singer-songwriter: “Someone was going to make something like the iPod, no matter what. Obviously there are other devices, but I think the popularity of the iPod is a testament to its incredible design. I've often felt like the iPod can read my mind, or that when I am navigating through it, picking out songs, making play lists, even just seeing the albums all lined up, I am inside my own musical mind.”
Joe D’Agostino, singer-guitarist in Cymbals Eat Guitars: “I reveled in taking a new CD home and ripping it onto my iPod. It is my constant companion on the road. In my bedroom at home (in Staten Island, NY) I have all my CD jackets on my wall. That’s all I use the CDs for once I put the music on the iPod.”
Heather Robinson, a k a house music’s DJ Heather: “As a music fan growing up in the era of the Walkman, I've always enjoyed having music on the go and at my fingertips. The iPod felt like a natural progression.”
Alex Savitteiri, Augustana College student: “On a normal day, I’ll listen to my iPod no less than three hours. Without music, I am unable to focus and do homework … or work out at the gym. In my (iTunes) library I have about 10,000 songs, 2,000 on my iPod. That means I have 8,000 excess songs to swap out (in my iPod) every week, not counting the new songs I am finding all the time.”
THE SINGLE, NOT THE ALBUM:
Michael Ackerman: “The iPod essentially turned the record industry's economic model on its head because the iPod and iTunes permitted and glorified the sale of single songs again, as opposed to entire albums. So, in the not-too-distant past, artists and record companies sold an album for about $15 to consumers, the advent of the iPod and iTunes permitted the purchase of a single song or even two songs for a dollar or two. I don't think I need to explain what that tectonic shift did to the record industry's gross revenues.”
Michael Gartenberg, technology analyst: “You could argue Apple helped a dying industry and the industry’s poor numbers would’ve been far lower without the iPod and iTunes. The music industry was in bad shape before the iPod came in. The industry’s on-line experiments had failed, digital downloads were not working. Only (rogue file-sharing site) Napster was working, and that was not helping the music industry.”
THE CONVENIENCE FACTOR:
Psalm One, Chicago hip-hop MC: “Having an iPod makes it extremely easy to skip a song, shuffle songs, or have it on a continuous loop. Play lists allow me to really set my mood, and I really don't have to think about my music purchasing anymore. I don't have to leave my home. This is wonderful and terrible, all at the same time. … The ease of having thousands of songs at my fingertips has enhanced my listening experience tremendously. I can listen to myself all day. How deliciously vain is that?”
Erin McKeown: “I keep my entire updated catalogue on (my iPod) and often use the ‘sort by songs’ function to help me write a set list (before a show). I am terrible at remembering what songs I've written and could play. The other week, I had my songs on shuffle on my drive down to a gig in Delaware, trying to remember how to play some of them. I wrote down what came up, in what order, and used it as my set list for the night. It worked great!”
MUSIC ANYWHERE, ANYTIME:
El-P, hip-hop MC and producer: “We take it for granted now but the idea of shuffling randomly through thousands of songs is really pretty novel in the scheme of things. Not to mention the sound doesn’t degrade. You can make a mix tape without (having to hope) it doesn’t rub down or pop.”
Erin McKeown: “I remember very clearly a journal entry I made on a plane, during some long tour, shortly after getting my first iPod. I drew a little schematic of the device and captioned it ‘iPod saved my life.’ I was trying to describe how lovely it was to be up in the sky, looking at clouds and tiny land with a thrilling song filling up my ears. It felt incredible! It made me love and feel music in a new way -- probably the way the people who don’t make music for a living feel: some distance and some fanhood.”
Michael Ackerman: “In the days of the Walkman, pre-iPod, one could only carry about a dozen cassettes, which meant you could only carry about 24 albums for a long road trip. Although they have yet to make an iPod with the capacity to house my entire collection of thousands of albums, I can take hundreds of albums with me on my iPod/iPhone in my pocket with no extra baggage.”
Psalm One: “If I'm in your iPod right now, I know I'm doing something right. Entertainment and technology are ever-evolving. The music business has been struggling but music itself is still my favorite thing on earth.”
Frank Orrall, singer-songwriter in Poi Pog Pondering: “Once I stopped using the iPod (or for that matter, any mobile personal stereo) I then found I preferred listening to the sounds around me on my commutes. There have been times when I am driving or on the train where having that 'insular personal world inside your headphones' feeling is quite nice. Also, being able to use it as a hard drive was also handy. But I have grown to much prefer saving my listening time for the home stereo and carrying a flash drive for portable files.”
Martin Atkins, drummer and record-company president: “As far as my kids go - the change I have seen is that we don’t 'communally listen' as much anymore. If I'm driving I might be listening to one thing, each of them might be listening to something completely different - it feels like that communal aspect of sharing in that way has been changed.”
Jenny Lizak, Metro publicist and radio DJ: “One thing I do wonder about is how it has affected the way kids listen to music - it used to be you heard whatever mom or dad put on the car's tape deck or stereo, so you grew out of their musical interests, but now even young kids have their own iPods with their own music. I was having a conversation with my goddaughter recently about Lady Gaga, (who she was listening to on her iPod) where I compared her to Madonna, and my goddaughter didn't really know who Madonna was - I wonder if kids are not listening to as much older or what I'd consider iconic/classic music because they have the choice of their own iPod? Of course, if your parents have terrible musical tastes, perhaps that's a good thing, but I loved having conversations with my parents about music when I was a child, so I think I'd miss that.”
Martin Atkins: “It’s made some music less special - more of a background incidental thing than something to sit in the middle of the stereo field and listen to uninterrupted. That’s a whole other societal change that has not that much to do with the iPod – that’s A.D.D.”
Joseph D’Agostino: “The ritual of listening to music is kind of lost. Listening on an iPod through a decent set of headphones is better than listening on a laptop or ear buds, which are so terrible. It cheapens the listening experience on some level, but we have to accept it. Those who do buy vinyl or pop a CD into the stereo and make a night of listening to music, that’s a wonderful thing, but they’re in the minority.”
Joshua Arter, Marquette University student and electronic-music artist: “The evolution of the iPod itself has changed a device that just plays music to a complete social experience. You can now connect to Wifi and check email, surf the Web, tweet, and check Facebook all from what started out as a great new way to listen to music. Even the new little iPod shuffles have a touch screen.”
El-P: “I own an iPhone. The iPod went out the window for me once the phone came out. That’s my iPod now.”
Michael Gartenberg: “The classic iPod still exists, there is still demand for it. Apple melded the phone with a first class music experience, bringing the iPod into the phone, so as we’ve seen the numbers for the iPod go down, the numbers for the phone are way up. We’ll see the brand live and continue to morph.”
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