How the iPod saved the music business

Apple’s game-changing invention heralded the future, while sowing the seeds of its own demise, says Neil McCormick

The age of the iPod has come to an end. Last week, Apple announced it has ceased manufacturing the last surviving model of its once-ubiquitous music player. You may still be able to get your hands on an iPod Touch while stocks last, but once the shelves are cleared that will be it. The iPod has officially shuffled (sorry) off its mortal coil.

Yet for a moment there, the iPod was the future; this elegant little gadget changed the way we listened to music. Beautifully constructed, superbly functional and weirdly addictive, its little white earbuds became the most musical status symbol of the first decade of the 21st century. By 2011, 300 million iPods had been sold worldwide, and we were all immersed in our own personal playlists of sound.

In a stroke of design genius, Steve Jobs saved the music business from the devastating impact of internet piracy. The iPod transformed Apple too, turning it from a niche computer company into a multi-billion dollar global giant. But the seeds of the iPod’s own redundancy were sown by its extraordinary success, ultimately spawning the iPhone and smartphone streaming revolution — making a dedicated hard-drive music player irrelevant.

When the iPod was introduced in November 2001, the music business was in a period of calamitous decline, CD sales were being decimated by the industry’s abject failure to deal with the implications of the internet. The MP3 coding format allowed for the compression of digital musical files ripped from CDs and widely shared by technologically-literate young music listeners. The semi-illegal Napster peer-2-peer service exploded at the end of the Nineties, as a whole generation decided music should be free. All major record companies could do was issue lawsuits and complain about piracy killing music.

MP3 players had started to appear in the Nineties, but they were clunky, fiddly, hard-to-operate gadgets. Visionary Jobs believed in design solutions and inspired his techs to come up with a sleek device about the size of a deck of playing cards, packing a then-whopping 5GB of power, capable of storing 1000 songs. It combined the mobility of the cassette-playing Walkman with the convenience of the CD and the storage of a computer, and a big (for its size) screen allowing users to scroll easily.

Perhaps the best thing was its intuitive interface with Apple’s one-stop music shop iTunes, which allowed users to easily transfer content from PC to player. Its sci-fi aspects were emphasised by its name, inspired by the circular one-man space pods used for repairs on the mothership in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The “i” in iPod was borrowed from Apple’s iMac (which first appeared in 1998) and was said to represent the “internet”, although at various times Jobs also claimed it stood for individual, instruct, inform and inspire.

Arguably the greatest part of Jobs’s genius was persuading record companies to allow Apple to unbundle tracks from albums and sell them at the affordable price of 99 cents each. Combined with the sexy marketing of the iPod brand (all those cool silhouetted figures with stark white earbuds) it made legally downloading tracks an attractive option once again, inspiring a genuine revolution in listening habits when the “shuffle” function was unveiled in 2005.

We are all shuffling now, of course, so it may be hard to recall what a radical innovation this really was. Effectively, instead of listening to albums in a pre-ordained order, it ceded power to the device, throwing up all kinds of random and thrilling juxtapositions. One moment you might be listening to The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil and the next, by some magical synchronicity, you were confronted by Randy Newman playing God’s Song (OK, maybe that’s just me). And as the storage got bigger (from 5GB in 2001 to 16, 32, 64 and a whacking great 256 GB on the 7th generation of the iPod Touch) while the models got smaller (Classic, Mini, Nano, Shuffle), with ever-increasing battery power, we could pack more on them. I once flew from London to Los Angeles with my iPod on shuffle the whole way — and never heard the same song twice.

A notion of having a personal soundtrack to our own lives began to take hold, and with it came the creation (and sharing) of playlists. No magazine (or music website) would be complete without a celebrity iPod playlist, a kind of pen portrait as song list. It even became a political tool in the 2008 contest between President George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Never exactly an icon of cool, Bush’s team made the mistake of publicising the contents of his so called “iPod One,” which it turned out featured plenty of good ol’ boy country music, but no black artists, no gay artists, no soul or hip hop, no world music, no Beatles … and only one woman. By contrast, Obama was able to affirm his image as youthful, inclusive and culturally connected, with socially conscious tunes from soul and rock, classic jazz standards and feelgood pop hits. I am not suggesting it swung the election, but it helped make Obama the first iPod President who would go on to release annual playlists. On his first state visit to the UK in April 2009, the new incumbent even gifted the Queen her own personal iPod.

“The Queen loves music and was impressed by how small and handy it is,” said a palace spokesman.

For a few sweet years, the iPod was the coolest gadget on the planet. Madonna was an early brand ambassador, marketing her own special edition in 2002. A crucial moment arrived in 2004, when Apple struck a partnership with U2, creating a series of branded iPods launched with a huge campaign featuring their new anthem, Vertigo. Crucially, the band were synonymous with integrity, having refused all product endorsement and advertising. It was a sign the old order had been overthrown. Apple were the new overlords of pop culture.

But 10 years later, the party was effectively over. In 2014, U2’s new album Songs of Innocence automatically appeared in all iTunes accounts, popping up on iPhones and iPods whether listeners wanted it or not, prompting a furious backlash. It wreaked genuine damage on its essential appeal: that it was a personal device containing the soundtrack of our own lives. Apple (and U2) had intruded into a space where it turns out they weren’t wanted. And meanwhile there were other players competing for that space. By October 2015, Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud had become the first song to pass 500 million streams on a new platform called Spotify.

Streaming — the ability to wirelessly access digital information at high speed — perhaps inevitably signalled the death of the iPod. Why carry your record collection in your pocket, when you have access to every song ever recorded stored in the digital cloud?

The iPod’s glory years were 2004 to 2012, peaking in 2008 when over 54 million units were sold, before beginning a gentle decline. Yet it could equally be said that Apple presaged the iPod’s redundancy, when Jobs parlayed technology developed for the music player to create the iPhone, declaring in 2007 that his new gadget would be “iPod, phone and internet communicator” combined.

Apple, though, surely missed a trick by taking too long to adopt a subscription model for their music content, allowing Spotify to become the music library of choice. Whether the Swedish audio streaming service can hold that position as it becomes entrenched in its own content battles is a question for another day. But even Spotify effectively owes its existence to the seismic shift brought about by the iPod. In its day, iPods helped make music profitable again, and shift audiences from albums to playlists.
For a while there, it really was iPod, therefore I am.

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