The Cult of iPod

I’ve got an iPod. My neighbor’s got an iPod. Most of the people I work with have iPods. We’re fast becoming an iPod nation. Heck, it’s fast becoming an iPod world. Even the President of the United States has an iPod, as do the Queen of England and Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld (who has at least 70 --- he had his collection of 60,000 CDs ripped to iPods, and when he travels, he lugs a hefty suitcase-cum-trunk that can hold more than a dozen of them).

One of the most remarkable things about the iPod is its almost universal appeal. It’s been embraced not just by West-coast urban techno-ravers, nor just teenagers in general. Everyone’s got one, from pious parish vicars to impious punk rockers. Sit in a sidewalk cafe in downtown San Francisco, New York or even Phoenix, and the parade of white earbuds makes the whole city seem like a big walking ad for Apple—except the figures aren’t silhouettes.

In fact, Apple has sold nearly 30 million iPods since the player’s introduction in October 2001, and every three months Apple sells almost twice as many iPods as it did during the three months that came before. The company currently enjoys a Microsoft-like domination of the MP3 player market, with a whopping 75 percent share worldwide, and could ship 10 million or more iPod this holiday season according to UBS Investment Research.

Who predicted the iPod would get so big? Not many; especially not Apple. “We had no idea this thing would get this huge, but now that we do, we just plan to innovate faster than any of our competitors,” Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller told USA Today earlier this year. In Cult of iPod (No Starch Press, November 2005), I look back on the years between then and now, detailing how the iPod came be and how it has profoundly changed music culture. Here’s a snapshot.

Although the iPod is a brilliantly designed and executed product—Apple did what it does best, first carefully thinking out the user experience and then designing the iPod around that idea—the company was lucky in having the right product at the right time. Thanks to Napster and other file-sharing networks, a lot of people had big music collections on their computers but no easy way to take that music with them. Copying thousands of songs to an iPod was a lot easier than burning stacks of CDs.

But as they say, you make your own luck. As Schiller noted, Apple has been innovating like crazy. The iPod of today bears only a passing resemblance to the iPod of 2001. The original, Mac-only, 5 GB brick has given way to a svelte, colorful jewel of a device that comes in various shapes, sizes, and colors. There’s an iPod for every pocketbook, and some now play video as well as music. And these days, the iPod is as much a Windows device as a Mac one: The latest iPod no longer lets you transfer data over FireWire, the high-speed connection pioneered by Apple; it uses USB 2.0.

How important has the iPod become to Apple? The company split its operations into two divisions—one for computers, the other for iPod. And it put its respected hardware honcho, Jon Rubenstein, in charge of the iPod part, not the computers.

Rubenstein recently predicted that the iPod could possibly outsell Sony’s Walkman, the undisputed, all-time king of consumer electronics, which sold 340 million units worldwide. But whereas the Walkman’s dominance faded as cheap knockoffs took over. Rubenstein doesn’t see the iPod suffering the same fate: “The iPod is substantially more difficult to copy than the Walkman was,” he said in an interview with Berliner Zeitung. “It contains a whole ecosystem of different elements, which are coordinated exactly: hardware, software, and our iTunes Music store on the Internet...The iPod offers enormous potential for Apple to grow further."

It’s hard to argue with the Walkman/iPod analogy: The Walkman transformed Sony into a global gorilla and forever changed how we listen to music. The iPod looks to be well on its way to doing the same for Apple and us. Indeed, what’s special about the iPod is it isn’t just a glorified Walkman. It’s an entirely new way to listen to music.

Just as no one predicted the iPod would be such a smash hit, no one foresaw its effect on listening habits, the music business and the culture at large. Here are a few ways the iPod has shaken things up:

Listening habits Remember the old days when you had a stack of LPs piled up in the living room but the only ones you played were the half-dozen at front? Most of the collection was neglected and forgotten. Now, thanks to the iPod’s amazing storage capacity—which can hold tens of thousands of tracks—a lifetime’s worth of music can be loaded onto an iPod and an entire record collection really comes alive. From the first embarrassing Jonathan Richman single to the latest Sinead O’Connor reggae cover, the iPod can throw up songs not heard for years, or songs you never knew you had. Tunes that you never really listened to, or didn’t initially like, can become new favorites.

There are also new ways to parse a collection. The iPod can be ordered to play songs by year or genre, or by keywords in the title (“red” or “sun”). It’s also possible to really drill down; for examlpe, selecting just prog-rock epics that run at least 20 minutes and include album art. Best of all is shuffle mode; let the iPod be the DJ and see what it comes up with. This can produce jarring juxtapositions, but also delightful, unexpected combinations of tracks—accidental arrangements no human would think of. Shuffle can also make the iPod seem uncannily prescient—somehow, it selects just the right song at the right time.

This kind of digital diversity wasn’t possible before. It is unique to digital music collections and voluminous players like the iPod.

Playlist anxiety and pruning There are few better barometer’s of someone’s character than their music collection, but until recently you had to be invited to their home to get a look at it. In other words, before the iPod and iTunes, getting such an intimate peek into a person’s soul required, well, a certain level of intimacy. But now people are exposing their taste in music—or hopeless lack thereof—at workplaces, college campuses and coffee shops, thanks to iTunes’s ability to share music over a network. Similarly, a quick gander at someone’s iPod reveals the same information.

This has lead to a new kind of music snobbery called playlistism . Music snobs amuse themselves by laughing at a colleague’s collection of showtunes, or the hopelessly pretentious jazz of the goatee-ed guy at the other end of the dorm. The flipside of this phenomenon is a new kind of fear, playlist anxiety , or worrying what other people will think of you based you your music. For some people this fear is significant enough that, knowing that others might be looking, they groom their collections to put them in the best possible light. Playlist anxiety has led to playlist pruning. (This isn’t just speculation, either. Researchers in Palo Alto recently studied office workers and found many were anxious about their image as revealed by their music library—and managed it appropriately.)

Jack radio formats One of the reasons the iPod is so popular is that radio is so bad. In the U.S., the airwaves are dominated by stations that play restricted, repetitive playlists; feature too much idiotic chatter; and play far too many ads. As a result, radio audiences have shrunk. In response, more and more radio stations are switching to a format that resembles an iPod set to random shuffle. Known as Jack format, or imitation-iPod, these stations draw on playlists of more than 1,000 songs, compared to less than 100 for some conventional stations. Without a DJ, songs from different styles and eras are played back-to-back without regard to continuity or logic; in fact, the more jarring the better.

Since its debut last year, Jack format has spread to about a dozen stations in Canada and more than 60 in the U.S., including the storied New York oldies station WCBS-FM.

MP3Js Thanks to the iPod, everybody’s a DJ—or an MP3J. MP3Js are amateur DJs who spin tunes off their iPods and gather at clubs for “iPod nights,” or iParties. These iParties started at New York’s Apt. nightclub, which connected a pair of fully-loaded iPods to the club’s sound system. Customers took a deli-counter ticket and when their number came up, they had seven minutes to showcase their musical taste. Now there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of clubs and pubs around the world that let people bring their iPod and take a turn being the DJ.

"In Philadelphia last week the place was jumping, with standing room only,” said Jonny Rocket, promoter of the Playlist Club, which arranges regular iPod nights in London and Reading in the UK, Philadelphia in the U.S., and soon, China. The Playlist Club attracts all kinds of people, of all ages, who turn up and play because they want to play an active role in their own entertainment. “Consumers don’t need to be passive any more,” Rocket said. “The spark at the centre of it all is in empowerment...They create the party they want to enjoy."

And it’s not just clubs. These days, a lot of house parties and weddings are run off iPods. Guests bring their iPods, and if their taste in music is any good, it’ll get played.

Podcasting Podcasts are packaged radio shows that can be automatically downloaded from the Internet and onto an iPod (or any MP3 player, really). Initially, Podcasts were produced by hobbyists, but these data-file “broadcasts” are now attracting the attention of heavyweights like Apple, Yahoo, and the BBC.

Although Podcasting has been hyped to death and proclaimed the future of radio, DIY-culture, and all civilization, so far the format has been mostly “amateur hour,” confined to nerds talking about technology issues (in a monotone), or God forbid, Podcasting itself. But the format is compelling, and with the increasing interest of professional media organizations, Podcasting’s offerings may mature into things worth listening to, such as Montreal’s WEFUNK.

And don’t forget Godcasting, a podcasting subcategory concerned with beaming sermons to the iPods of the flock.

The car The iPod is having a profound effect on America’s favorite place to listen to music, ranging from auto-tailored accessories to “iPod-compatible” cars themselves. Among the most popular iPod accessories are devices for connecting the player to a car stereo, ranging from FM transmitters to fancy docking cradles that charge and play the iPod at the same time. And in June 2004, BMW became the first auto manufacturer to embrace the iPod, with a cable that allowed the iPod to be stashed in the glovebox but be controlled through the car’s own stereo. Within the last year, dozens of auto manufacturers started offering similar iPod connectivity, and about a third of new cars sold next year will be iPod-compatible right off the lot, according to Apple.

New iPod-related services Today there are a number of music-related services that were unimaginable before the advent of the iPod. Take the myriad CD-ripping companies, which, for a fee, will convert a CD collection to digital audio files and load them onto an iPod. Ship your iPod and CD collection to companies like RipDigital, LoadPod or HungryPod, and a few days later your iPod comes back full of tunes (with your CD collection in tow, of course).

There’s also a new breed of companies that will choose which music to put on your iPod for you. New York’s Activaire, for example, delivers custom mixes of music for upscale shops, hotels and resorts—on iPods, of course. It also puts together custom soundtracks for specialized applications such as a baby’s nursery. Or others even more surprising: “We’re creating playlists to accompany surgery,” said co-founder Lara Wiesenthal. “The iPod is truly the key element in this project. Each surgery is unique, and the iPod’s playlist feature allows us to style music for the various aspects of surgery."

iPod jacking iPod “jacking” is the hip name for when two iPod users meet and swap headphone jacks for a minute or two to hear what the other person is listening to. People jack each other on the bus, the street, at work, or at school. It’s a way to discover new music, or make an introduction to someone you want to talk to. There have even been reports of jackers wearing t-shirts that read: “Feel free to jack into my plug."

iLearn The iPod isn’t just affecting how we listen; it’s starting to impact how we learn . In 2004, Duke Universtiy in Durham, N.C., made headlines worldwide when it gave iPods to all incoming freshmen. To some, the give-away smacked of a cheesy incentive (“earn a degree, get a free iPod”), but the school insisted the iPods would be used to record lectures and store class calendars, therefore benefitting the students’ education.

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