October 23, 2001 was an important day for audiophiles all over the world, because October 23, 2001 was the day Apple introduced the iPod. It didn’t go on sale until November 10. The first model came in either 5 or 10gb capacity and started at $399.00. After many facelifts and discarded models, only the iPod Touch 7th Generation is still in production, and with the popularity of smartphones, it’s not hard to guess why the iPod has largely gone by the wayside. But let’s talk about how the iPod changed music forever.
For those of you too young to remember the excitement of the iPod, let me tell you what listening to music on the go used to be like. Basically you had two options: 1) portable radio; or 2) portable CD player. For purposes of this post we’re going to count car radios and CD players as portable because they were for listening to music on the go.
Now, portable radios, other than car radios, were never super popular. Sometimes you’d see some weirdo at a baseball game listening to the radio broadcast of the game he was attending, but mostly portable radios were for people who wanted to listen to music but didn’t want to carry CDs around. We had a portable radio when I was growing up, and it looked like this:
The reception was okay, but of course you had to struggle to find new stations if you traveled outside the tower reach of your local stations. The best thing about this radio was how sturdy it was. I’m pretty sure I saw a golf cart drive over our radio once and it didn’t affect the physical wellbeing of the radio at all. Crazy, right?
Then there was the portable CD player. The most popular one I remember was the Sony Discman, which was at some point also called a Walkman, although when I hear “Walkman” I think of the portable tape players. But I digress. Here is a Sony Walkman portable CD player from 2002, which would have been eighth grade for me.
If you had one of these, you were cool. But these had many problems. For one, they weren’t just terribly sturdy and so the slightest jolt would have some weird consequence like the song you were listening to being skipped or the whole CD coming off the turntable. One time I was on a school bus and my portable CD player (which wasn’t Sony but was some Walmart special) actually came apart. Like, the lid came unhinged from the body of the CD player. It was wild.
But the biggest disadvantage to the portable CD player was that you had to carry your CDs with you or otherwise be stuck listening to the same CD all day. If you did carry your CDs around, then you had more choices to make. Do you just shove a few CDs in your backpack or briefcase or purse or pockets or console or hands? Or did you bring a CD booklet with you?
Oh yeah. The CD booklet. Incredible. People had different organization methods. Some went alphabetical, some went in order of preference, and some just randomly put CDs in there. Believe it or not I’m an advocate for the just randomly put CDs in there strategy because it forces you to look through all your other CDs while you’re looking for the one you want. Who knows, you might end up finding some gem you forgot about.
But this isn’t a CD post, it’s an iPod post. And the iPod changed everything because it was so small and so portable. Instead of a bulky portable CD player that wouldn’t fit in most pockets, you had a small rectangle with your entire music library on it. And how did that library get there? With iTunes, which allowed users to save all of their songs in one place and then could upload them to the iPod. Sure, you might have to spend several hours putting your CDs on iTunes, but once you did, you never had to do it again. Once that was done, you’d sync your iPod to your iTunes and then the small rectangle had everything you could ever want on it.
It saved space. Physically it saved space because the iPod was smaller than any other method of playing music. Emotionally it also saved space because instead of rifling through your stuff to find CDs you could just scroll through your iPod to find the music you wanted. Did you ever have that weird stress of trying to find the album you were looking for but couldn’t? It’s terrible. It was like the same stress as looking for your keys or wallet or phone today. But with the iPod you didn’t have that because you knew exactly where everything was.
Playlists vs. Mixtapes
Another thing the iPod did was make mixtapes better. I’ve made a lot of mixtapes in my life. I’ve done them the really old way where you have a tape recorder as part of your stereo and you turn it on right when the song you want to record begins playing. Sometimes you got a little bit of the DJ’s intro, but that was okay as long as the song mostly sounded great. And those were actual cassette tapes, mind you. Those weren’t fancy discs.
But eventually I did evolve and used the Windows Media Player to start making mixtapes on CD. I would download the music illegally on Kazaa or Limewire then arrange those songs how I wanted them in the Media Player, then put a CD-R in the computer and let it burn. After what was sometimes literally an hour or more, I had a shiny new mixtape to listen to in my portable CD player. If you were especially diligent you’d write the track list on the CD’s face or maybe even draw something cool on there.
I chose this image from Google because it has a “period mix” on it and all of the songs have to do with blood or flow and that is just comedy gold right there. I’m a man so I didn’t have a period mix, but I’d like to think if I was a woman I would have that kind of sense of humor. Mixtapes were also great ways to tell people you liked them. Oh, man. You’d spend hours making a CD that could properly convey the pubescent hormones that were ricocheting around your idiot brain then give it to someone WAY out of your league and hope for the best. If you got a “oh yeah, I loved it, especially ‘Amber‘ by 311,” then you were in. But if they didn’t listen to it or offer feedback, you were gonna spend a solid week or two recovering from the rejection.
But iTunes and the iPod changed all of that. Sure, you could still burn mixtape CDs for people, but you could do it by just creating a playlist on iTunes and then burning that to a disc. But if you did that you were going to be limited to 80 minutes, which was the most music a blank CD could hold. If you were just making a mixtape for yourself, however, you could create a playlist as long as you wanted to.
I still have playlists that I created on iTunes in about 2005 or 2006 that are over 12 hours long. And I still listen to them. It’s great because it’s a couple weeks’ worth of commutes to and from work and it doesn’t get repetitive because I can just put the whole playlist on shuffle! It’s great. And the whole thing fits in your pocket so it’s even better!
iPhone Killed the iPod Star
Of course, in 2007 Apple introduced the iPhone. The entire marketing campaign centered around the breakthrough of having your music on your phone. Or maybe your phone on your iPod. I mean, some of the commercials even focused on the music part of the phone.
But once smartphones really took off, having a separate device for music seemed redundant and silly. With that, the iPod that we knew was dead. Sure, you can still buy an iPod touch, but it’s basically an iPhone that can’t make calls. It can text, it can support email and apps, it can play music, it has Siri, it can Bluetooth to your car…but it can’t make calls. An iPhone can do all of that AND can make calls, so why even bother with the iPod touch.
I miss the iPod. I still have an iPod classic, though the charging cable doesn’t work and it barely comports with my iTunes anymore, so I don’t use it. I don’t miss it in that I honestly believe the world was better when music and telephones were separate. That’s ludicrous. Having your entire music library on your phone is amazing and convenient. But I do feel like people don’t put the time into managing their iTunes like they once did. Very few people take the time to make playlists anymore, and between iPhones and streaming services like Spotify, why would you?
But I miss it in that it’s nostalgic. It was fun. Painstakingly building a playlist that was perfect for whatever situation was forthcoming was tremendously fun. I had a playlist for traveling to my basketball games (mostly early-90s rap like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Geto Boys), I had one for long road trips (mostly live music), I had one for the drive to and from school (mostly Modest Mouse for some reason), I had one for traveling to the golf course (mostly Glenn Miller because the folks who introduced me to golf were into big band music), I had one for when we’d be going to visit my grandparents on a ranch in Oklahoma (mostly country songs and Oklahoma artists like JJ Cale), and I even had one for just driving around my hometown if I had nothing better to do on a Friday night (very Coldplay heavy, which I’m not too proud of).
Either way, it’s worth celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the iPod. If you feel like celebrating, try sitting down and actually making a playlist. Hell, making a playlist of music you would have listened to if you had gotten an iPod right when they were released. But the impact of the iPod cannot be overstated. Without it I’m not sure if we would have made the leap from CDs to iPhones. Happy birthday, iPod, and thank you for not skipping when the car hits a pothole.