By Dan Moore
When I bought my first iPod–this was the first iPod, when the scroll wheel actually spun around–it was a severe blow to my nerd-cred, which I guarded pretty jealously at the time. (It was the only cred I had.) Relying on iTunes and its untouchable database to maintain my MP3 collection, instead of buying a hardcover-sized Nomad and creating my own byzantine folder structure for my music (read: anime and videogame soundtracks) was a huge party foul for the kind of people who were already on my case for insufficient command line usage.
Ten years later the new iPod nano is out, and those same tech types are convinced this is the end of the line for everybody’s favorite MP3 player. Because buying digital files in iTunes and keeping them organized in an untouchable database is now too difficult; the tech review crowd is convinced most of the market for this (very good) nano has or is about to move to streaming options. Thanks to Spotify, and my now-aging fifth-generation iPod, I’ve managed to lose nerd cred on both ends of the MP3 player era.
Is it true? Will streaming music services kill the iPod, even though they don’t have all my anime soundtracks yet? Are my MP3s going to look as ridiculous as my CD towers 10 years from now?
The mainstreaming of the iPhone and second-generation smartphones like it was supposed to kill standalone MP3 players back in 2007, and to be honest they’ve done a pretty good job; the iPod, which maintains a dominant position in the market, is now a billion-dollar afterthought in Apple’s quarterly reports, and the best-seller in the bunch is basically a smartphone for people too young or too smart to pay for a data plan like I do.
But few anticipated the way it would do it, even if we should’ve seen the signs. The first touch smartphones made pretty average MP3 players; flash memory was expensive, and your huge, iPod-optimized music collections were competing with apps and videos for the 4 or 8 GB offered in those first iPhones. It’s true that people bought fewer MP3 players once they had these devices around all the time, but they were trading down, at the time, to an inferior music experience.
People will do that for a while–when was the last time you bought a point-and-shoot camera?–but eventually the experience itself is going to change to fit the devices people have on hand. Digital photography went from something you synced to iPhoto or Flickr with a USB cable to something you could share, instantly and ephemerally, with people on Instagram and Facebook. The quality’s not the same as a decent point-and-shoot, so for most people it’s no longer about quality.
So we started carrying around less flash storage, and paying for more bandwidth, and now music is less about keeping the songs you love around and more about having the chance to listen to whatever song you want at any given moment.
It’s a reasonable trade, but I’m not sure I’ll ever make the switch completely–which is another way of saying I’m too old to learn this trick. Usually, on my computer, I find myself with Spotify and iTunes open at the same time. There’s something intoxicating about being able to listen to every Marshall Crenshaw song ever on a whim, no strings attached except for Spotify’s astonishingly low-budget advertisements, but eventually I just bought the self-titled album and Field Day and was done with it.
Music fans younger than me, who’ll grow up having never bought individual songs or albums, probably won’t have that same impulse, so it might be that jukebox-style music players are on the way out.
But before they go, we’ll find ourselves in the middle of another label crunch–who’s going to pay for music, once I’m not? Spotify’s artist compensation has been a blog lightning rod ever since they landed in America, and while the worst numbers are supposedly off–Lady Gaga probably made more than a hundred bucks for her millions-upon-millions of streams–it’s clear that the bulk of artist revenue online still comes from sales.
So long as that’s supplementary–people like me listening to albums until they decide to buy them–everybody wins. But, like Netflix before it, after Spotify finishes cannibalizing the sales market it might find itself struggling to remain in the price-range of the people it weaned off downloads in the first place.
Having used both models for a while now, there’s probably another offline iPod or two in my future. (The new nano may not be Spotify compatible, but it’s adorable.) Are you done downloading, or is streaming not enough for you, either?