Spotify can never replace my iPod, but it can ease the pain

Commentary: The quiet demise of Apple's iPod Classic prompts CNET's Nick Statt to reflect on the time before streaming services -- when music was first set free.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
9 min read

Apple debuted its portable music player in October 2001. Thirteen years later, the iPod classic was discontinued and removed from Apple's online store. Josh Miller/CNET

"They're trying to take our MP3s."

That was the half-kidding, semiserious conclusion my college friends and I reached a few years ago when we realized subscription streaming services, namely Spotify, were not a fad. Whether "they" represented tech companies or the music industry, storage constraints on smartphones and the burden of iTunes upkeep was a huge time suck. These mobile apps were here to stay, and they would be taking our music libraries away -- by making them irrelevant.

It seemed like such sweet irony. How had so many years of collecting, downloading and cataloging been rendered null? How had an extreme moral ambivalence to the wrongness of piracy -- a wanton disregard for anything but having all of the music we could fit on our hard drives -- been co-opted and sold back to us for a monthly fee?

It was a ridiculous notion, of course. We knew subscription services were likely the future, even if they utilized somewhat arcane pay scales and were rejected by some musicians, like Radiohead's Thom Yorke (who coincidentally helped orchestrate the beginning of the end of the download era when 2007's "In Rainbows" was released on a pay-what-you-want model). After all, the streaming apps are still better than stealing music. An even louder death knell for our MP3s? Software like Spotify is grander and cheaper than anything in our wildest imaginings.

But we were the download generation, the denizens of the Wild West of modern-music culture, where anything and everything you desired could be yours -- not just to listen to, but also to be shaped by. I received my first tape cassette, Green Day's "Insomniac," when I was seven. I listened to it on the bus on a Sony Walkman. Yet by the age of 11, I'd already seen the future. I asked my parents for CDs that were blank and faceless, to fill with downloaded music from my older brother's Mac. It was the Napster age, but even then the ability to realign it all with the touch of technology made it it feel like something big was around the corner.

That something was the iPod, first released on October 12, 2001. This past Tuesday, Apple pulled the plug on the standalone MP3 player after a 13-year run. While its smaller incarnations, the iPod Shuffle and iPod Nano, live on, the company that moved the music industry to digital has finally sent the signal: it's long been over for the MP3, and now it's time to move on.

End of an iEra

I got my first iPod at age 13 as a gift. It was the third-generation model with the silky click-wheel and glowing red backlit buttons. It held 7,500 songs and only one other friend of mine in middle school had one. We often consorted over carrying around the future in our pockets, but we weren't alone for long. The iPod was a marvel, for sure. I had used CD players, stereos and cassette players for years, so I understood how absurd it was that a single device could hold that much music. To my parents, however, it was black magic.

Apple's third-generation iPod was released in April of 2003 and held 7,500 songs. Apple

They didn't understand, for one, how it was technically possible -- like many at the time -- but more importantly what it meant for music at large. Neither did we as kids. But we were less willing to hang on to the past and more open to the possibility of music consumption radically changing in the coming years. Apple's iTunes Store launched the year I received my iPod, with 200,000 songs. In three years time, the company sold its billionth track and iPods were everywhere. We, the reckless downloaders, saw it as a golden age. We existed in spite of iTunes' success because we were still on the right side of the digital music revolution -- the one that understood the supply of music could reasonably be infinite. It was glorious.

The culture clash wasn't always pleasant. In 2006, my father bought me the Red Hot Chili Peppers' recently released "Stadium Arcadium" CD as a gift, only to have me pronounce with pride at the dinner table that very same night that a friend had emailed me the MP3s a few hours earlier. To them, CDs were alive, music had value, and I was a symbol of the spoiled, instant-gratification-obsessed youth to whom album art and liner notes meant nothing. Music was a file, instead of something created by real human beings who needed our money to survive. In some ways, I felt, and still feel, the truth of that gross characterization.

But it was impossible to deny the effects of a culture overflowing with every slice of auditory art we could cram into a gigabyte. An artist's discography was like discovering an entire planet, our iPods becoming galaxies by way of which we could discover what kind of person we were, what we identified with and what our friends could teach us about themselves by handing over their personal MP3 puck.

Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduces the iPod Photo during an event on Tuesday, October 26, 2004, in San Jose, California. Getty Images

It was revelatory. Our lives always had soundtracks, and every facet of the iPod, from white earbuds to menu layouts, became a cornerstone of the modern generation's aesthetic. Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, a devout music lover, had succeeded in infusing consumer culture with his ultimate gift: a daily life narrated and influenced by music of all types that was so accessible and natural that, like the Internet and cell phones, it's hard to image what life was like before the iPod.

"If anybody was ever wondering why is Apple on the earth," Jobs famously said in 2001, cradling a rudimentary first-generation iPod, "I would hold this up as a good example."

Sometimes music collection became a pointless competition. Who could have more music, that was more elegantly categorized and complete and that represented a cooler, more exclusionary taste? The need to have it all -- the complete stylings of Biggie and Tupac and every Beatles B-side alongside "Kid A" and Wilco and the digitizations of decades-old legends -- was a crusade. Even then, it was a worthy cause. Our MP3s would last forever, we thought, unlike discs or cassettes or vinyl. Technology first empowered us, and then it proved us wrong.

All of that hasn't quite disappeared, but it's been diminished. The iPhone did away with files by constructing our mobile lives with applications. As iPods swelled in storage capacity, to 160GB by September 2009, iPhones got slimmer, faster and more feature-packed, but without more space. Even today, a top-of-the-line, $949 unlocked iPhone 6 Plus can't store as much as an iPod of five years ago. It doesn't have to.

iPod sales staggered for the first time in 2009. Then they began dropping like rocks. Apple made almost 21 times more revenue last year on iPhones than it did on iPods. Subscription music services have a long way to go before they oust digital download sales, but the turning point came last year when, for the first time, digital downloads dropped -- by 1 percent to $2.8 billion annually. Streaming music grew 39 percent in 2013, to $1.4 billion.

Wired's Mat Honan, in an excellent piece titled "On Death and iPods: A Requiem," writes of the after effects of that switch:

The single-use device is gone -- and with it, the very notion of cool that it once carried. The iPhone is about as subversive as a bag of potato chips, and music doesn't define anyone anymore. Soon there will be no such thing as your music library. There will be no such thing as your music. We had it all wrong! Information doesn't want to be free, it wants to be a commodity. It wants to be packaged into apps that differ only in terms of interface and pricing models. It wants to be rented.

Apple's official iPod timeline, available online, chronicles the product's beginnings from 2001. Each year marks a new sales milestone, another product added to the family. The page abruptly ends at 2010. The number of iPods sold: 275 million.

The bittersweet beauty of Spotify

Until February of last year, my relationship with digital music was a constant struggle over space. Not wanting to carry around two devices, I had long abandoned my fifth generation iPod to the desk drawer, where my little brother also left it when he too upgraded to an iPhone and discovered Pandora.

Owning a smartphone meant picking and curating a constant list of less than 1,000 songs that would fit on the 16GB device alongside apps and other software. It was occasionally fun to curate a tighter collection, but more often than not it was a tired, unpleasant affair that lasted years while I drifted in and out of touch with my music collection and tastes. I used to carry around more than 10,000 songs in my pocket, and it felt retrograde to compromise.

Never an addict of Internet radio, I opted for Spotify last year, mostly for its resemblance to an online catalog I could pull from to curate playlists. I learned, in an instant, that it would forever change music for me. Spotify, as the iPod once was, is one of those products you can't quite wrap your head around till you go all in. That means paying the $9.99 a month charge for premium and getting benefits like offline listening and zero advertisements.

Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

To former music pirates, Spotify is like Valhalla. It's impossible to describe the feeling of confusion that hits the first few times you use the app and realize the vastness of its reach. Spotify contains nearly every song in existence, with few exceptions -- all wrapped up in an interface that's both more functional and easier to use than iTunes. It has music-discovery and radio features, and it gives you the ability to know, at a moment's notice, what all your friends are listening to. It's everything iTunes should have become.

To say that Spotify has rendered music free is redundant. Music, in the world of Spotify, is all or nothing. We just pay for the best tool to hear it. Not on YouTube, where we're inundated with ads and poor quality, or television, where we have little control over what we hear, or Soundcloud and Bandcamp, where artists can release and control their own library of tracks. With Spotify, you can explore the entire expanse of modern music with only a whimsical spontaneity for what x or y may sound like.

Spotify has turned me on to the farthest reaches of my musical tastes -- to the weirdest electronic tracks and overlooked classical compositions to Top 40 and even the songs and albums that used to fill my iPod way back when. Some musician friends and longtime music fans I know think of Spotify as an egregious affront to music ownership. Others haven't given it a chance yet, and continue to buy an album here or there, subsisting mostly on downloading torrents and other activities that Spotify, Pandora and other services have already begun to curb.

On Tuesday, Apple again reminded us of the musical landscape we live in now when it ended its annual iPhone event by announcing that U2's latest album, "Songs of Innocence," would be going out to iTunes' 500 million users for free. As Quarts put it, Apple reinforced the idea that musicians "don't sell music at all," but pursue promotional opportunities and plan big-budget concert tours. A world of free, limitless access to music is a time to rejoice, you'd think.

Yet sometimes I find that Spotify is too cold. As a music library, it's indiscriminate, and indifferent to my tastes. My music is not mine and never will be again. I'm reminded of what it felt like to open iTunes and feel at home, to be familiar with my music, as I imagine past generations felt as they gazed at their CD rack or their shelf full of vinyl. All I have now are digital playlists. They're another struggle, not of space, but of time, as I attempt to carve out my own corner of Spotify's galactic supercluster of songs.

I stare at my smartphone screen, the cursor blinking in Spotify's search bar, and think about what to put on, or which artist to look up. The choices might as well be infinite. But before long, I'm at my bus stop or I'm running late or I lose the inspiration to listen, and I don't play anything at all.