The death of the iPod has been a long time coming. Somehow, it’s been eight years since Apple discontinued the iconic iPod classic. Nevertheless, the news this week that Apple is discontinuing its last iPod is touching significant: this officially marks the official end of a product the company has made for two decades of success.
Much has been written about how the iPod changed the fate of Apple, transforming the company from an influential but niche computer maker into one of the largest companies in the world. Likewise, the effect of the iPod on the music industry at this point is almost self-explanatory. The device slowly ended the reign of the CD and brought people to a world where they could just buy a handful of songs from an album instead of paying $15 for the whole thing on a plastic disc.
That’s probably why the iPod brand’s death isn’t all that remarkable, despite being an early iPod user who quickly went all-in on Apple’s ecosystem. It was inevitable that Apple would eventually stop selling the iPod touch, just as the end of the iPod classic in 2014 was too late.
That’s probably because both consumer technology and the music industry have long since abandoned the iPod. It’s no exaggeration to say that the iPod has reversed the fate of both Apple and the record industry – but since then we’ve seen another landslide that made the iPod feel almost as strange as the CD.
The iPod was responsible for several major changes in the way music is consumed. In the 2000s, CD sales began to decline as more and more people began purchasing music through digital storefronts such as the iTunes Music Store. There you could get an album for $10 or a single track for $1, a significant discount on CDs at the time. And while many people still bought full albums, decoupling songs from the record brought custom mix CDs and playlists to the forefront of how people listened to music. The iPod and iTunes Store ended the romance (and burden) of a physical music library and gave listeners more freedom to buy and listen to music.
But in 2022, the music industry has undergone a second turnaround. For many, the concept of owning music at all is outdated. Spotify, Apple Music and the like have completely moved us to a place where we pay for access – to a catalog of some 90 million songs – and not for ownership. The idea of the album is even less important now than it was at the peak of the iPod, as the streaming services have put together playlists for us based on our listening history and what’s popular. Apple, Spotify and their competitors are now the de facto DJs, leading listeners to new music the way radio DJs have done for decades.
A big part of Steve Jobs’ pitch to the iTunes Store was that it was a response to piracy and a way for music makers to get paid. The thinking was that the store would provide a vastly improved experience over dealing with sketchy piracy apps so that people wouldn’t mind paying a few bucks here and there to download songs, and so cash back in the future. pockets of the artists.
However, in the streaming era, the debate over the fairness of music streaming payments to artists and songwriters rages on. While the iTunes Store was the first place Apple introduced its controversial 30 percent take, in recent years there has been a growing commotion over how Spotify breaks payments for artists into fractions of a cent per stream. Musicians have often made more money selling touring and merch than selling albums, and now that most people are streaming rather than buying music, that gap has widened even further. (That’s without mentioning how much of a hit artists have earned from tour revenue since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.)
Just as the music industry has moved on since the iPod-powered transformation in the 2000s, the consumer technology industry no longer resembles an iPod-dominated industry. The iPod was conceived as a device that did one thing right: play your music and podcast library. Sure, it’s taken on other functions over the years (most notably displaying your photos and playing videos), but music has always been its raison d’être.
A number of other single-purpose devices flourished around the same time. Amazon first introduced Kindle in 2007, digital cameras became very popular during the decade, and the Flip Video camera was in the limelight for a short time, just to name a few. But the modern smartphone, which Apple itself ushered in with the iPhone, largely eliminated the need for a dedicated music player, not to mention most other purpose-built gadgets. We are now 15 years in an era of convergence, in which the smartphone is the most versatile and most important device we have with us.
It’s no coincidence that the last iPod Apple sold was the iPod touch, a device that’s basically an iPhone without the phone. For years it was a good option for kids or people who couldn’t afford an iPhone, but giving kids a phone is no longer the taboo it once was, while monthly payment plans mean more people can afford them. It’s not clear who the iPod touch was for in 2022.
Apple may be pulling the plug on the iPod now, but the world moved on years ago. We’re past the point where those of us who get nostalgic about the iPod can be considered youthful; if the rise of the iPad was a defining experience for you, you’re probably an older millennial at best. I’m not saying all this to downplay the importance of the iPod, though. On the contrary, looking back at how far we’ve come in the past 20 years shows just how radical the iPod was for music and technology.
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