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Publication: The Daily Telegraph Arts + Books, cover story December 2003

This Tiny Machine has just changed music for ever.

It’s hard to believe, but the cigarette-packet-shaped gadget on the left can store the tracks from all 800 CDs on the right. The iPod has arrived, and we may never listen to music in the same way again.

Music culture is undergoing the most radical change since punk, but this time the revolutionary figure isn’t a sneering kid with a mohair jumper and a microphone. Instead it’s a sleek piece of technology the size of a cigarette packet. Apple’s breakout personal MP3 player the iPod is a palm-sized paradigm shift that will render your CD collection obsolete and effect the biggest music industry shakeout in years. In sales figures alone it’s the retail sensation of the year. But its capacity to legitimise a culture of downloadable MP3 music beyond teenagers and geeks and into the homes of middle England spells dread in the corridors of the music business. One record company boss executive recently told his staff that ‘CD sales will be zero in three years’ if they fail to change their business. Another likened the music business to the Titanic.

The current print and TV campaign for the iPod – where silhouette figures dance around wearing white earphones plugged into a small, rectangular handheld gadget – paradoxically makes few claims for a product that both enables and symbolises a revolution in the way we consume music.

‘Think Different’ is the maxim of Steve Jobs’ Cupertino, California company, and the iPod is true to its word. Not so much another palmsize, must-have techno gadget as an entire mindset made digital, the iPod is to the 21st century what the first Sony Walkman was at its launch in 1981 – a new, ultrapersonal medium of listening to music of any kind, anywhere, anytime, if not all the time. The iPod represents a revolution in the head as well as in the palm, and is fast emerging as the essential tool for a magpie generation who no longer define their music tastes by genre, but by hyper-eclectic playlist.

Designed by a team under Apple’s British VP of industrial design Jonathan Ive, who this year won the Design Museum’s first ever Designer of the year award, the iPod was initially conceived and marketed in 2001.

‘The evolution in computing has been from productivity to internet use and then to a whole digital lifestyle, which is what Apple is about today’ says the company’s spokesman Alan Hely. ‘The Mac is the hub for pictures, internet, sharing, scanners, printers, DVD, movies. What we saw was a gap – music.’

But only this year the iPod reached the ‘tipping point’ at which a cult trends mushrooms into a mainstream fetishes. In the trading quarter to September 2003 alone 336,000 iPods were sold globally, establishing it as the world’s Number One digital music player. Currently in New York, iPod DJ parties – where guests plug in and ‘perform’ their iPod playlists for the crowd – are bar culture’s latest craze, and the leading techno DJ Richie Hawtin recently played a club set from his iPod.

The world’s 1.4 million iPod owner will evangelise at length, if you let them, on its synthesis of elegantly modest form and intuitive functionality – among them both Christian Dior’s design boss Hedi Slimane and fashion house Pucci, who have produced dedicated iPod cases without prompting.

At a more pedestrian level the proliferation of white earphones – an iPod signature – on the streets, tubes and buses of the UK recalls the emergence of the mobile phone in the mid-Eighties, the last great leap forward in lifestyle technology. The iPod’s growing popularity has left competing MP3 players for dust at a time when music is completing its transition to become a digital experience, rendering clumsy formats including vinyl, CD and MiniDisc obsolete.

A product that inspires lust among techno geeks and hipsters alike, it’s a beautiful piece of minimalist design, yet it looks like nothing else. It’s finished in chrome metal to the back with an LCD screen, a touch wheel and four buttons (Rewind, Menu, Play/Pause, Forward) to its white plastic front, and is scarcely bigger than a pack of ten cigarettes or, if you don’t smoke, weighs about as much as a mobile phone.

You just want to hold and feel it. Like Siemens recent curvilinear ‘Pebble’ mobile phone, the iPod’s gently rounded edges and polished housing respond to an appetite for ‘tactile technology’ among society’s design-literate demographic.

But just as its sleek, cuboid packaging creates a tangible sense of anticipation - the box opens by splitting in two - the instrument itself outwardly expresses no hint of its inner capacity. Which, held on an internal hard drive, is vast. Available in 10, 20 and 40 Gigabyte sizes, it’s a microengineered Tardis of sound – 40 gigabytes equates roughly to 10,000 songs, or 800 albums, or almost three solid weeks of music.

In the six months since I bought mine, there’s scarcely been a day when I haven’t fiddled with it on the tube, in the gym, at work, in the kitchen, during ad breaks or on my bike. I scroll through the LCD directory with the touch-sensitive wheel, and right there is All Music: an alphabetical index of songs and artists, from AC/DC, Aretha Franklin and Audioslave through to, Zongamin, Zulu Nation and ZZ Top by way of The Balanescu Quartet, The Beach Boys, Beyonce, Billie Holliday, Blue Oyster Cult, Black, Black Sabbath, Blackstreet, Blue, Bobby Vinton, Brahms and Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen - which is just a few of the Bs. 2,143 songs, or 131 hours of music all ready to roll with a tap on the Play button, a further 4.2 gigabytes of memory remaining. The unruly CD collection which previously cluttered every corner of my flat now fits into my back pocket wherever I go.

But the true key to the iPod’s runaway success, however, is its functionality. Synched with Apple’s iTunes application – a desktop jukebox enabling users to ‘rip’ CD tracks into the MP3 format, compile unique-to-me playlists and upload MP3s to the iPod – the conjunction of software and hardware provides the simplest and easiest way to convert, archive, compile and, most importantly, enjoy music.

In short, the iPod makes a DJ of everyone: the music we upload to it becomes a playlist specific to each of us, tailored to our personality, our own individualised ‘genre’ expressing something of our selves.  When I scroll through a friend’s playlist, for example (he’s a 28-year-old cycle repairman from Birmingham) there’s The KLF rubbing shoulders with Gene Pitney, Serge Gainsbourg cheek by jowl with Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Modern Jazz Quartet billed alongside to Royksöpp. To those who know him, it’s uniquely Ronnie. At the same time it reactivates our inner music librarian, articulating the same emotional impulse that leads us to compile favourite songs on C90 cassette in the hope of impressing a paramour with our taste, sophistication and emotional depth.

A truly empowering technology, the iPod encourages in us a latent eclecticism. As a chat-up line, ‘What music are you into?’ no longer works, because today there’s only one realistic answer since: ‘everything’. We’re increasingly the music we’re ‘into’ is a far broader church, and the deadening apartheid of musical purism is a thing of the past.

If the mental revolution symbolised in the iPod is great news for Apple, it’s terrible news for the music business, which for years has marketed music according to genre and age range. You like Marvin Gaye? Then you’ll probably also like Curtis Mayfield, the rationale goes. But the process of iPod playlisting trashes the notion that we can be marketed to by our preference for say, soul, rock or Peruvian nose-flute madrigals, any more than we can be defined in a preference for one shade of colour over another. This is mirrored in the freefall of global CD sales, which are predicted to drop a further 8 per cent drop to 2.1bn units this year.

In this respect, iTunes/iPod is enabling the biggest shake-up in years of the prescriptive programming of established music distribution channels. You get to hear what you want to hear, rather than what the producer of Radio 1’s Chart Show, or of Songs Of Praise, or the compiler of The Best Uzbekistani Balalaika Anthems In the World…Ever! thinks you should be hearing.

While it’s unlikely that digital music will kill off the market for the cherished physical artefacts of music culture – CDs, box sets and vinyl albums with lavish artwork, sleevenotes and extras – since we’re all hoarders at heart. But iPod’s popularity has profited enormously from a broader shift in the economics of music that began with Napster. The effect of the first online peer-to-peer MP3 sharing network sensationally closed down in 2002 and relaunched as a legal network this year are only just being felt. Napster theoretically made every song ever written available over a phone line, rendering any song of any age, provenance or style as current as the latest record company single release.

Far more importantly it positioned music as a free commodity, instantly threatening the monopolies of the major record labels. Other networks quickly filled Napster’s vacuum – including Kazaa, Limewire, Gnutella and Soulseek – but neither they, nor the record companies who catastrophically failed to respond to the innovation of easy-to-share and easier-to-pirate MP3, have made much money from online music. The future of flogging an effectively free commodity to consumers with increasingly individualised and eclectic tastes looks desperate.

Incredibly, Apple has levered a culture of piracy into hard cash, snatching success from the music business’s failure: their online iTunes Music Store, launched in April and designed to serve the iTunes/iPod bundle offers 400,000 legal MP3s downloadable at 99 cents apiece, as well as spoken word content and celebrity playlists. The US site – a European version is slated for 2004 – trounces all competition: it traded a million MP3s in its first week, and maintains around 1.5 million sales weekly, five times that of the relaunched, newly legit Napster. Time Magazine duly hailed it Coolest Invention Of The Year.

‘Forty per cent 40 of our total sales are in portable computing – on-the-go computing is growing, and we realised very quickly people wanted to listen to music on the go to,’ Hely explains. ‘The easiest wasy to offer a product was to build one oursleves. This is a new market - downloadable music, MP3 players and iTunes - and we’re trying to pull the three together.’

None of which is to suggest that Apple’s triumvirate of software, hardware and distribution channel is the only way to enjoy the experience of digital music. The influential technology newswire recently published ‘Five Reasons Not to Buy An iPod’, citing its expense (up to £400), low 8-hours battery life and inability to support Windows audio files. Strong competitors are emerging - Dell’s Digital jukebox and a raft of mobile phones promising MP3 download and playback functions – meaning Apple may have to deliver on the rumours of a Video iPod next year to maintain the lead.

But in its brilliantly intuitive structure enabling us to enjoy music the way we want to enjoy it – on the go, without filler, and in the order we choose – the iPod is almost certainly the best. Fun, functional, stylish, unobtrusive and legal, it’s the best working expression yet of Apple’s ‘digital lifestyle’ theory, an example of technology that has adapted to humans, rather than forcing humans to adapt to it.

Try it for yourself. Kick pack, plug in and turn on with something appropraite - say, ‘Music Sounds better With You’ by Stardust. And then something by Sandie Shaw, The Shirelles, Simon & Garfunkel, Skee-Lo, Snap, Soulwax, The Specials, Steppenwolf, Steve Miller Band…

© Kevin Bradddock 2003

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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