The iPod Turns 10: How It Shaped Music History

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Though the Apple Store memorials have since given way to long lines for the iPhone 4S, it’s still difficult to imagine the technology company without Steve Jobs at its helm.  And while much has been written about the gadgets that defined perhaps Jobs’ most productive decade, it’s tough to isolate one device for its impact above the rest.  But this Sunday marks 10 years since the keynote that announced the iPod—a device that started the chain of successes in an Apple renaissance, and one that completely redefined the experience of listening to music, as well as making it.

Jobs and his team at Apple seized a moment as much as created a culture with the iPod.  Though the specter of the internet and the high-speed connections that made MP3s available and largely free of charge had already reared its head by the late 1990s, the music industry itself had been slow on the uptake.  It wasn’t until the year 2000 that record companies—and famously, Metallica—filed their first lawsuits against Napster, accusing the service of robbing musicians of their royalties.  By that time, file sharing had become an unstoppable force, and the music industry was scrambling; but importantly, it was still an unwieldy process to steal music.  Mismatched file names and catalogs of thousands of songs almost negated the value of having a library larger than your record (or CD) collection.

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A year later, Jobs stood onstage in front of a small audience in Cupertino, announcing a “revolutionary new product”: the iPod.  The device, like many of Jobs’ later inventions, dictated consumer tastes rather than responding to them, and his vision for music listeners wasn’t immediately embraced en masse. The iPod debuted with a $399 price tag, in line with its competitors but still prohibitively expensive for its value to consumers at the time. But as Apple rolled out its marketing campaigns, and the device became inextricably linked with iTunes, introduced earlier that year, the answers presented themselves. Apple’s standard-issue white earbuds became ubiquitous, and listeners would rock out with the new devices, in many cases to the songs that got famous from their usage in iPod commercials.  The iPod offered a sleek way to organize the chaos of the mercurial music taste that downloaded music allowed for; though the industry still sold albums, listeners began sharing only the single songs they wanted to hear.

In many ways, the image of the music fan, completely oblivious to the bustle around them and attached at the ears to the music player in their pocket, mirrors the effect the iPod had on the industry at large.  In short order, the rise of the iPod took its toll on radio and other authorities on musical taste; the notion of “what’s hot” as prescribed by a radio DJ was replaced with whatever song you kept on repeat on your iPod.  And because the gadget so highly personalized the listening experience, it meant that the white earbuds that separated music fans from their surroundings also exerted a force on the ones making the music; especially with the iTunes Store, introduced in 2003, fans no longer had to buy entire albums to enjoy their favorite songs.  The listener gained the upper hand, and less-popular artists were able to find success online and through iTunes when only years earlier their careers were at the mercy of record executives.  For many acts, this meant leaning more heavily on live shows and fan loyalty to survive, and even acts that were popular before the iPod began bending to its influence; U2 partnered with Apple in 2004 to launch their own special-edition iPod.  Even The Beatles eventually abandoned their estate’s strong stance against selling music online as one of the last to bow to Apple’s influence in 2010.

But Jobs’ successful plan to funnel media, and profits, through Apple’s channels of distribution has two sides.  On one hand, the fragmentation that listeners embraced required fragmentation from artists along with it—to make a living, all but the most popular musicians must reach out to fans on multiple channels, both physical and digital.  But the busier life that Jobs’ invention required also helped to save a struggling industry.  Although 99 cents a song was a rough adjustment for record companies, it’s Jobs’ proof that a system convenient enough to organize and legitimize downloading music is one actually worth paying for.  For an industry that was losing ground to computer programmers, the iPod and iTunes software required to fill it with content provided a lifeline that kept the profession profitable, albeit with Apple taking a cut.  It reinterpreted our notion of how music was to be made, but it ensured that it would still be worth making.

Technically speaking, the device was also one of the first released by Apple to redefine an industry.  The iPhone and iPad that came after it were revolutionary in their own right, but it was the iPod that first explored the notion of a touch-sensitive device that also doubled as a status symbol.  Before it, we had a relatively unwieldy Walkman as our only option for mobile music, and it still grappled with the issue of CDs and cassettes as its form of musical storage.  Apple replaced it with a sleek slab of metal and white plastic, whose luxury status quickly gave way to total ubiquity, and inspired generations of copycat products that still fail to outsell it.  Successive generations refined a physical wheel and buttons into progressively minimalist control schemes, and primed the company and consumers for the engrossingly touch-sensitive experience of the iPhone.

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Like many Apple products, the iPod wasn’t the first device of its kind.  But like many examples of Jobs’ legacy, it was the product that did it best; it was the first to show listeners that a piece of technology could be more than useful; it could be cool, and eventually impossible to imagine living without.  And it was the first to convince musicians that the same fans that had stolen their creative output would be the ones they should reach out to, and iTunes offered that opportunity in its most direct and personal form.  Jobs and Apple defined a market where once there was none, and profited greatly from it; but more importantly, they defined a future for an industry that was struggling to find its way through the challenges of the present.