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The iPod and my musical education

Unboxing was not a thing back then, nor was ASMR – but ripping that plastic off this black box was deeply satisfying. The click wheel! The tiny colour display! The possibility of carrying 500 songs...

May 14, 2022 / 05:49 PM IST
Without the iPod, we may have never known the iPhone. And yet, it was the iPhone that absorbed the iPod whole and relegated it to the category of tech you would maybe only want, never again strictly need. (Representational image: Insung Yoon via Unsplash)

Without the iPod, we may have never known the iPhone. And yet, it was the iPhone that absorbed the iPod whole and relegated it to the category of tech you would maybe only want, never again strictly need. (Representational image: Insung Yoon via Unsplash)

Back in 2006, I was given my first iPod: The first-gen iPod Nano. It was my father’s gentle way of creating a diversion from my blinkers-on desire for a Moto Razr that all us college kids were hopelessly infatuated with. And it worked. Like millions, the iPod was my first brush with an Apple device - this was the third iteration of the iPod, after iPod Classic and the iPod Mini - and I was instantly enamoured.

Unboxing was not a thing back then, nor was ASMR – but ripping that plastic off this black box was deeply satisfying. The click wheel! The tiny colour display! The possibility of carrying 500 songs (mine was the budget 2GB version) and photos everywhere! All in a device so slim and tiny it fits into that little pocket inside your jeans pocket (no, no one knows what it’s really for). Bragging rights aside, it certainly felt like taking a quantum leap into the future.

As is evident in the outpouring of iPod nostalgia all over the Internet this week, I’m not alone in romanticising this piece of antiquated hardware – and that universal transportative quality may have something to do with it. On May 10, Apple announced that it would pull the plug on the iPod Touch, the last in its line of iPods which the Cupertino-based company began selling in 2001. The iPod Nano, along with the diminutive Shuffle, had already been killed in 2017, and the Classic in 2014.

Also read: Swansong of the iPod

This was imminent. The iPod may have brought Apple back to life in the 2000s, paving the way for its trillion-dollar position today. Without the iPod, we may have never known the iPhone. And yet, it was the iPhone that absorbed the iPod whole and relegated it to the category of tech you would maybe only want, never again strictly need.

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To be sure, the iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player (unsurprisingly, that came from South Korea). Nor did it invent portability in music: The Sony Walkman and Discman made music listening a lifestyle choice and a personal experience. But for an entire generation, the iPod revolutionised their relationship with music: It changed everything, from access to reach to the music’s impact.

Growing up in the 1990s, there were limited sources for discovering music: Channel V and MTV played Bollywood and the Indi-pop of Alisha Chinai and Biddu on loop. The non-Indian music that we were immersed in, not always by choice, was the big English pop music of the time: Britney Spears, Cristina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, Madonna and Michael Jackson, Backstreet Boys and its ilk of boy bands. Private FM broadcasting was to begin in 2001; but AIR FM Radio did, in fact, curate solid half-hour shows of English-language music four times a day, on the 102.6 frequency, running the gamut of genres and time periods.

Also read: iPod discontinued: Memories of a shiny Nano that seemed too small to do everything that it promised

And who can forget those illicit MP3 CDs, with grainy collage covers, packing hundreds of songs? Pop fans could have their fill of the greatest hits of the year; hip-hop heads could get the gold hits of Nas, Snoop and 50 Cent in one place. Buying label CDs or albums from Planet M was prohibitively expensive—so, of course, we were making copies of borrowed CDs and tapes as if the apocalypse was upon us (little did we know…). For the rest, unless you had family living abroad or cool siblings or friends who could find their way around the internet, expanding your horizons wasn’t really an option.

The internet, though, was a gold mine waiting to be tapped. The iPod launched close on the heels of Napster (which arrived in 1999), that massively successful peer-to-peer file sharing software service. Down here in South Asia, we had songs.pk and, eventually, Limewire and BitTorrent. If you knew what you were looking for (such as The Beatles’ entire discography), there was every chance that you were going to find it.

But it was really iTunes, launched in 2003 (also the year that MySpace came into the picture) with a rather cost-effective model and a well-organised and ever-growing library of music, which set the tone for the iPod’s massive success, and for the nature of music consumption thereafter: digital, personal, shareable.

Using iTunes and the iPod, I discovered that I had a particular affinity for alternative rock—never mind that it was a few decades after this that underground “guitar music” really began to bloom in the West. R.E.M. and Red Hot Chilli Peppers (RHCP) were my gateway bands, both pretty mainstream by the 1990s. From there, I journeyed back and forth in time to dive deeper, find the bands I’d build bonds with for a lifetime: Oasis, Radiohead, and the White Stripes to my all-time-gods, the Arctic Monkeys.

Also read: iPod memories: How a handheld device changed my relationship with music

Eventually, digital streaming quietly became a way of life. We now subscribe to the channels, platforms, genres, bands, films, artists that we love. Meanwhile, the idea of ownership in the virtual world is finding its way circuitously through NFTs. In the real world, only the hardcore collectors or hobbyists among us now tote big fat logic cases of CDs or vinyl, or boast walls of video tapes anymore.

As more music and music makers went online, more spaces sprung up. Spotify, also launched in 2006, made streaming the ‘it’ thing. SoundCloud, arriving in 2008, became the stomping grounds of the avant-garde and the steadfastly independent: certainly a great early incubator and platform for a significant lot of India’s biggest musicians, from Nucleya to Prateek Kuhad, Peter Cat Recording Co to Sandunes.

8tracks was a lesser-known but wonderful platform for making, sharing and listening to mixtapes by mood. Until we turned the corner to YouTube: Then, video really did kill the radio star. Now we have TikTok, where video has become the channel for discovering tomorrow’s big musical luminaries.

They say the music that lives with you is what you’ve listened to in your adolescence. I, for one, can never listen to the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner croon about his love-hate relationship with his small-town home, on the song “A Certain Romance”, and not be transported to a specific December morning in Delhi, inhaling the crisp clean air of 2006.

But for those of us who fell in love with the act of listening to music through the iPod—that is to say, of carrying music with us wherever we went—I reckon it isn’t just the songs burned into our brains. It’s also the spirit of just letting it play. Of letting a song take you by surprise. And the discipline of being receptive to new music from around the world. Which means enthusing about the latest RHCP track, sure; but also Korean rock, such as Say Sue Me’s new album, when it comes recommended by human or algorithm. And that’s a hard legacy to beat.



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Nidhi Gupta is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and editor.
first published: May 14, 2022 05:45 pm
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