The iPod was a milestone in music history

Even such a loved product could not withstand the buffeting winds of modern market forces

Former Apple chief executive Steve Jobs introduces new iPod Nanos in 2006. Reuters

In 2009, US tech giant Apple brought in almost $43 billion in revenue. In the first quarter of that year, the iPod, a portable music-listening device, made up 30 per cent of the income. After the iMac, it was yet another sign of Apple's ability to create products that obsessed the world.

But the iPod was more than just a cash cow. It changed the way millions of listeners interacted with music.

Key to the company's success is its ongoing ability to create products that consumers can personalise. For music, the iPod did this to a revolutionary degree. High-end laptops and desktops, the beginning of Apple, were and still are great. But a portable jukebox, with far more songs on offer, was nothing short of a milestone for both tech and music, and one which massively empowered the customer.

Now, in a sign of the mercilessness of both industries, the company has announced that it will be discontinuing the product after more than two decades of production. Commercially it is an understandable decision. The value of the previous titan had been diminishing over time, and now it will only command premium prices as memorabilia, although with so many around that might take some time; the company produced a total of 450 million. In a final irony, it was the excellence of newer Apple products such as the iPhone that played a large role in making the iPod, a separate, expensive device, redundant.

But as the years go on, iPod nostalgia will run deeper than the object itself. It formed something of a bridge between the days of CDs, when consumers parted with a lot more cash to get a physical product, and streaming, a development that is great for listeners, largely for the same reasons that it could be bad for musicians.

In recent years there have been a number of high-profile boycotts of such services, most notably Spotify, including a three-year one that ended in 2017 by Taylor Swift – she was one of their most popular musicians – over artist royalties. Nor did Apple escape her ire. In 2015, she prompted Apple Music to change its payment policy with an open letter saying she would withhold an album from the platform.

The predecessor of that service was iTunes, which, going hand in hand with the iPod, met its end in 2019. The service kick-started much of the debate around the danger of tech to artist incomes, especially given its vast market presence at the time. But however valid these criticisms might have been then, the situation is far more radical today. On iTunes, $9.99 would typically have bought you an album. On Spotify, the same amount gets you access for an entire month. In the days of iTunes, if you wanted to listen to a single song, you paid for it. On Spotify in 2021, 226 million non-premium listeners of the 406m total subscribers did not pay any fee at all.

With those numbers in mind, news of the iPod's demise might be sad and nostalgic, but it is not surprising.

Published: May 12, 2022, 3:00 AM
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