The people who did the most to change music culture in the past have been musicians. In the 60s: The Beatles, The Stones, James Brown, Motown. In the 70s: Led Zeppelin, Sly Stone. In the 80s: Run DMC, Michael Jackson. In the 90s: Nirvana, Snoop Dog.
But in the last decade plus, the American music scene has been changed less by any artist or movement than it has by the iPod. The legacy of Steve Jobs cast a large shadow over the music world. He’s as much of a game changer as the Beatles and Run DMC.
These are not changes he set out to make: He just released an awesome product. But the way people use iPods has changed the way they relate to music.
When I was a kid there were lots of boomboxes around. The Walkman hadn’t been invented yet, so music was a public experience. It was communal. We knew what each other was listening to. Then the Walkman, the Discman and the iPod — which is far more popular than those previous iterations of the portable music player — came out and privatized the music experiences, made it something you do alone, so others can’t easily know what you’re listening to.
Catching on to what’s new is a little harder because it’s so easy to access the comfort food of music you loved months, or years ago.
This is good for public spaces, but it makes it harder for music to bring us together as it once did.
But one thing that the iPod does that the Walkman and Discman never could is it put an almost infinite amount of music at your fingertips all the time. What this means, for many people, is the latest music must compete for your attention with everything you’ve ever loaded onto your iPod. So for many people catching on to what’s new is a little harder because it’s so easy to access the comfort food of music you loved months, or years ago.
The iPod has also eroded the idea of music as something physical — you used to get a piece of vinyl or a cassette or a CD. Now you get an MP3 — a virtual thing. Those physical manifestations or music came with photos that enhanced the brand — maybe liner notes or lyrics which broadened the artist’s message. Some of that was subterfuge, distracting imagery, meant to prop up bad music. Now music has to stand on its own as a sonic entity — or it fails.
I don’t even know what some of my favorite groups look like, and I don’t care — which is great, because I love their sound. This helps truly talented artists and hurts those whose appeal is primarily visual (Britney …).
Also, albums used to be complete documents — you listed to the whole album, in order, because the sequencing and variety of songs told a story. Now we’ve gone back to how things were in the 50s, when it was about singles. But we’ve lost the relationship with albums, which were long-form conversations with the fans.
None of this is to say that I wish the iPod hadn’t been created or that things were better before. I love my iPod. I never leave home without it.
But as society and technology evolve, so will culture. And artists must evolve in response to technology.
This column originally aired as a ‘rant’ on MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan Show.