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How the iPod is Hurting Music

The sixteen-year-old Best Buy clerk stared at me sweetly, if ever so naively.

“Ummm…what is this?” she asked, staring at the cover of Coldplay’s Viva la Vida on vinyl.

“It’s a record,” I replied.

“Like a poster.”

“No, it’s more like a big flat, black mp3 that you can listen to.”

While I laughed (a lot) about the fact that this teenager didn’t even know how music was listened to up until the 1980s, her question truly shows how much the invention of the iPod has changed the way we think about, buy, and interact with music.

As a dedicated triathlete, my Nano has enhanced my life.  One hundred mile training rides are both brutal and at times mundane, and would be completely unbearable if I couldn’t go from Anberlin to The Roots to a sermon by Mark Driscoll, to a reading of Seth Godin’s Tribes by simply touching a two inch wheel strapped to my left arm.

With all the good that’s come from the 173 million iPods that have been sold, the technology has also had negative effects.

The Sonic Quality of Music is Getting Worse

In the 1970’s, every self-respecting music fan had a basement or bedroom that contained big, big speakers and crates of vinyl.  In the 1980’s, the CD player became popular, and the shiny plastic discs were still mostly played through larger home stereo units.  In 2009, a large amount of music listening is done through little white earbuds, or a single laptop speaker.

Now that “breaking a band” involves getting a lot of plays on myspace, producers are trying to create the “loudest” sound to grab the listener’s attention before they navigate away from the webpage.  

The problem with this technique is that it kills the “range” of music, as shown in the video The Loudness War. As a recent Rolling Stone article explains, producers working with artists who are targeted at a younger (under 30) audience, are forced to make every track, every vocal, every instrument really loud because most fans will find the band through myspace, and the music will be played on tiny computer speakers.  In turn, this takes away some of the dynamics, the “punch” of a recording (this is also why bands sound better live…the dynamics aren’t compressed).

When music is loaded onto an iPod, it’s usually in mp3/mp4 format, which takes the sound file and “squishes” it, so that more audio fits onto the device’s hard drive. So the music that’s already a fuzz of sound becomes even more compressed, more distorted when listened to on an iPod.

Another iPod-influenced trend is the “remastering” of classic albums. Many of the “remastered” albums that are back in stores today are simply louder versions of the originals.  The recent re-release of U2’s The Joshua Tree practically the “made for iPod” version, as it’s just the original songs with the volume turned way up.

We Consume More Music, But Care About It Less

In the 1990’s, there was a public outcry for what eventually became the “Parental Advisory” sticker on CDs. The argument was that kids were listening to songs over and over again, until every lyric on a CD was memorized, therefore affecting their behavior.

Today, that argument is almost impossible to make.  Music does affect us, but we don’t bother to listen to it over and over again.  I know that my music collection is somewhat unique, because I get lots of music for free due to my career, but I currently have 10 days of music in my iTunes (15 gigs), which is more than I’ll ever listen to in a year.

Out of that, the most any one song has been played has been 16 times (The Hold Steady-Party Pit), followed by one song played 15 times (The Gaslight Anthem-Miles Davis & The Cool). I had to reset my hard drive last fall, and these numbers don’t count how often I’ve listened on my iPod, in the car, or when I’ve played an album I also own on vinyl (which is pretty much the only way I listen to the likes of Springsteen, Dylan, and Cash). But I’ve only listened to my “favorite songs” a handful of times.

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I’ve listened to half of the songs in my iTunes ONE TIME each. A quarter of the music in my iTunes has never been listened to at all.

This constant “shuffle mentality” is a far cry from high school, when I’d lay across my bed and listen to the same albums every night.  The reason I have such powerful memories associated with bands like The Wallflowers, Counting Crows, Tupac, MxPx, and P.O.D. is because I spent more time with those albums than I spend with any of the albums I have now.  It’s not that they were necessarily better…I just listened to them enough to understand what the artists were trying to create.

It hasn’t helped our habits that more and more music is available, legally, for free. When I was a teen, lots of bands putting out music for free sounded like Utopia…but now that it’s happened, I believe it’s damaged our appreciation.  Even though I enjoy some of the albums I’ve downloaded for free recently (including The Damnwells), I just don’t take as much time to listen to music I didn’t pay for (if I listen at all…there are two Cold War Kids EPs in my iTunes I have yet to play).  

This erratic “listen once and move on” behavior changes our tastes. For example, the first time I heard a pre-release of Kanye West’s latest work, I hated it. My impression was that it was a T-Pain knock off, trying to cash in on the “rap-sing” radio trend. Fortunately, I kept going back to it, only because Kanye is one of my favorite artists.  It took me listening to the 808’s & Heartbreak four or five times before I even liked it.  A month later, I picked it as one of my top 10 albums of the year.  And I almost missed out on an incredible record simply because I was in “shuffle mode,” wanting to move on if a song didn’t blow me away in the first 30 seconds.

Delete a Bunch of Songs, Buy a Real Stereo

Despite these negative trends, I’m not lobbying for you to throw your precious iPhone in the trash.  However, you may choose to cut your music library down substantially.  A great organizational rule is to get rid of any article of clothing that you haven’t worn in the last year, because it’s just taking up space.  The same can be said for an album on your iPod. If you haven’t listened to it within the last year (iTunes will tell you when it was last played), you aren’t a “fan” of that project anyway, so why keep it around?

Also, consider investing in a decent home stereo system at some point.  The average American will buy 12 albums (on CD or via download) per year (roughly $150).  Ironically, most of us will spend money to buy music, but never bother getting anything decent to listen to it on (either a solid home stereo, or high end headphones).  It may seem foolish in a down economy to spend $175 on a pair of BOSE headphones, but I guarantee that your experience with music will change. Only listening to your favorite bands via the stock iPod ear buds is the musical equivalent of microwaving an expensive steak.

Finally, try and be intentional about listening to albums again.  Playlists are great, and I love shuffle for my workout times, but keep in mind that albums (good albums, anyway) are a creative endeavors meant to be experienced all the way through, not one random song at a time on shuffle.  If you’re going to spend your hard-earned money on a project, you should take the time to actually listen to it, front to back.

Seth “tower” Hurd is spending a great deal of his time training for the upcoming triathlon season.  He can be heard weeknights on Chicago’s 89.7 Shine.FM and on 101.7 FUSE FM in Mid-Michigan.

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