Why I Don’t Use an iPod

About two years ago, my wife won an iPod in a contest during the Chamber Music America conference, but to this day neither of us has bothered to open it up. While initially we were extremely excited about having one of these new gadgets (after all, our society instills in us the desire for the latest technological innovation), the charm wore off as soon as we talked about what music we would put on it.

I have over 5000 LPs and, after we combined our collections, we probably have nearly 5000 CDs. And I continue to amass this stuff weekly, if not daily. No handheld MP3 player currently on the consumer market could accommodate what amounts to easily more than 10,000 hours of music, not to mention the extraordinarily valuable peripheral information contained in the packages that house these recordings: not just really cool cover art, but frequently detailed booklet notes with historic essays, detailed analyses, interviews with the composers and performers, even miniature scores in some cases. These objects are also frequently relics of faraway lands and times, talismans of otherness that impersonal computer files can never be. After over 25 years of scouring record stores around the world, I have access to most of the world’s music in my living room. And if I don’t have it yet, it’s either on my shopping list or soon will be.

But, you say, that’s all so cumbersome. With an iPod, you can travel anywhere you want with your favorite music. Well, for starters I don’t have favorite music—really—so it would actually be difficult for me to narrow it down to only a couple thousand hours of music, which maxes out the top of the line 80-gigabyte model. And I love looking at my floor to ceiling walls of recordings. They are a constant source of simultaneous humility and inspiration. But, most importantly, I treasure the time I have at home devoted to experiencing music, frequently in the company of friends. The last thing I’d want to do is carry it around with me all the time and have it as a antisocial solitary experience competing for attention with the adventures of my daily commute.

About ten years ago, during a period of intense repetitive study of various pieces of music, I carried around a Walkman and then a Discman for a while, which for all intents and purposes function much the same way that iPods do. (Yeah, I know, you have to carry the recordings with you. But I kid you not, I used to drag along a heavy carrying bag that contained almost the equivalent time of music most iPod models hold in physical cassettes and CDs.) I saturated myself with music that way, but I quickly wanted to find a way to respond to it creatively, either at a keyboard or some other instrument, which was usually hard to come by in the middle of the street. Or I’d want to listen to it more intently or share it with others, which listening during other activities on isolating headphones makes problematic and frequently impossible.

So in the end I gave up on the various Walkmans (not just because of their awful spelling). I already listen to so much music all the time, both in almost daily live concerts and the tons of recordings at home. Much as I love music, I do actually need time for other things like reading, looking at art, eating, drinking, and just living life.

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20 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Use an iPod

  1. JohnClare

    and before it all starts
    I have to say Frank isn’t a luddite! or that he doesn’t embrace technology, he’s always been quick to grab his palm pilot to find a bus or subway schedule/map for me when in NYC.

    Reply
  2. Chris Becker

    I’ve noticed a lot of music is being mastered for the ipod experience – that is, a compressed mp3 format (that reduces sound quality) to be broadcast to the listener via a means that is less than stellar for engaged listening. Music is being slammed (i.e. compressed and limited) at the mastering stage to such a degree that in the end result digital distortion is actually audible. A lot of mastering engineers just assume that this is what a client wants: a recording that is loud as hell with NO dynamics. I’ve been advised by my mastering engineer to tell the people I work with in the future at this stage of realizing a recording to keep it “warm, warm, warmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm….” You can master musically – but I’m not sure if that equals an ideal ipod listening experience.

    Maybe if you haven’t heard vinyl or a decently mastered CD recording you just can’t imagine an alternative to the pod like listening experience?

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  3. CM Zimmermann

    Jacques Attali’s ideas concerning the stockpiling of use-time within the commodity object is useful here.

    For me personally, the ‘Ipod’, besides its laudatory functions and uses, has the tendency to result in solipsism. Music is thrust out of its the social and intersubjective / intercommunicative space that it creates into what seems to amount to soundtracks for work out routines.

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  4. ian

    Podtastic
    I’m a proud owner of an iPod and appreciate it very much for the revolutionary idea of having one’s entire music library (which for the vast majority of us is far smaller than Frank’s) in one place. However, the reduction in sound quality currently necessitated by the format is undeniable. I recently broke out my 2004 edition Sony Discman after almost a year of disuse and was just blown away by the difference (Sony, by the way, is head and shoulders above any other portable CD player in my estimation). I also realized that I was accustomed to listening to the Discman at much louder volumes than the iPod, because the Discman distorts far less readily. So I do recommend that even iPod devotees keep the old gadgets around for when you want a real headphone experience.

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  5. justjonathan1

    Yes, I’d like to agree with the crappy mastering procedures listed above. Problems with the Ipod and mp3s :

    1. The earbuds have terrible low end and usually break after a couple of months. And the aftermarket phones are terribly overpriced.
    2. Big difference between a cd and an mp3. I’ve got a fantastic set of Adam studio monitors in my studio – there’s a huge difference between formats, an untrained ear would hear a big difference right away.
    3. Ipods enhance ADD. For me this takes away from the listening experience. A lot of people spend more time fidgeting with the device.
    4. I agree with Frank re: the anti-social behavior that Ipods bring. One of my biggest joys is sharing listening experiences with friends. The charm is gone and all we’re left with is data.
    5. Thought the future would be wonderful – 24/96 and surround sound recordings. I think people are forgetting what good recordings really sound like.
    6. Having said all of this, I love my Ipod for the gym and travel. AH, Technology.

    If you really love music and can afford it, it’s really wonderful to have a great system to listen to music. It’s a seriously underrated experience!

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  6. scottgendel@hotmail.com

    sound quality
    As a composer and a careful listener, I know I’m supposed to care about these things, but really, I just can’t get myself to give a crap about playback quality. I care so, SO, SOOOOO much more about the music itself and the quality of the performance, and the musicianship of the performers… whether there’s a slight hiss in the background or the complete dynamic range has been a little compressed… well, I just don’t care one bit. I do care about compression in pop/rock recordings, because I’m just sick of everything being so darn loud. But as far as the mp3 earbud experience versus the home speaker experience… meh. Within 2 seconds I forget the technology and listen to the music.

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  7. Chris Becker

    I’m speaking as a composer who creates a lot of work in the recording studio and who works closely with musicians from a variety of genres (jazz, classical, rock). I too love bootlegged recordings and recordings that aren’t “perfect” by any stretch of the imagination. And I would never let a crappy recording get in the way of recogizing a great performance or composition. BUT – the human ear is capable of perceiving such a wide range of aural stimulations. I just think it’s a shame that we as musicians and composers might shrug our shoulders at the mp3 format and not demand something a little better.

    Musicians work for years to acheive resonance and depth and character to their sounds…why can’t we expect that to be captured on a recording? It is difficult, maybe impossible – and hearing a musician live can be revelatory when you compare the experience to the recorded work – but why shortchange ourselves? Why not stretch ourselves and the demands we make on technology?

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  8. MandolaJoe

    Ah, Frank, such a thing to say: “I don’t have favorite music—really—”. If I didn’t know better I would be very pained to hear you say that. It’s almost as painful to me as saying “I love all music–really”. What is wrong with having a favorite? (I’m not talking about all-time favorites, but, rather, “at this point of my life I’d really like to listen to…” or even “if I have to hear that one more time I think I’ll scream.”) iPods are not hard-wired to your soul forever, are they? (I don’t really know; I haven’t one either.)

    There’s nothing wrong with favorites: it’s what differentiates each of us from anyone else. And especially now, in these perilous times when our privacy is being stolen away slowly, the iPod may be the last bastion of our secret selves.

    Reply
  9. pgblu

    Faves
    I don’t think Frank is objecting to favorites, he just doesn’t have one… or even two… is that right, Frank? I am the same way. I do like to say, though, that my favorite music is the music I will someday write. Until then, I listen to other music for clues.

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  10. avant_uke

    I hear[t] my iPod
    Frank, I agree with much of what you’ve said about the iPod being a potential barrier to fully experiencing life, with all its potential adventures and yes, moments of boredom. But I love my iPod.

    First of all, it’s ideal for travel. Portable CD players skip, munch AA batteries like potato chips, and tend to have very short lifespans. Yes, the earbuds supplied with iPods are uncomfortable, and the sound quality is poor. For $25 you can pick up a set of Sony MDR-EX51LP’s — they’re light, comfortable, and sound pretty damned good.

    Podcasts are another great reason to love the iPod. Yes, you can download them and then burn discs to listen to, but the convenience of a podcast is as much a part of its charm as its ephemerality. Lately I’ve been listening to Diplo’s fantastic, beat-oriented “mad decent radio,” and to NPR’s demos-for-the-masses podcast “Open Mic”.

    I also listen differently than you. I like having a few new pieces of music follow me around for days at a time, until I’ve thoroughly absorbed them (for things to steal, of course). Even though I only have a Mini, I’ve rarely wished for more storage.

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  11. DrRootabega

    I’d like to apologize in advance to Mr. Oteri. I am responding to things he probably did not say in this article. This is just something I feel strongly about.

    The Ipod is not what you think it is. It is not a threat to the way individuals listen to music. I get the impression from your article that you feel threatened by how the ipod changes this. If you take a look at popular culture, the view that the values of music are being destroyed by technology seems to make sense, but on closer inspection, the way you as a listener listen to music. It may change how popular music, even classical music, made and presented to the public, but that does not mean that everything connected with this phenomenon embodies its threat. An ipod is just an object. You can manipulate it any way you want. This means that you can control the qua lily level of the music you put on it and just about anything else. With the proper investment of time to understand the guts of a machine, you can make it do exactly what you want it to do. With detailed knowledge, you can appreciate it’s power and limitations much better than fearful ignorance.

    This is a much better attitude towards technology than fearing how it will manipulate you. Technology does not bring us any closer to making good music. It has made making music easier than ever before, Almost anybody with a basic knowledge of computers can make music, but it does not mean that is has any quality. Artists like Peaches, in my opinion, have no merits other than her incredible offensiveness, which as nothing to do with her music, which utterly lacks creativity. As an artist, an understanding of technology is necessary for making art, but that does not change the underlying creativity behind the art.

    What I am trying to say is that you shouldn’t choose to not use an ipod, or walkman based on the demands that you think that the object imposes on you, whether it be convenience, quality, or time commitment. As long as you don’t let yourself be controlled by it it’s still just a piece of plastic an metal, no matter how much the rude and ignorant people you see walking around Manhattan wearing white earphones pisses you off.

    Side note: Vinyl only sounds warmer because the stylus needle wears down the sharp edges after the first or second listen.

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  12. randy

    Okay, first of all I have to share the major drawback of my iPod: too much memory. My beloved boyfriend gifted me an 80GB model for my birthday (love you Colin!). But the snafu I’ve run into is that my sexy 12″ PowerBook (love that cutie too) only has a wee 80GB hard drive, which means my burly iPod will never be completely filled. Oh bother. But my real beef here is that the previous poster who bemoans Peaches. As far as I’m concerned, her teaches is of Dionysian proportions, and isn’t about crassness, it’s about letting go and embracing a more fluid sexuality—a characteristic inherent in music that classical fogies have long left behind. Let’s face it, music is primal. I think if more “enlightened” artist—and the “classical” cognoscenti—embraced her musical scheme, then so-called new music might be a little more interesting.

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  13. DrRootabega

    I’m not saying that Peaches’ music isn’t viscerally pleasing, listening to “Fatherfucker” now and then is a good thing. I’m saying she uses really boring dance beats. If you’re going to use Live or ProTools to make a beat, the least you could do is make an original. If you’re going to use Nietzschen aesthetic categories, I’d say she needs a little more Apollo.

    Also, a new phenomenon of ipod use has sprung up among hip-hop artists. I recently saw a jiuceboxxx show where the music was played entirely from an ipod mini. This is an incredibly compact way of playing live electronic music as a backup to vocals or rapping. It allowed him to play lightning bolt during the set change, quote Prince’s “Let’s go Crazy” as an intro and play his own back-beats.

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  14. Frank J. Oteri

    This discussion here has been particularly lively, as I confess I assumed it would be when I decided to write about my lack of interest in the iPod. But it’s important to point out that the title of my post above is “Why I Don’t Use an iPod,” yet many folks responding in this thread seem to be assuming that I called it “Why You Shouldn’t Use an iPod.” “Should” is a problematic construct that all too often can lead to intolerance.

    I guarantee you that despite the folks who walk around oblivious to the rest of humanity listening to headphones, I am not completely intolerant of iPods. I think that listening to music as a great activity no matter how it’s done; I just don’t feel a need to use an iPod given all the other outlets I’m lucky enough to have access to in order to experience music. In fact, I have many friends who love their iPods, which is perfectly fine with me. In fact, in some cases, I’ve been the beneficiary of their desire to only maintain recordings on their hard drives: they’ve turned over to me some great LPs and CDs for a pittance. So from a purely selfish point of view, you could imagine why I’d even be inclined to think that everyone should switch to iPods! All those out of print recordings I’ve been trying to track down for decades would suddenly wind up on eBay or the closest used record shop.

    But I do get a troubling sense from this thread, as well as from much of what I read about the iPod day in day out from pundits all over the media, that some folks believe anyone who doesn’t embrace this technology wholeheartedly and doesn’t discard all its alternatives is some sort of an apostate. I am by no means a technophobe as several folks here have already pointed out. I rely on a PalmPilot constantly, write directly into a word processor, compose music directly into Sibelius, and mostly listen to music on either LPs or CDs, all of which are technologies. The curious thing about the evangelism of technology seems to be a total disparagement of all but the latest technologies, and this is something I distrust for the same reason that’s pretty clear to my ears that the piano isn’t necessary better than the harpsichord. Which doesn’t mean I don’t approve of the piano.

    Why must I, or anyone else for that matter, toss out a lifetime’s collection of LPs and CDs and listen to music on an iPod in order to validate the supremacy of iPod use? One’s preferred listening modality seems as rancorous as the style wars that plagued music over the past generation. Why can’t it be possible to be intrigued by total serialism as much as minimalism, indeterminacy, alternative rock, bluegrass, Broadway show music, you name it? Why are some people so unsettled by a multiplicity of opinions? More and more in our society it seems that all too many people feel threatened when someone expresses an opinion that is different from their own. This is sociologically dangerous. To bring it back to musical matters, this is in fact the very reason I’ve eschewed favorites: there’s simply too much music out there to listen to that is extraordinarily enriching. It’s ultimately a question of preferring “is” to “should be”; “should be” presupposes something is better than something else, a paradigm that is inevitably the result of previous experience and a wide array of cultural biases, whereas “is” is an acceptance of all that is out there and the joy of discovering it.

    P.S. I guess I have to go out a buy a Peaches album now.

    Reply
  15. Frank J. Oteri

    Not my iPod
    Several folks here have asked to purchase “my” iPod. Actually, it belongs to my wife Trudy who won it in a competition. Like me, she tends to be very reluctant to get rid of things, even things she doesn’t use. But, hey, since iPods are all the rage, shouldn’t it be pretty easy to get one? I can’t imagine all you pod people out there searching all over for the rare out-of-print databank the way I do with LPs, but maybe there’s something I don’t know know about these gadgets.

    Reply
  16. MandolaJoe

    Let’s See If I’ve Got This Right…
    …You are so passionate about all music that you are dispassionate about any music…Is that it? That there is no place for emotion in the enjoyment of music? That one must remain intellectually above the intrusiveness of feeling and sensitivity when it comes to the most powerful force for emotional feeling and sensitivity created by the mind of man — one must “eschew” the very reason for music because there is so much extraordinarily good music out there?

    It’s very odd: I can’t help but noticing that some music actually affects me more deeply than other music. Please don’t consider me a Philistine just because of this, and I’ll not think less of you for your emotional detachment. (I think we need to discuss this over a couple of beers in a good old country/western bar — should be most enjoyable.)

    Aw shucks…just remember that you’ll always be one of my favorite people…

    Reply
  17. Frank J. Oteri

    But, of course, an emotional response to music is always there, at least for me; otherwise I’d be a machine. But that doesn’t mean that only a finite amount of music (e.g. arbitrarily-determined favorites out of the myriad musical possibilities) can move me. I sincerely want to be moved by it all.

    Admittedly, there’s some stuff that I still don’t get, either intellectually or emotionally, or both, and I’ve admitted as much on these pages: e.g. Elton John, Rosemary Clooney’s recording of “Bless This House,” the Folkways field recordings from Malta, much of the music of Edward Elgar.

    The difference is that I don’t censor it out of my life and I also try very hard not to pronounce that that stuff is bad in a public forum, because I think that that kind of personal judge/jury/executioner approach is somehow intellectually arrogant (lots of folks love Elton John; who am I to say they shouldn’t? etc). In fact, I frequently try to seek out stuff I don’t like to try it again. In many cases, I’ve come around to a lot of music that way, for example country/western, which Joe mentioned (now I can’t live without my stacks of Louvin Brothers, Johnny Cash, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore recordings, to name a handful among hundreds of worthy listening experiences) and believe it or not, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which I was bored by the first time I heard it. Now I treasure it, but I still wouldn’t make it one of only 1000 things I could have on my iPod when I can have a record collection with 10 times that amount of music, including stuff that I don’t at the moment think is as good as Messiaen, whatever that means.

    Reply
  18. MandolaJoe

    Now You’ve Gone Too Far
    Censorship is a very charged word that had better be used with caution: If you self-censor what you write, then you are making judgments about others, who will presumably listen to your work, a judgment that may or may not be fair. But if you “self-censor” what you listen to, or read, you are exercising your own taste level, or sensitivity, a judgment you are perfectly capable of making.

    Yes, sometimes you make mistakes about things you may have disliked, and come to appreciate. (For “you” and “your” feel free to read “I” or “my”. I had one of those moments recently, listening to a CD of the work of Jacob do Bandolim by contemporary artists — at first I thought I’d do better to give it away (you almost had it, Frank — I suspected you’d really love it), or even throw it away, but I gave it another chance, and, while I don’t “love” it, I find that there is an interesting musical place for it, and is, in fact, somewhat inspirational in terms of my own music.) But there are things that for one reason or another are offensive, perhaps because they go too far, or perhaps because they don’t go far enough, and are just too insipid to waste your time on. Closing your mind is one thing; exercising your right to listen to something else is another.

    It might be intellectually stimulating to be emotionally charged by everything, but as I know I’m not, I’m gonna go on and listen to what I like.

    Your own feelings are the most valid things you have; use them well.

    Reply

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