Tactile Media Lament Part One: I, Pod

Where did you go? The iPod Shuffle

Doing the iPod Shuffle

This week, I went out to buy a CD. I wanted the little booklet, the brittle plastic case and the experience of skinning it from its thin cellophane wrapper. In short – I wanted a tactile media experience. I wanted to go into a store, look around at my fellow shoppers, get to meet – briefly – some people from around who were working there, and see what else is out there on the shelves in the way of music.

I quickly realized that the CD store (the highlight of my high school Saturdays, where during college I stood in line at midnight on Tuesday mornings to be among the first to buy a newly released album) like the video store (where I had worked during high school and college, decked out in khaki and royal blue, “Denzel Washington on a sub? You’re looking for Crimson Tide…”) was teetering on the verge of being bitch-slapped out of existence by something as undignified as a hundred million chewy white plastic cords or a shower of red and white envelopes.

What about people without computers who never stopped buying CDs?

I myself had all but forsaken it in recent years in favor of downloading. I was a senior when Napster hit; on the computers at my high school we downloaded jam after jam, experiencing unheard-of instant gratification. We would graduate that year, 2001, into a brave new world, and our “let-me-get-that-one-song” habit grew. With access to high speed internet at college, we soon got them all. Every ditty in our head. We could get Jon Secada’s “Just Another Day” without dropping $15 on his self-titled debut album. Or something.

Since 2007, New York City has seen the demise of the Kim’s Video (113th Street location), Harlem institution the Record Shack, all branches of Tower Records and recently all of the Circuit Cities. The massive, contradictory Virgin sign still slinks redly on and off over the spreading neon stain of Times Square, but the store underneath is a dark, empty shell. The Virgin Megastore in Union Square has announced that it will shutter May 31st.

I visited the now unplugged Circuit City on 80th & Broadway when it was in the process of being picked over of its merchandise by shrewd bargain hunters, like apparently myself. The shelves were for sale too, and hanging off the walls in some places. Merchandise was herded into small sections of the showroom. I picked up $4 CDs by the stack and felt a weird guilt. There were some I wanted, and would have paid full price for at one time. It was a whole record – like about 15 songs – by musicians I really liked. Their precious little plastic packages full of grooves and heart were being liquidated.

Though national chains like Circuit City are owned by mil- and billionaires, the closure of their outlets has still meant the loss of many local jobs.

But the loss of the Record Shack, forced out of business by the cutthroat gentrification of 125th Street is perhaps the saddest story of the download revolution. Sikulu Shange came from South Africa in the 1960s and opened up the Record Shack to serve the music needs of the Harlem community. This winter, after more than 30 years, Mr. Shange lost his lease in the storefront across from the Apollo Theater. He was not only evicted but saw his entire inventory confiscated by the landlord.

In the case of the Record Shack and Mr. Shange, multiple forces of the current market acted against them. But the winds of change are blowing: the CD store is practically over.

In the past 25 years, we have cycled through four fully distinct dominant music media platforms. There was first the record album, the cassette, the CD and now the ghostly MP3. Music went from analog to digital, then finally non-tactile. Record albums of a size that did justice to the works of art that graced the cover gave way to less dignified playing card-sized plastic cartridges. A generation simply squinted and moved on.

Along with these delivery format changes, the way we listen to music has trended towards the personal. With the popularization of the Sony Walkman in the early 1980s, music began its transition into an individual experience, as opposed to mainly a shared one.

Are those white slippery headphones sucking in more than they’re giving?

Let me offer a rough but probably fairly accurate observation. Thirty years ago, the music people heard over the course of the day was mostly in the presence of other people. Today, the music people hear over the course of the day is mostly heard by them alone, through headphones or in a car. The iPod and other MP3 players have not only made music more individualistic, they have made it more accessible and prevalent. We’re musically saturated.

Before downloading became dominant, I used to scramble to tape record songs off the radio. Hearing a favorite song was – in that case – thrilling and special; my chance. The technology of cassette tapes made possible this serendipitous music trapping; as free as downloading, but more exciting. When I was lucky enough to capture a song from the beginning to the end, it felt like a sign that the forces of the universe were aligning in my favor.

Do you have an MP3 player? Do you sometimes experience premature song fatigue? With thousands of songs at our fingertips, we sometimes become bored and restless halfway through even a favorite song and itch to see what is next. This is not to say that MP3-ers do not love music – indeed, it is the ardent music lovers that have cleaved most readily to the Pod and similar devices. “My own soundtrack? To this crazy life? I think so.”

But are those white slippery headphones sucking out more than they’re giving?

Apple’s advertising campaign around the iPod (launched in October of 2001) was jazzily original… and cryptic. The ads depicted a colorful background with a black silhouette of a slim, hip person, grooving to a gummy white iPod lodged around their ear area. Ostensibly going for funky, distinctive and accessible, this image of a blacked out (missing?) person plugged into a sharply visible iPod – came to haunt every bus shelter and magazine page over the past decade. This hip person is plugged into the iPod. But they’re GONE. Where did they go?

I got to thinking about pods. Two peas in a pod, pod people… Why were these things called iPods, anyway? What if, like the Isaac Asimov book and later the Will Smith/Steven Spielberg movie I, Robot, the “I” in iPod didn’t stand for internet (or whatever), but meant actually “I, Pod.” Interestingly, you could get a glimpse into a person’s life by shuffling through their iPod – so the colorful little robots could actually be seen as a repositories of a person’s musical and cultural tastes. And who’s to say how much other information they can store (at the risk of sounding paranoid, they could even undertake mini surveillance missions). After all, they can now squeeze 1,000 songs – (that’s the 12 tracks of Jon Secada 83 times over) into something the size of a Starburst.

But as a consumer society, the United States has pretty much made the switch to non-tactile music media. But this just means a critical mass of people have done so – not everybody. What about those people who never stopped buying CDs? The people without access to computers or the internet? They are being rapidly left behind as their tactile daily newspapers struggle to keep their non-digital presses rolling, as their neighborhood video rental stores peter out of existence. They’re like rabbit ear TV watchers, cajoled by friendly but forceful commercials announcing the switch to DTV in June. After all, we already slowed up their plans – the original switch was in February – because not enough of us got the converter boxes.

Maybe it’s just me, but I detect a hint of exasperation on the part of the local TV elite embedded in the helpful announcements they’ve been commissioned for:

Bubbly local TV personality: “Digital TV is coming June 12th! If you have cable or satellite, you’re ALL SET.

BUT: If you watch TV using rabbit ears, you’ll need a Digital Converter Box. Otherwise, your TV will go BLACK on the afternoon of June 12th.”

Under her breath: “Get it together, morons.”

We’ll see if the luddite lethargy of analog TV watchers will again cause this grand transition to stick in the mud, hampering the condensation of the TV signal and eventual sale of the saved airwave space to the private wireless companies.

In the meantime, I suggest you investigate for yourself how far the CD store meltdown has progressed in your area. Go out and buy a CD, preferably from a local store. Understand what we will soon be missing for the siren song of the download. Feel the woosh of the door, as you enter a space dedicated to the distribution of music. Make conversation – or at least eye contact – with your fellow shoppers, and the folks behind the counter. Buy a whole CD – risk the presence of dud tracks. They’re probably having a sale, anyway.

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