Music and the Future

How cheap does an iPod Shuffle (or equivalent) have to get before their target market forgets that they’re paying for the material device? In other words, if I wanted to do something sweet for Margaret and make her the digital-music-era equivalent of a fancy mix tape with carefully-designed cassette/CD cover — if I wanted to make her an iPod Shuffle/Nano with a dozen or twenty love songs on it — when can I pick up a digital music device that’ll allow me to upload a modest selection of music at a cost so low (and physical size so small) that it’s not an obstacle?

Again, in other words, when does a physical receptacle for recorded music become self-playing, at a convenient size and affordable price?

Or is this already happening, and I just didn’t notice because I was looking too fixedly at storage capacity? (A quick check at Amazon suggests that it hasn’t; the cheapest alternatives I see are relatively clunky 64 MB devices for about $50.)

I’d think this would stand to complement the Coates Effect (practically infinite capacity relativizing the importance of “ownership” and selection — at a certain point, it becomes easy to “own” more music recordings than you can listen to). Since Tom wrote his first brilliant peices on the topic, the actual developments suggest to me a somewhat different trajectory from that which he proposed.

As flash storage gets more capacious and less expensive, the worth of lossless (and eventually, at denser-than-CD quality) recordings increases. We can easily foresee, say, 100-GB flash drives (roughly the size of the iPod Nano) filled with CD-quality recordings. That’s what, 150 albums worth of recordings? 3000 audiophile-caliber selections? If you devoted eight hours to listening, seven days a week, it would still take you almost three weeks to hear your whole collection. If you reduce the daily listening to four hours and sometimes miss a day, it’ll take proportional longer to listen through. We’re extraordinarily near a watershed in our listening culture — as Tom Coates indicated.

So I wonder whether we may not see the advent of both the portable musical encyclopedia, and the pocket album — say, about $10 for a Nano-sized device that holds twenty-five selections, a programmable mixtape for your friend a price you can afford, a manufacturable promotional device for music distribution (“Buy the new Kanye Spears Pod for $10, with special design on the faceplate,” or “Buy a Pod with our latest songs on your way out of the club”). That’ll influence DRM implementation (we’ll always be able to record and transmit audio output, so why invest large sums in ineffective DRM schemes?), but if a fast-acting music (or Pod) company were to get to this point first with the most, they might stand to redefine the recorded-music industry.

Maybe this, too, explains why Steve Jobs shows so little interest in a video-capable iPod: consumers probably want more music at higher quality in a small for factor (and I bet the Nano has hit that form just about exactly right) — but consumers want their video on a large screen and, increasingly, with theater-like audio. These paths seem to diverge markedly until the point that the Pod has enough capacity both to hold high-quality recorded music and to serve as a storage-space for video that will mainly be played on a laptop or big-screen TV. Ok, keep imagining: The PC-slot-pluggable Pod about which some reviewers have been talking, really high capacity, and Pods for individual movies (as well as MegaNanoes for mixed storage). . . .

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. well, I would suggest going the ebay route, and using an auction sniper or using your own stealth to get the item you want – I have purchased an each iPod generation release, and a few have come from ebay – just be sure to check out the seller’s profile, and ask questions. The honest seller will reply, and I have yet to come across a liar.

    but oddly enough – as I type this – I have “something sweet” for you, from your friend joichi ito. and man, is it tiny. How SMALL does an iPod Shuffle (or equivalent) have to get before their target market forgets that they‚Äôre holding a material device?

    I need some time to finish plotting what to put on here, but I am looking forward to meeting you, AKMA. until then, enjoy your week.

  2. Thanks, Jeff (and Joi), very much!

    Stealthy auction-stalking aside, though, I’m thinking about teh mass market. How soon will we mislay a Pod, and think “Phooey! Where’d I put that one?” rather than “Oh, no! My iPod is missing!”

    “Honey? Remember that Pod you lost? I think it fell down behind the couch cushion.”

    “You like that? Hey, just keep it.”

    “I can’t remember — which of these Pods has the new Death Cab album on it”

    When the hardware/container package becomes a transparent aspect of listening to the music, I suspect that intriguing things will happen. But I can wait to find that out, longer than I can wait to enjoy your collaboration with Joi!

  3. scary thing is that there are people like that out there, who don’t worry about a $250 piece of techware – I thought I was one of them, and that my family mattered more than a little music player, then I dropped my mini, and sure enough, it hit an area outside of the rubber sleeve. Boy, was I bummed (had hoped to have it in pristine condition for when my daughter got older). that said, I promise I won’t hold your nano in my teeth while I run to catch the train while adjusting the headphone cables at the same time!

  4. AKMA, I bought my 10-year-old daughter a $27 Memorex player from Target, which has 128 meg. The kicker is that I can use the wma format to load 70+ songs for her.

    BTW, I appreciated your performance at CBA.

  5. Stephan, that’s getting there — a better deal than any I had seen before. My idle notion here looks toward (a) high-capacity, multipurpose Pods and (b) dirt-cheap potting-soil cheap, very low capacity Pods. (But a $37 Memorex sure sounds interesting — now I’ll skulk off to Target).

    Thanks for your kind encouragement about the CBA talk — boy, do I appreciate it!

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