Did iPods Revolutionize Digital Music Consumption, or Was it the Pirates?⟵ Back to all articles
Apple recently announced that it will be discontinuing the last version of the iPod. In the wake of that news, many articles have praised Steve Jobs for revolutionizing how we consume music. We, however, would like to recognize the earlier pioneers who forced the industry to adapt; the pirates.
The illegal copying and sharing of music predates the popularity of the web. In the era of cassette tapes, music enthusiasts snatched tracks from various sources, and compiled them into mixtapes. Apart from mainstream commercially-dominated radio, trading these tapes was how many fans discovered new artists. Metallica drummer, Lars Ulrich, credited his band’s success to mixtape culture. Ironically, he later sued Napster and became the face of the anti-piracy movement, comparing illegal downloading to car theft.
“I would steal a car! If it was as easy as, like, touching the car, and then 30 seconds later I own the car. I would steal a car if by stealing the car, the person who owned the car…got to keep the car. And I would also steal a car if no one I had ever met, had ever bought a car before, in their whole lives.” - Mindy Kaling
Beginning of a cultural shift
In the 1990s, the world wide web was like the wild west, rampant with piracy. The IRC scene made the idea of paying for content unthinkable for techy people. Services like Napster, Limewire, and BitTorrent later brought the habit to the mainstream, and the music industry to near collapse. The introduction of iTunes helped legitimize this behaviour, but the way we collect and listen to music is largely based on what pirates did first:
- MP3 may not have been invented by pirates, but it certainly was popularized by them. This lightweight, low-loss file format allowed listeners to carry an exponentially larger quantity of songs, rather than hauling around a backpack full of CDs.
- Historically, if there was a song you liked, you had to buy the whole album. Piracy gave rise to the idea of purchasing one tune at a time. Not only for the buyer, this has also influenced how artists release their music.
- Conversely, completionist superfans had to track down an artist’s every release, going store to store. The concept of a box set originated from pirates who put together a ZIP file of an artist’s complete collection. Even vinyl has adapted this format, so that you can buy a box full of Beach Boys records in a single transaction.
- The platforms themselves defined the model for how we acquire and recommend music. This is where tags and tools that recommend what similar users liked, were born. Search functionality used to involve physically digging through crates.
Internet piracy in all its forms has dropped significantly over the past decades, and now so has the idea of purchasing music digitally. Instead, it’s now the streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music who offer artists great exposure in exchange for little compensation, instead of the pirates. In spite of whoever attempts to rip off musicians, remember to support your favourite artists; get the album, see a show, and buy some merch!