The hottest gift for Christmas 2004? Not the iPod – the songs to go on it. And if the latest figures are any indication, not all of those songs were strictly on the up-and-up.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I filled up two brand-new iPods. Neither one belonged to me. My own iPod – a 20-gig model, two years old as of this month – has been filled to the brim for months; I have to delete stuff constantly to make room for new songs. So you can imagine my joy at loading up two factory-fresh ‘Pods, which hungrily slurped the thousands of songs I fed them.
Of course, what I did was illegal, at least in the case of the first iPod, the one no longer in my house. The second one belongs to my wife – I gave her a brand-new blue iPod mini for Christmas. (She’s in love.) Emily is arguably a member of my household and therefore a legal beneficiary of whatever intellectual property I’ve got on my Mac. But the first iPod belongs to our friend Joanna – a full-size 20-gig model (not the U2 edition, or the Toby Keith edition). Containing material ripped from my CD library, plus hundreds of songs I purchased from Apple’s iTunes Music Store, Joanna’s iPod is now technically contraband.
Do I care? Not much…and I’m pretty sure what I did was repeated by hundreds of gift-givers in December 2004, the peak month (so far) of the iPod’s spectacular lifetime.
My friend Brian Garrity at Billboard reported last week that sales of digital music set back-to-back weekly records in December: 3.9 million songs sold the week ending 19 December – beating the previous one-week record of just over 3 million – and a staggering 5.04 million tracks the week ending 26 December. The bulk of these sales come from Apple’s music store, the undisputed legal-music leader. Given that Apple reported blockbuster iPod sales for the holidays, these song-sales records seem logical.
But follow my logic: Anyone buying an iPod for Christmas was theoretically leaving it under the tree, to be opened on the 24th, at the earliest. So at least a portion of those huge incremental sales before Christmas had to be the result of gift-givers filling up iPods that they planned to give to someone else…which is technically illegal. (Yeah, I know, Hanukkah came early this year; but I think my Jewish friends would agree that Christmas iPods probably outnumbered Hanukkah iPods by a factor of at least four to one.)
Logically, the big iTunes sales should come the week after Christmas, when iPod recipients go online to fill up their new toys. Indeed, a more recent Variety article reports that the digital-sales record was again smashed the last week of the year, when more than 6 million tracks were purchased. So that’s three consecutive record weeks. But that still doesn’t explain the first two record weeks, which suggest that some iPod-givers were opening the box, connecting the iPod, filling it with songs – legally purchased and otherwise – and resealing the box before gift-wrapping it. That’s exactly what I did with Joanna’s iPod, minus the giftwrap, because the iPod wasn’t a gift.
Joanna, one of ’s closest friends and a bridesmaid at our wedding, asked me to fill a 20-gig iPod she’d acquired months ago but couldn’t connect to her aging laptop. Joanna, a law student, is pretty tech-savvy, but she’s not the first to excitedly purchase an iPod and be disappointed by technical limitations. Apple’s requirement that the connecting PC have a Firewire port – not common on Windows machines – or a USB 2.0 port – standard on PCs only in the last couple of years – has been the downfall of many a ‘Pod purchaser. (A couple of years ago at a dinner party, a friend’s boyfriend bent my ear for a half-hour asking how to configure his dusty PC to recognize his dust-gathering iPod.)
Think about it – we’re now well into the third wave of the iPod phenomenon: the mass consumer. (Not to insult either my friend or my wife.) In the first wave, tech-savvy early adopters got their iPods in November 2001, the minute they hit the market. I normally think of myself as a medium-adopter when it comes to technology (a Buzz Aldrin to ’s Neil Armstrong), but I was among those first-generation buyers, so smitten with both Apple and the iPod’s design. The second wave included not just the tech-savvy but the hardcore music-savvy, who had huge libraries of songs that needed a more portable home. Now the third wave – the kind of person who didn’t buy his first Discman until the mid-’90s – joins the iPod masses. And if there’s one thing this wave of people has in common, it’s a lack of capability, either technical or musical. They need help filling their iPods, either because their desktop technology is out of date or because their music libraries are underfed or unripped.
Joanna’s request gave me an excuse to finally clean up my burgeoning iTunes music collection. Once I had cleaned up my library well enough to fill her 20-gig iPod, filling up Emily’s 4-gig mini a week later was a breeze. But the cleanup of my library was a mammoth task. I eliminated duplicate songs, fixed some metadata, and beefed up my assortment of single-artist megamixes and übermixes.
The word “mix” has been employed by music junkies since the days of home taping, but modern MP3 cataloguing has redefined those once-modest collections, steretching them well past their old limits. The genius of Apple’s software is the easy ability to assign a single copy of a song to multiple mixes. It’s therefore a cinch to fill your iPod with mixes many times the length of a tape or a CD, built out of songs you’ve got lying around. A “Pool Party mix” I compiled two years ago is six hours long, filling a summer afternoon with dozens of songs spanning pop, rock, hip-hop, jazz and Latin music.
Once I upgraded to a 20-gig iPod, though, I decided I wanted mixes that didn’t span multiple artists – mixes that explored a single act in-depth, preferably chronologically. I also realized, scanning my walls of CDs, that over the years I’d amassed near-complete oeuvres by some of my favorite artists – sometimes without quite realizing it. Imagine my shock when I realized I owned about 75% of Madonna’s recorded output.
So I used the extra iPod space to create megamixes and übermixes. To me, a “megamix” is a collection of hits by a single artist spanning their entire career, and an “übermix” is bigger – like a box set in a single stretch, incorporating rarities, choice album cuts, even soundtrack, side-project and solo-album songs. If you’re a big R.E.M. fan like I am, listening to their entire career in one stretch, without breaks – from the 1981 Chronic Town EP onward – can be rewarding. (It also fills up car trips nicely.) Or try my Smiths megamix, which includes a few selections from Morrissey’s solo career – only those songs (”Every Day Is Like Sunday,” “Tomorrow,” “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get”) that feel like logical extensions of his Smiths work.
On my iPod, I’ve got megamixes summarizing the careers of James Brown, Johnny Cash, the Cure, Duran Duran, Eminem, Nirvana, Pet Shop Boys, Prince, Queen, Elliott Smith, the Smiths, Donna Summer, Tears for Fears and the Velvet Underground. And I’ve got übermixes covering not just Wonder but also Ben Folds, Peter Gabriel, Madonna, the Police, R.E.M. and Talking Heads. (I know, Ben Folds isn’t quite the equal of those other acts, but what the hell, I own virtually everything the guy’s released.)
What’s great about making your own career-spanning canon for a favorite artist is that you can ignore their more unfortunate career phases. My Madonna übermix ends with “Die Another Day”; I haven’t considered adding anything from American Life. The Eminem megamix is pretty tight, although I did add the “Mosh” single recently, while ignoring the goofy hit “Just Lose It.” And as far as my übermix is concerned, R.E.M. hasn’t released an album since 2001.
Some of the megamixes are works in progress, on their way to becoming übermixes. The Prince mix, for example, needs to be much longer (I’m a little daunted by the size of that project), and the Duran Duran mix would be more fun if I included songs by the side groups Power Station and Arcadia. The beauty of doing completist mixes in the iTunes era is that you can cherry-pick the key cuts from the CDs you don’t own. On my shelf, I have every Talking Heads album but two – 77 and Fear of Music – and so I finished my übermix by simply buying the songs I needed from those two albums; cost me less than five bucks.
For the Joanna iPod project, I compiled three new mixes. She professed a love of John (Cougar) Mellencamp. I happen to own his entire ’80s output, but I grew bored with JCM in the ’90s. (Didn’t we all.) That made for an easy iPod megamix: I ripped the best cuts from the ’80s CDs, purchased his three best hits from the ’90s – “Get a Leg Up,” “Wild Night,” “Key West Intermezzo” – and voila! A mix covering all three phases of his career: Cougar, Cougar Mellencamp, Mellencamp.
The other two mixes weren’t specific requests. I figured anyone who likes Mellencamp is going to like Tom Petty, and I own a fair share of his work, too, both with and without the Heartbreakers. Here again, I blew off Petty’s last couple of albums, both fairly tiresome and hook-challenged, while purchasing from iTunes a few choice cuts that aren’t on the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits (”Woman in Love,” “Kings Highway”).
Finally, I created an enormous Fleetwood Mac megamix, complete with solo hits by Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie. I called it a mere “megamix,” because I blew off the Mac’s long pre-Buckingham/Nicks history, when they were a blues act fronted by Peter Green. Someday, I’ll go iTunes shopping and convert it into an übermix.
I’m not sure how many of the thousands of iPod-givers this Christmas were compiling three-hour, single-artist mixes. But I’ll bet the gift-givers were doing something like what I was doing in December: dragging their thousands of songs into a new iPod for their sister, their roommate, their uncle, and then buying up songs to fill in any perceived gaps. That’s the easiest way I can explain how Apple’s Music Store traffic began doubling as early as December 13.
Digital music sales for all of 2004 more than quintupled, in a year when CD sales also rose (marginally) from the year before. Those iTunes sales are all-new revenue for the record industry, which no doubt welcomes the advent of a legit digital-songs market. So I doubt they’re worrying too much about whose iPod the legal downloads are living on once they’re purchased; an iTunes song spreading to multiple iPods is not 1/1 millionth as bad as that song spreading on Kazaa. Still, my December experiments with administering others’ iPods show it’s still pretty easy, in the post-Napster era, to share music somewhat less than legally.
Naturally, after giving back Joanna’s iPod I kept the Mac, Mellencamp and Petty mixes for myself. But I only found room for the first two on my overstuffed iPod. If I’m going to be able to carry around the Petty übermix, I’m gonna need a bigger boat in 2005. And that new iPod Photo with the color screen looks kinda cool….
I can picture rolling her eyes right now.