Digital, Our Song for the Ages

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, October 22, 2006

Five years ago tomorrow, a computer company with no history of selling music devices released a portable media player that cost more and did less than much of the hardware already on sale. Naturally, this gadget and its successors sold in the millions, all but defining the entire digital-music industry in the process.

That's not to praise the iPod so much as to point out that the demand for such a thing was there in 2001. Had Apple Computer stuck to the Mac, somebody else could have come up with a simplicity-plus-coolness formula to vault the MP3 player out of the "early adopter" ghetto.

Why, for example, Sony didn't seize this opportunity is a question for the ages. But it and other companies did not, and so airplanes and subways teem with people wearing white headphone cords, not the silver or black of competing players.

This trickle-to-mainstream transformation allowed some trends that had been confined to enthusiasts and tech pioneers to become everyday practice. And the ways we discover, buy and enjoy music haven't been the same since.

Some of these changes have been obvious and immediate: If you can pluck the one or two good songs on a full-length recording off the Internet instead of buying the complete CD, you're going to wind up with fewer albums but, quite possibly, more music overall in your collection.

But others have taken their time to unfold.

Consider the effects of carrying every song you own on a handheld device. It's a lot harder to be bored by music if your choices aren't confined to the CDs that fit in a carrying sleeve. And it becomes bizarre to not have access to your complete music collection at all times and in all places -- even when your portable player's battery needs a recharge.

The downside of losing the gizmo that holds All Your Music: It's far more upsetting than the loss of a mere Walkman.

The search, shuffle and "smart playlist" features of music-management software, in turn, ensure that you can't get stuck listening to the same relative handful of songs. Your digital-music collection will surprise you repeatedly with songs that you'd forgotten ever owning -- or ones you'd wish you'd forgotten about.

(Likewise, you can learn all sorts of interesting things about your friends' tastes anytime you share a ride with them: "You listen to that? Never woulda guessed it.")

When anybody can find and buy the most obscure song imaginable, you can't show off your good taste simply by adopting music that nobody's heard of. That honor is reserved for the most creative and clever playlist builders. Digital music has made everybody a DJ, but not everybody fully grasps this curatorial opportunity.

The shift of music from discs of polycarbonate plastic to digital files has brought two other transformations that still leave some music fans uneasy. First, almost all compressed music formats -- MP3, AAC, Windows Media and so on -- abandon a little sonic fidelity to keep file sizes down.

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