I bought an old iPod and some CDs and I’m starting a music collection


Streaming has been around for most of my music-listening life. I remember using imeem and Pandora in the early days, and when Spotify launched in the U.S. in 2011, the rest was history. I bought a few iTunes songs, but $1.29 per song was a lot for a middle-school kid, and Limewire seemed scary, so streaming was how I mostly listened to music.

I loved Spotify in high school. With all the world’s music at our fingertips, I explored deep and wide with my friends. We made playlists for each other, shared new discoveries, explored new sounds and identities. We soundtracked our lives. On school nights, I’d see my friends listening in real-time in the Friends panel and they’d see me, and we’d know that piece of the other person’s life in that moment.

In the years after high school, that experience faded away. Maybe it was because we started talking more about classes and internships and real-world life and less about music; maybe college just kept us too busy with other interesting things to do; maybe my friends just weren’t as into it; maybe I just wasn’t as into it. Either way, my music discovery slowed down and listening to music became more of a solitary activity.

The huge universe of music on Spotify now feels like an ocean of commodity to me. Spotify’s UI advertises the latest big releases, and podcasts are a revenue stream for them now too, so suggested podcasts now occupy the top of my home page, even though I only really listen to one. The algorithms make playlists for me, too many playlists for me to listen to. Sometimes a melody in one of these sparks something in me, but most of the time listening to them just feels like going through the motions. My music library has been subsumed by my Spotify recommendations. There’s so much content that it feels harder than ever to listen to something I love.

Spotify seems to be leaning into it. The latest Spotify mobile redesign includes a TikTok-like music discovery interface that autoplays snippets of each song as you scroll through. In the same way that Tinder turned people into swipes, Spotify’s UI reduces songs to just the hook. It’s triage by algorithm for a world where we have too much content and not enough attention to give.

My Spotify home page today. Big promo banner at the top, and I have to scroll to get past the podcasts before I see any music.

When I think about the music that is closest to my heart, I find that it’s the music that I took time to listen to. Maybe because a friend shared it with me, and I wanted to understand why they liked it, or maybe because it was a new release from an artist I liked, so I wanted to understand how they had changed. Not to say that I love all the music I sat down to listen to, but sitting down and giving a song (or a whole album!) my attention, feeling out the instruments and vocals and textures, reading the lyrics and the artist’s background, tends to give me a deeper appreciation for the music.

Could I do this with Spotify? Sure, and I have, but the medium is the message. The design of the service inherently pushes a certain type of use. You could use TikTok to watch college lectures, but that’s not what TikTok is. Spotify is abundance, and what I want is a bit of scarcity and inconvenience so I can appreciate fewer things more.

One last strike against streaming: Some of my favorite music has only ever existed in the corners of SoundCloud and YouTube, or it has disappeared from the streaming platforms over the years. Amazing mashups like Death Cab for Yeezy, or small indie artists who broke up and the licensing fell through (R.I.P. Made in Heights!). I want to hold on to my music, and not have my access be subject to the whims of money and people.

So this past week, I bought an old iPod and a USB CD drive off of eBay. Both arrived yesterday! The iPod is a 5th generation “enhanced” from around 2006-2007 (a.k.a. generation 5.5, a.k.a. the iPod Video) with 30 GB of storage. I paid about $70 shipped after tax. These are starting to go up in price, I think. It’s kind of scratched up but seems to work well and feels really nice in the hand. The drive is an Apple USB Superdrive and cost about $30. I probably couldn’ve gotten a different CD drive much cheaper, but I’m a sucker for used Apple hardware.

I also went to Amoeba Music in Haight-Ashbury yesterday afternoon and spent a couple hours browsing CDs.

The haul!

I’m super excited about this iPod. I have a lot of nostalgia for this era of Apple products. I never had one of these click wheel iPods, but I did have an iPod touch, which I loved. My iPhone today is technically more advanced and capable than anything from back then, but I don’t think I love it in the same way, maybe because it’s a portal into the addictions of the modern internet.

There’s also now a huge modding and repair community around these iPods. This 5th-generation iPod is one of the most repairable. It’s easy to open up, and there are many available replacement batteries, cases, and adapters to replace the hard drives with flash storage. There’s also an open-source alternative firmware called Rockbox you can put on these, or you can even run Linux on it if you so wish.

I’m very excited to build a collection and have this thing—this artifact, the iPod—that becomes like a small extension of my tastes and identity.

CDs seem like the best medium for collecting music. They are abundant and cheap—I got eight CDs yesterday for $29.08, which works out to an average of $3.64 per CD. Admittedly I was looking for deals, but even the popular new ones top out around $10-20. They are also the highest quality digital file you can reasonably get, and they are a physical medium that will last a long time.

I dabbled a little bit in vinyl a couple years ago, and I really enjoyed the experience, but I don’t think it’s how I want to build a music collection. The albums I liked were way more expensive in vinyl, costing $10-30+ per record (maybe because it’s become so trendy in recent years?). It’s also not really ideal for ripping to digital, so it feels sort of stuck as a physical medium to me.

Deep in the bowels of Amoeba Music. It’s pretty relaxing and fun to spend time flipping through the collection here.

I plan to write in more detail soon about these CDs I bought, and maybe I’ll make it a recurring series as I build my collection over time. I think it could be fun to buy $30 worth of CDs every month and write about them. If you’re reading this and have suggestions for what I should buy (especially if we are friends IRL), please let me know!