The snobbery of iPods, pt. 3 — or Why MP3 Players Only Have 375 Songs On Them

For a few years now, I’ve been arguing that iPods are a weird sort of snob technology. By which I mean: People use them mostly not to fulfil a utilitarian function — i.e. to play music — but rather to broadcast a message that they are true music aficionados. To walk around with the aery white earbuds jammed in your skull is to insist that you are the sort of person who not only needs to have music around you — but needs to have 10,000 songs at your beck and call every second of the day, because nothing less would satisfy the subtle nuances of your all-encompassing taste: Cutting-edge German techno? Early Lomax folk blues recordings? Mozart? Your soul is on permanent shuffle. Mere labels cannot define you.

In reality, I’ve always suspected that iPod users are nowhere near so sophisticated. The average user of an iPod — or any of those other 4,000-gig players that can hold the entire Library of Congress — do not, I’ve claimed, listen to a wide range of music. No, they probably do what most people do: Plop on the Avril Lavigne for three months at a time on infinite repeat, until they get sick of it and move on to Usher. There’s nothing wrong with listening to music in this obsessive fashion; indeed, one of the joys of pop music is getting addicted to a single album and massively overdosing on it for weeks on end. But what cracks me up about the iPod is the fetishization of size — the insistence that you’ve got a simply massive record collection crammed in there. Indeed, so devoted are iPod owners to this cultivation of appearance that they’ve refused to replace the white earbuds with anonymous black ones, even when police recently began warning people that muggers were explicitly targetting the white ones. They’d rather risk having their iPod stolen than miss a chance to impress the proles.

The thing is, I’ve never really had any proof for my thesis. I’ve pretty much been pulling this one outta my hat.

That all changed today, when I read about a fascinating study done by wonks at the Solutions Research Group, a market-research firm. They polled 1,062 owners of digital-music players and asked them how many songs they have on their device.

The average? A mere 375 tunes. That’s right — despite regularly buying players that top out at 60 or even 80 gigs, with room for 20,000 songs, people are barely using a tiny sliver of their capacity. A PDF of the report is online here, and to quote it:

Despite a relatively high average of 375 songs per player, 50% of digital music players hold fewer than 100 songs — suggesting a perfect target for limited capacity mobile phone/digital music hybrids. A quarter of digital music players have 100-499 songs, while the remaining 25% have more than 500 songs.

Interesting, eh? I should point out that I am an enormous hypocrite for making this argument, because when the battery in my wife’s 10 gig iPod died last year and she upgraded to a new model, I took over her old one and used it for a few months. To layer on even more hypocrisy, she recently bought me an iPod Shuffle, which I’ve been using enthusiastically while travelling.

Though come to think of it, how many songs do I actually have on my Shuffle right now?

Hmmm. 145.

Right down there — with everyone else.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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