An Ode to MP3 Players

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Sometime in the summer, I bought myself a little MP3 player- not one of the new-styled ones that look like a discount smartphone, but an honest-to-god player with physical buttons and a noticeably dated interface. It's got no internet connection, can't play video, allows a maximum of three playlists, and I love it to death.

I've chucked all kinds of nonsense on there: niche artists that don't publish their music on any streaming services, random memes and cursed edits of songs I like, albums snagged from Newgrounds and free file hosting services, Bandcamp impulse purchases, you name it. There's even poetry. Thankfully, I'm not worried about running out of space. This little guy takes a microSD card in addition to its own storage space, and I got the biggest microSD it would allow (128GB) to make sure I could chuck whatever I wanted on it. That's more space than my phone has.

For years, I used streaming services almost exclusively to listen to music. Streaming services can be nice. They're pretty good at finding new music I might like, and they're readily accessible to anyone with an internet connection. I still find I don't love them. I don't like the thought of losing my music on a company's whims. These songs have carried me through the best and worst parts of my life. If I'm paying money for my music, I want to keep it. Even if artists offer their music for free, I want to keep it. I want the songs that changed my life to stay in my life. My memories are as much musical as they are visual.

A lot of artists only publish their music to these services anymore, and I wonder what they would do if those services died. They're barely paid a pittance as it is. Spotify pays artists what, three-thousandths of a cent per stream? Apple Music pays one cent per stream. These tracks take hours, if not days to make- I would know. I've written a few myself. It's not easy or quick work. Their effort deserves more respect than fractions of pennies and a tenuous platform.

Not to mention the tracking and advertising creepiness of a lot of streaming sites. It turns out that you can learn a lot about a person by tracking what music they listen to at different times, doubly so if you're selling that data to a company that knows what it's doing. That can get mixed in with shopping data, browsing analytics, and anything else that can be dug up on you. Spotify sees it all. Even if you've got nothing to hide, that's still a disturbing invasion of privacy. I'm not at all comfortable with it.

So I jumped ship. I went online, got myself a little MP3 player, and started moving music onto it. A friend of mine compiled terrible bootlegs of an album I've never listened to, and that got added to my player as soon as I got their zipfile. Another friend sent me a compilation of music written on Tumblr for a movie that never existed (and an SNES game of that movie that also never existed). On Newgrounds, I found a pleasantly large number of free songs in all sorts of different genres. On Bandcamp, I finally paid the artists I loved most (Bandcamp gives artists 85-90% of proceeds!) and browsed for more to listen to. I've even dipped into YouTube a few times.

It's been fun to figure out how I want to organize my own music, and even more fun to make it truly my own. Heck, I can mix two songs together, nightcore them, overlay the whole mess over a mariachi band, then bop to that abomination whenever I feel like it. I can combine ten hours of cat purring with the sound of rain on a window. Anything goes.

I think a large part of why I've enjoyed this so much is that it gives me back control over my music. I own the files I've bought. They're not going anywhere. I can edit them for my own use if I want to- I know I've daycored at least a few songs because I thought it would sound neat. I'm not relying on my phone or some external music host to tell me what I want to listen to anymore. It's led me to more carefully curate my music and think about what I actually enjoy, and that's given me a better relationship with the songs I love. I've started differentiating between "I like this song, but I don't have much of an attachment to it" and "I would freak out if I lost this song".

That's something I didn't realize I'd stopped doing- songs used to have more of a gradient of preferences for me before streaming took over. I used to have more of a relationship with my music. If I heard a song on the radio and wanted to keep it around, I had to choose to do that. I had to figure out the title or artist, go to iTunes, find the song, buy it, and add it to my iPod Shuffle. It took time and effort (not to mention money), so I was more selective about my music. Streaming services made it effortless to add songs. I just had to tap a button. Anything I even remotely liked ended up on a playlist somewhere even if I never listened to it again. A song I adored was handled the same as a song I only sort of liked. Eventually, I started putting songs in playlists without thinking much about whether I really wanted to listen to them again.

I lost something with that. There's value in really choosing things, music included- you build a relationship with the things you choose. They take on more meaning. I chose fewer songs in middle school, but I look back and remember my mental state by that music. The songs I chose are still burned into my brain years later. There's not the same attachment to the music I streamed. It all flew by and was forgotten once I moved onto the next new song. Very little of it carried lasting emotional meaning.

I'm getting that meaning back now. I have to choose all of my music. I have to download it, fix its metadata so it's properly organized, and load it onto my player just like I had to load music onto the Shuffle years ago. Every song on there has intention behind it. As a result, they all mean something more to me. Out of all the songs I've listened to in the last few years, these songs are the ones I chose to keep. These songs are the ones that matter to me. This song represented a major problem in my life and gave me hope that I could solve it. This song helped me celebrate a personal victory. This song feels like looking in a mirror. I trace my life through music and I hold those meanings close. I think that's all a musician could ever hope for, knowing that someone out there gained meaning from their music. I know it's all I ever hope for when I create.

Maybe all of this is silly and I've placeboed myself into liking the same old songs more. It could be nostalgia- I do like my buttons and wires. Flat design and smooth, sleek interfaces frustrate me. My little player's dated design is much nicer for me to use. Or maybe the player itself doesn't make a difference and it's more about having a choice. It might be about selecting specific songs instead of letting someone else do the work of picking my music out for me. It's hard to say what's made all the difference.

I think it all matters and it's about the principles as much as it is the player. I've got a lot of sentimental feelings about sound. I miss lying down on the carpet and hearing a familiar song on the radio, turning to friends and family and remembering it with them. I miss that sacred, quiet feeling in the dead of night after turning on your favorite album and just listening. Those moments matter as much as the music does. There's something special about songs you've built history with, the experience of digging up music from a corner somewhere and listening to an album, no distractions or advertisements in the middle. How many streamed songs have ingrained memories of when you first heard them? Do you know what led you to them? Did the journey mean anything?

It's nice to have music delivered up on a silver platter, but sometimes I miss finding a niche website hosted by an unknown artist and binging their music. There's a humanity to it that I've yet to see a streaming service replicate. For a moment, you connect with the artist on their turf and see the world through their creations. Even an mp3 player doesn't quite approach the intimacy of those encounters, but it's closer. It asks me to choose, and to listen with intention. It asks me to find the artist's music for myself. That chosen connection is what I lost with streaming. One song could be exchanged for another without it making any difference.

It's the same difference I find between reading books/fics and social media posts. Both involve reading, but they're decidedly different. A post is interchangeable most of the time- it doesn't matter if you're looking at this meme or that one. It all blurs together as you scroll. A book can't be so easily swapped out or scrolled past. It's something you seek out for yourself instead of rolling the dice with an algorithm, and it's a relationship that you build as you read it. You leave transformed. I can't tell you what the last post I read was about, but I can gush about the last book I read because it meant something to me. I chose to make it part of myself.

Does it matter in the end? Speaker quality aside, songs sound the same regardless of where they come from. Where and when I listen to a song shouldn't make a difference, and yet I've noticed that the process of finding and adding songs on my own gives them more significance to me. I carry those songs with me in a very physical way. They gain meaning by virtue of being there, handpicked, annotated with metadata and memories. I have relationships and histories with them. They're as much a part of me as they're part of the player their files are stored on. If that doesn't mean something, I don't know what does.

An Oakcastle mp3 player with physical buttons and a dated interface.

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