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Why are Gen Z collecting 20-year-old iPods?

Two decades on from the Apple product’s launch, Y2K fashion and streaming fatigue are fuelling a fascination with the retro Apple gadget

“I got addicted to finding good deals on eBay,” says 25-year-old Zach Goodwin, explaining how he ended up building a collection of 100 iPods. “I liked the idea of buying old toys and electronics that were popular when I was younger and couldn’t afford,” adds the schoolteacher from New Jersey.

Apple’s classic music player is turning 20. Celebrities from Ronaldo to Real Housewives cast members and Ricky Gervais are still using their ageing iPods – and they’re certainly not the only people doing so. These gizmos of yesteryear hold the interest of a global community of obsessives. One subreddit has nearly 18,000 members who are dedicated to collecting and using iPods – as well as modifying them to add mind-blowing new features.

And many of them aren’t old enough to remember the debut of the first iPod on October 23 2001.

“We reject where tech is going,” writes a 19-year-old from Australia who goes by the identity Yuuiko on Reddit. “It’s not an art anymore, its losing soul.” This seems to be a typical view. For Yuuiko and others, the iPod embodies a “simpler time”. Before the likes of Spotify overwhelmed us all with endless choice, carefully curating your own music library felt like a mindful activity.

So it’s a mistake to assume all of Generation Z is wedded to streaming services. As Yuuiko sees it: “with an iPod, your music is in your hand. Not in some abstract cloud, kept and controlled by a robot you pay.” Many in the community want to keep their audio-playing functions separate from their phones, saying they prefer to relax and disconnect from the world while listening to their tunes.

The vogue for iPods is further explained by teens’ and twentysomethings’ fixation on Y2K fashion - and by the wider renaissance of ‘legacy’ media. For Joe Hughes, a 21-year-old university student from Manchester, a collection of 26 iPods sits nicely alongside his vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs. He tells Dazed that he’s not “anti-streaming”, but he prefers to own his media.

There are many possible reasons why Gen Z have become not just iPod fans, but collectors too. Lots of them remember envying their parents’ music-players, and can now cheaply acquire second-hand models or just inherit them. 20-year-old Santiago Rivera from Guadalajara, Mexico, has a model that his father bought in 2001 – supposedly the first iPod purchase in his hometown.

Some started building their stashes after noticing their cars had old-school ports that were begging to have iPods plugged into them. Others found collecting to be a helpful distraction during the pandemic. And then there are those who just obsess over the device’s iconic click wheel.

Classic, Mini, Shuffle, Nano. Many varieties, many colours: iPods were designed to be collected. But some fans don’t stop there. Jon Maier, 20, from Illinois, buys iPods that have been engraved with corporate logos, from Coca-Cola to Nike. “Whether they were event giveaway items, or given to employees at a Christmas party, they show something most people would never see.”

Similarly, for Zach Goodwin in New Jersey, buying pre-owned iPods is about more than just acquiring electronics. “It’s a fun game to see what’s on them,” he explains. “There was one which had all the American Idol songs on it. Another had a lot of Disney Channel songs.”

Collecting iPods is not a new pastime. Late fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld is said to have owned 300, and to have employed a ‘nanny’ to look after them. But that was back when the devices were new and plentiful. Now it’s getting harder to get hold of the rare models. In recent years, mint-condition original iPods have been listed on eBay for more than £14,000, according to reports.

It’s on Reddit and Discord that a collective of students, musicians, designers, and even ex-Apple employees come together to trade buying tips and photos of their Frankenstinian creations. Old iPods are seen being cracked open and revivified with Bluetooth tech and massive storage drives.

Influencer figures are emerging - posting YouTube videos about rare finds, or how to tinker with iPods. The elusive DankPods is the daddy of them all, but other content creators are managing to reach captive audiences as well. Guy Dupont went viral with a video explaining how he modified a 17-year-old iPod to hook up to the internet and run Spotify. The device also hosts other quirky or nostalgic features - including the Game Boy classic Pokemon Red.

“There’s something very comforting in the idea that I can buy something and then – if it’s not exactly what I need – I can manipulate it to be the thing I actually want, without having to buy another thing,” says Dupont, a software developer from Massachusetts who aspires to be an inventor. 

Tech companies face growing criticism for making devices that seem impossible to mend when they break. But iPods are from a time when gadgets didn’t smash if you dropped them – or were at least easy to repair if you did. Compared to newer Apple products, they’re simple to open up and fiddle with. “It’s really helping me at a high level to understand how things work,” Dupont adds.

Amy Avdic, from the US state of Georgia, has gained devotees with a TikTok channel about retro tech. In one popular post, she subverted the popular ‘unboxing’ video. Rather than show the opening-up of a brand-new product, Avdic filmed herself removing an ancient iPod from its box.

Avdic recognises that she’s “smashing a stereotype,” as one of the relatively few women who’ve built a following in the genre. “I collect a lot of old tech and work with computers from the ’80s and ‘90s, and I find myself to be one of the few 20-year-old females interested in that field.”

Even those who aren’t iPod obsessives can see the device’s legacy all around them. It’s right there in the word ‘podcast’. Surprisingly, this was not Apple’s invention. Technologist Ben Hammersley hastily coined the term while writing an article for the Guardian in 2004. Back then, it just made sense to link a revolution in audio blogging with a revolutionary new audio player.

Hammersley now describes the iPod as “year zero of the modern world… a hallowed object.” He argues that contemporary streaming services wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for the cultural impact of Apple’s flagship gadget. “It was the first thing that regular, non-internet people had in their hands which demonstrated to them a whole load of digital concepts,” he tells Dazed.

As well as teaching the world how to convert physical articles (CDs) into computer files (MP3s), iPods got it into our heads that we should always have thousands of songs at our fingertips. They gave us choice. Then the growing shareability and downloadability of music made people re-evaluate how much they were willing to pay for songs. The likes of Spotify emerged as what Hammersley calls a “peace treaty… the only way to ensure that people got paid for music at all.”

Not everyone under 25 is using this vintage tech. iPod-lover Katarina Mogus accidentally tricked a generation who didn’t know the iPod Shuffle – with a video that pretended the device was a new product that functions as a hairclip. “Everyone was wondering when it was going to be released and how they could get their hands on their very own HairPod,” recalls the Toronto-based influencer.

As for the iPod’s fans – well, they’ve spent months searching for clues on whether there could be a new anniversary model. For now, the seventh-generation Touch is the only iPod still in production.

But what are the odds of Apple giving a nod to the nostalgics? This is a company that never acts out of sentimentality. Its every new product seems to generate uproar, as the likes of disc drives and headphone sockets are ditched in favour of ever-more streamlined hardware; of Progress. The iPod, too, was radical once. To some out there, it remains the zenith of 21st century consumer tech.