At the moment everyone's talking about the recently-announced Apple iPhone, which will have iPod functionality on it. One angle I'd like to take is that it represents just how far the iPod has become, and hints at how the iPod will become even more ubiquitous in the future. Most of the people I know now have an iPod. I know a few more with non-iPod MP3 players, but most have iPods. Furthermore, most of the tracks on most of these iPods got their via being ripped from a commercial album CD at some point, either directly or via a friend (or BitTorrent).
Listening to album CDs on a portable MP3 player has become so common, it's probably time that artists and record companies started printing CDs with this usage in mind. I've been thinking about this for a few days, and have put together a handy list of things that should be done to make the whole transferring-a-CD-to-your-iPod experience as friendly and useful as possible.
- Don't use copy-protection on the CD. This is the big one, as doing so will prevent people from being able to transfer the CD to their iPod at all.
- No 'hidden' bonus tracks! There has been a trend on CDs to make the last track contain a really long silence at the end, and then play a bonus track when people aren't expecting it. Whilst a nice CD gimmick, once the track gets onto an iPod, and then shuffled around, the long silence becomes really annoying. So the hidden bonus tracks have to go.
- First five seconds count! When your track gets shuffled randomly on someone's iPod, people need to be able to recognise the song within the first five seconds. Otherwise they're likely to skip. So make an impact early!
- Hard start, soft finish. Following from the previous point, most iPods now cross-fade between songs. Most songs fade out towards the end, so take advantage of this by having a hard start (strong vocals or a drumbeat) to mark the start of your song. In return, expect people to miss the last few seconds of your song, so stick with a gentle fade-out or soft finish.
- No leading silences. Have your song start on the very first second, so there's no pause when people hit 'play'.
- Cover art is important, but needs to be recognisable when quite small. Most iPods now will display the cover art when playing a track (if the person has an iTunes store account), so this is still worth paying attention to, but any detail will be lost on a tiny iPod Nano screen.
- Don't expect your songs to be played in order. Sequential 'concept-album' style narrative can get lost if people are shuffling your songs up with loads of others.
- No overly long or overly short tracks.
- Make good use of stereo effects. Headphones have complete separation of sound between left and right channels, so any stereo effects are much more noticeable.
- Make track and album names easy to spell. Otherwise there'll be loads of spelling variants floating around the peer-to-peer networks.
Musicians should, of course, feel free to break any of these guidelines should they have a reason to do so (music is all about innovation after all), but for your bog standard indie album release, it's worth thinking about how the music will be consumed on an iPod.
Thanks for all the comments. They've all given me a chance to further think about and reflect upon some of the ideas that I touched on in this post - so much so that I'm halfway through a follow-up post, but haven't gotten around to finishing it yet. I'm going to elaborate more of the concept of 'writing to a format', as Ed puts it, and what this might mean for the iPod (other MP3 players available, etc etc). I'm not seriously suggesting that these ideas should become constraints upon music, but rather look at ways in which artists might best adapt and write to the formats and behaviours that iPod-style devices have given rise to.