Christopher Roubo | Ethnography

MP3 Players

Throughout the last decade, we have seen much progression of digital audio players, more commonly referred to as MP3 players. Keep in mind that while my topic covers the MP3 players in general, I will mainly be discussing the I-Pod from Apple, which is the brand that I am most familiar with and also the one that I have the most experience with. I believe that MP3 players have become so ingrained into our culture that they follow us around everywhere we go and possibly may have changed how we view music in general.

Around the Campus Area

When observing how other people use their own MP3 players, I kept a look-out in many areas. I observed students on Virginia Tech campus and throughout Blacksburg. I was actually rather surprised by how little I would see students using I-Pods or even wearing headphones between class changes on the Drillfield. I would often see far more people using their cell phones either talking or texting other people (though I suppose it is fair to say that it was rare to see anyone who wasn’t either using a cell phone, wearing an I-Pod, or already talking to a friend when crossing the Drillfield).

In fact, the most common areas where I would see students listening to their MP3 players would be inside classroom buildings in the hallways, in the library while studying or working on an assignment, and probably most of all, inside the Math emporium at the University Mall. What this tells me is that students enjoy the sound of music as background noise when trying to accomplish getting any work done. This is, however, just a theory of mine and if it is actually true, then I cannot describe it from my own point of view as I cannot relate (in fact, listening to music will often eventually become more of a distraction for me when doing work than anything else).

Music and Exercise

One of the most common uses that I have noticed since beginning this study is that whenever I attend the gym in my neighborhood, almost everyone else I see in there uses an MP3 player of some sort. Throughout town, there is also a plethora of joggers that can be seen carrying MP3 players to listen to as they run. Being another person who likes to bring his MP3 player with him to the gym and on runs as well, I chock this up to people wanting to use music for two key reasons: distraction and adrenaline.

When attending the gym, I often find that there are television sets and radios playing, which I believe can help serve as a distraction to allow people to work out more without becoming as tired. For instance, when I watch television while running on a treadmill, I find that it distracts me enough that I do not notice how far or how long I have run and therefore can get more running distance; however, if there were no distractions, I would constantly be checking to see how I am doing on the treadmill and would feel more tired because the workout would feel longer and more strenuous. It is psychological, really. MP3 players can serve a similar purpose. When exercising, listening to the right music can also serve as a diversion that allows one to concentrate more on the music than on the workout at hand.

Similarly, certain songs can get a person pumped up enough to want to work out in the first place. On my own MP3 player, for instance, there is an entire playlist full of songs for the sole purpose of working out. These songs are often loud, rock-and-roll style, and generally the kind of music that would serve as adequate background noise to an action movie. I’m MP3 players used during exercise sessions in this fashion can allow people jogging or exercising in a gym to gain more energy to exercise. It can be inspirational, like “Eye of the Tiger” during a Rocky training montage.

Absence of Music and its Effects

In order to help study the effects that MP3 players have on people, I tried to go through a certain period without using my own. I originally planned on avoiding using my own MP3 player (my I-Pod), but I found there to be one problem: I could not do it. Where ever I went or whatever I did, I found that I would always find an excuse to bring my I-Pod with me just so I could listen to Barenaked Ladies’ “Falling for the First Time” for the fiftieth time as I crossed campus. I also own a stereo specifically made to play an I-Pod that my roommates and I use all the time, especially on the weekends. So I found that I was utterly unable to part ways with my MP3 player for long at all. I would take it with me to class, to lunch, on the bus, or listen to it at home.

On the other hand, I had used to own an I-Pod several years ago. Unfortunately, it froze up on me and because I was reluctant to spend another three-hundred dollars for a new one, I went about two years without using an MP3 player; in a sense, I consider those two years as an adequate experience in this area. Many times, I found that would want to listen to a song, often the new popular song at the time, I would have to go online to sites like YouTube to listen to those songs. And unfortunately, even my laptop does not provide the same convenience that an MP3 player would.
How much is too much?

I received my first I-Pod as gift in high school, which was a 40 gigabyte (GB) MP3 player and could hold up to 10,000 songs. At the time, I found this to be a bit much; I knew I would never completely fill it up. Recently, when I shopped for another I-Pod, I found that not only were the classic 40 GB I-Pods no longer available for sale at shops such as Best Buy, but the classic I-Pods in general make a big leap from 16 GB (holding 4,000 songs) to 160 GB (holding 40,000 songs). On top of that, the classic models can now play videos and display photos; for instance, the 160 GB I-Pod, instead of forty-thousand songs, can also hold up to 25,000 photos or 200 videos.

Basically, this meant that if I would have to decide between either having 16 GB, which would be too little for me, or 160 GB, which would be far too much but would have to be my best option. Now, this isn’t to say that that not all the MP3 players that I saw while shopping around did not necessarily hold any storage capacity between 16 and 160 GB (that only seems to apply to the classic models that I’ve seen). There are also the updated model known as the I-Pod Touch, which can generally hold around 4 GB, to 32 GB, and to 64 GB; along with songs, this model holds a touch screen, a built-in camera, wireless connection, games, etc ( However, because these updated models carry so many more accessories, they can be much more expensive than the classic models despite only being able to hold far fewer songs.

To me, this begs the question, how much is too much? Or should that be, is still not enough YET? Originally I owned an MP3 player that only held up at most ten thousand songs, a few games, and nothing else, and I felt that that was far too excessive. Now I own an MP3 player that can hold four times as much material, including songs, photos, and videos, as well as even more games, making my previous MP3 player seem rather tame in comparison. I also know people who sport MP3 players such as the I-Pod Touch that they constantly use to look up random bits of information on the internet or just play around with when they’re bored.

Do we really need all these accessories? Can we possibly add any more accessories to MP3 if we tried? Maybe I’m just being slightly old-fashioned, or maybe my tastes are just simpler than others’, but it all seems widely excessive to me as it is. Keep in mind, I’m not criticizing the actual model, nor am I criticizing the people who use one; who knows, I may eventually get one for myself at some point. However, as it is I certainly don’t see myself needing or wanting any of these extra settings anytime in the near future.

Illegal Downloading and its Affect on the Music Industry

In the time between losing my first I-Pod and purchasing my second one, I’ve noticed that more and more people have begun to start downloading free songs from the internet onto their MP3 players. One of my good friends, for example, almost never pays for a song he uploads, however, his I-Pod has frozen up to the point where he cannot download any more songs into it (whether this is a direct result from the sites he downloads from or not is difficult to say).

This makes me ponder how the convenience of carrying a portable music player has affected our general perception of the music industry. Maybe we tend to see downloading songs as just another accessory that comes with the convenience associated with MP3 players. Before these digital devices become commonplace, we’d still have to buy CDs at the store, preventing us from getting songs for free, so we did not take them for granted as much as we seem to do nowadays.

On the other hand, one could argue that this may not negatively affect the music industry as much as they like to make think it does. I-Tunes, despite raising the pricing for its most popular songs from $0.99 to $1.29 per song, is nearing its one-billionth song download, which seems to say that its business is not suffering. Lady Gaga has recently gone on record saying that she doesn’t mind if fans illegally download her songs “because you know how much you can earn off touring, right? Big artists can make anywhere from $40 million [£28 million] for one cycle of two years’ touring. Giant artists make upwards of $100 million. Make music – then tour. It’s just the way it is today” (The Sunday Times ).

The way we are attaining our songs has changed in last decade and MP3 players seem to be the major cause. One of these changes seems to be a progressively more commonly practiced method of downloading songs off of the internet for free, but the music industry as whole also appears to be adapting to the situation instead of trying to fight it off. Providing a handiness to allow us to listen to our favorite songs without the use of a walkman or a computer has changed our perception of the genre overall. And the digital technology still seems to be changing. If the recent years are any indication, then over the next few years, digital audio technologies could become far smaller and yet hold far more songs, games, videos, and who knows what else.