"God is a DJ," goes a popular dance-music catchphrase. That line was written long enough ago that it fails to account for a few new factsnamely, the fact that God is smaller than a pack of cigarettes and retails between $299 and $499. The iPodwhich comes in 10GB, 15GB, 20GB, 30GB, and 40GB modelsis fast changing the way people listen to music, not least your faithful correspondent, who has been packing even more listening time than usual into a schedule that already demands plenty. As I type this, for instance, I've crammed 1,531 songs totaling 7.6 gigabytes onto the slim 20GB unit I recently acquiredabout 42 percent of the available space.
Other portable systems have come on the market in the months since the iPod debuted. We weren't able to test either the Samsung YP-910GS (20GB, $449.99), which hooks up to the newly reactivated (and legal) Napster, or the Dell Digital Jukebox (15GB, $249, and 20GB, $329), both of which have gotten high marks from friends and colleagues. But the Apple iPod (www.apple.com/ipod) is the model, and for good reason: Its design is functional and user-friendly, and extras like the built-in alarm clock, games like solitaire and Brick, and a calendar give it a kind of handheld-computer-for- beginners feel. But it's the music that turns first-timers into converts.
PACKAGED IN A SNAZZY fold-out square box with a small mount and wired- remote play/volume control, the iPod is fairly easy to learn, though becoming completely comfortable with it takes a while. The On-the-Go playlist function, with which you create a sequence by holding the center button down until your selection blinks, is smart, though a little inflexible. You can't resequence the songs within playlists on the little machine itself, and when you plug it back into your computer to boot it full of new songs, the On-the-Go playlist automatically erases, as it did with a sequence I was working on for my next mix CD. (I've since learned to keep a notebook handy.) It's also sometimes confusing to look for tracks in the Songs folder, which lists the contents in strict alphabetical ordermeaning spaces and hyphens are discounted, so that, for example, Hi-Fi Hillary's "Re-Work It" falls between Crooklyn Dodgers' "Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers" and Ward 21's "Rhyme," instead of between Big Daddy Kane's "Raw" and Special Ed's "Ready 2 Attack," the way it would on most hard drives.
But that's nitpicking. The fact is, the iPod is the best personal listening device anyone has come up with: portable, excellent-sounding (unless you happen to be a staunch audiophile, which 99 percent of people are not), and limited only to what you can either convert or download. Converting CDs to MP3 is simpler than ever with iTunes, the accompanying software for your computer that manages the iPod's library, especially now that the iPod system works with PCs.
While downloading is still illegal (and Seattle Weekly would never condone such a thing, cough, cough), it's becoming easier to find music on the Net, either through free sites (there's no end to the number of artist sites with downloadable songs) or, increasingly, through paid ones. The major player here iswhat else?the iTunes store (www.apple.com/ itunes), followed hard by the rejuvenated Napster (www.napster.com) and Buy Music (www.buymusic.com). If they're not quite Everyday Music or Easy Street or Tower, they're getting close. The iTunes catalog is at 400,000 songs retailing at 99 cents apiece (as do the others, though certain artists, like the Rolling Stones, are charging $1.09 on Buy Music). And with their aggressive courting of indie labels, iTunes has the potential to increase inventory sharply. (You can purchase song-download gift packages on iTunes; see the Web site for details.) Whole albums retail for $9.99; I got The Jaki Byard Experience (Blue Note, 1968) after noticing that five of the six cuts were available individually, while the 10-minute lead track was only for sale as part of the whole. Sneaky.
JUST FOR FUN, I decided to test the limits of the three stores' selections. Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician (Ui) and writer (Slate.com, Village Voice) who puts together an annual multi-CD compilation commemorating the year's music. I chose four of his 2002 discsPop Songs 1, Instrumentals 1, Hip-Hop 1, and Mellow Old Songsand began hunting down titles on the sites. iTunes won, with a combined 32 of 81 songs, with Buy Music (30) and Napster (27) close behind. It's worth noting that the Instrumentals disc is full of cultish, import-only stuff, and Mellow Old Songs features a number of (frequently British) artists who never made much of a splash in the American mainstream, like Fun Boy Three and Young Marble Giants. As a result, I saw little from those discs on the P2Ps, while finding more than half of the Pop and Hip-Hop discs.
Hip-hop is very well represented on all three sites. I picked out several singles from the past few years, some blindingly obvious (Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life"), others less so (Mystikal's "The Man Right Chea"). Still, even finding the likes of a well-known independent artist like Atmosphere was problematicon all three, I came up with a new-age album rather than an underground rapper. God may be a DJ, but if you're interested in more than what the major labels have to offer, for the time being you still have to provide some of your own records.