Published on November 5th, 2019 | by Dave Scaddan


Clickwheel Dreams

Our infamously tech wary writer, Dave, thinks about his existence and how the future has taken control of his lifelong music collecting and owning efforts.

I recently experienced a tech-scare that made me reevaluate my status as a non-phone-carrying, non-streaming music listener.  To give this story some background, I should mention that I’ve always loved the idea of having thousands of self-curated songs for portable access, but I’ve always hated the idea of carrying a portable phone (or camera, or texting device, or net connection) with me everywhere I go.  My reasons for this are my own, and probably not very fascinating — I just don’t think I’m important enough that everyone I know should be able to yank a leash and get my attention anytime, anywhere.

So when (seemingly) the rest of the world got swept away in the business of smartphone technology, I stayed on the sidelines where I still reside as a willing misfit.  But a few years before that, when the mp3 player hit the market, I was definitely all-in.  The clickwheel iPod (the one that never connected to the internet and is now often called the iPod Classic) was, for me, the fulfillment of a lifelong fantasy, and quite literally, a dream come true.

I can remember having this dream in my teens as a 1980s coming-of-ager whose every available dollar was spent on cassettes.  Ten to fifteen bucks at a time, I spent the money I earned washing dishes in the pit of a pancake house on the tapes that artists like Prince, Eric B and Rakim, The Cure, The Smiths and Metallica had on offer.  I never bought more than one tape at a time because I could usually never afford to, but also, even if I could have, it just wouldn’t have made sense.  A cassette purchase would overwhelm my existence in those days.  I would play whatever tape I had just bought on my Walkman (look it up) or ghetto blaster at least five times consecutively before switching to another selection.  So, finances aside, (as hard as this might be to believe in 2019) buying two tapes in one trip would’ve amounted to sensory overload for me in 1988.

Even though my family had always listened to music using records (in the house) or 8-tracks, (in the car) cassettes offered a mobility that carried much appeal.  Also, the blank cassette that could be used to make mixes from other tapes, records — or by dubbing from the radio — really trumped those older formats for me.  Still, I never entirely stopped buying vinyl.  It was the first format that really felt like it was mine, and for a few bucks and an hour of dubbing, I could turn a record into a cassette in my bedroom anyway.

The dream is likely the only one I had from that time that I can still remember now.  I was in a record store (look it up) taking three (gasp!) album selections to the counter where I paid my money and was given three small vials of clear, viscous liquid in return.  I remember feeling that I did not know what to do with them, but not asking the salesperson for help because this transaction seemed so commonplace that asking what to do with the vials would be as embarrassing as buying three new cassettes and then posing the query, “so, how do I listen to these?”

Jump cut to me returning home with my “liquid albums” to discover that waiting in my bedroom was a giant plexiglass cylinder, about a foot in diameter and six feet tall, about two-thirds full of the same clear, viscous fluid.  My dream-self instinctively knew to just screw the tops off the vials I had purchased and unceremoniously empty them into what I can only call “the tank.”  I then watched, amazed, as I turned my stereo on and the liquid in the tank began to bubble and swirl, processing the added information (so much cooler than watching a progress bar during an update).  Next, I accessed a menu that showed me all the music that was in the tank, and whenever I made a selection, the fluid would bubble a little and play my selection with no inserting or ejecting of media, no removal from cases, and no way for the purchase to be scratched, cracked or damaged.

I awoke with no memory of the music that was purchased and played, fascinated only by the medium my sleeping brain had conjured.  This was now the stuff of fantasy.  How cool would it be, I thought, if I had a database of my entire musical collection that could be stored in a single tank, and accessed at my momentary whim?  I even remember thinking that the coolest feature of this whole setup could be the ability to randomly select albums, or even tracks, for playback.  The quandary of deciding what tape to play was a real issue once my collection reached a certain point, and there were times when I would stare blankly at the spines of my cassette cases, knowing that I wanted to listen to something, but not knowing exactly what.  I had no concept of the notion of “shuffle play” back then, but the dream-driven hint of it stayed with me.

Imagine the thrill it was for me when, in the early 2000s, I actually got my own “tank.”  The fact that it was small and portable with enough memory to hold (at the time) an unthinkable amount of data made up for the fact that it didn’t involve fluid and that satisfying bubbling.  And since then, that thrill has been enough for me.  Perhaps because I still remember dreaming about having my own collection-encompassing “jukebox,” (look it up) I never cared much if that device could go online or stream.  My nearly two-decade spree with the mp3 player has been blissful to the point that I’ve never stopped being fully amazed by how lucky I am to have so many of my favourite tunes just a spin and click away.

So recent articles I’ve read about how updated versions of iTunes may soon stop supporting my dear olde clickwheels have been disturbing, to say the least.  Plugging them into my PC and adding tunes, subtracting to clear more space, compiling playlists for driving, walking, sleeping, working — this has become a huge part of my routine as a music fan.  The thought of all this coming to an end is troubling, like the prospect of a car not starting in the morning, or a favourite restaurant closing down.

Even more worrying are the reports I’ve read this month about how iTunes itself will cease to be a thing, potentially destroying the whole engine that my devices need for future curating.  The instinct to buy every used clickwheel I can find and fill them all with backlogged music like some little, handheld, musical panic rooms before the whole thing crashes is strong.  But even if I were to take this desperate step, it wouldn’t really be the same.  What I’d be left with would be more like a post-apocalyptic library than a growing, changing database that I control.

Assurances that as long as I don’t update my PC’s version of iTunes, I’ll be fine, are cold comfort.  After all, my ancient version of that program still needs a PC to run on, right?  And if that ever dies, (which it certainly will sometime) I’m back to the static, stuck-with-what-I’ve-got scenario, too spoiled to notice that the clickwheel and I had a great run.

So recently, I needed to clear some space on one of my three mp3 players.  I plugged it into my computer and waited for it to sync.  And waited.  And waited.  The emptiness I began to feel as the truth set in, as I plugged and unplugged into different ports, with different cords, with different players, was dark.  Those articles I had read about the end of iPod tech support were now staring me in the face in the form of an unchanging iTunes menu that would not jive with my devices.

My reactions were resigned, but irrational.  I cursed the tech giants that thrive off of planned obsolescence.  I cursed the popularity of the streaming services that would assure my plight would go unnoticed.  I cursed myself for ignoring some rather reliable warnings.  I spent a couple of days reassuring myself that at least I still had these players that could still be charged on a dock/player and that all the music and playlists I’d added previously were still there.  But part of me also began to feel resigned about the inevitability of becoming a “streamer,” just another rectangle-gazing zombie whose access to portable music would soon be dictated by the business whims of a streaming service — yuck.  If “the tank” was my musical dream, buying an iPhone and subscribing to Spotify would be the nightmare.

After a few days of grief, in a seemingly unrelated moment, I sat down at my PC and plugged in a USB drive so I could work on an article on my laptop.  My PC didn’t recognize the drive, no matter which port I plugged it into.  It quickly dawned on me, “maybe my mp3 players were never the problem . . . maybe the problem was always the ports I plugged them into!”  After a quick restart and troubleshoot (even-slightly-techy readers will have figured out by now that I am not especially good at solving problems with machines) the USB icon shone into recognition and I immediately reached for one of my precious clickwheels to confirm that this whole travesty was really just a product of my own shortsighted stupidity.

The relief that washed over me is with me still — it was the closest I’ve ever felt to the Hollywood version of Dr. Frankenstein, unhinged with glee in my own, “It’s Alive!” moment.  But still, the writing is on the wall.

This feels different than when my treasured cassette collection became laughably outdated.  It’s also not the same feeling as when I realized that I hadn’t listened to a CD in months, even though I still have four huge binders that house over a thousand of them.  Even though I don’t revisit those formats very often, technically I still could — tonight, if I wanted to — I still have some cassette players, and there’s a CD player in my car, but with the clickwheel option always being there, the spirit rarely moves me to rewind a tape or blow on the back of a 120 millimetre disc.  When the clickwheel support dies, it will be over, as I guess I always knew it would be someday when my headphone jacks glitch out or some other disaster happens (the equivalent of my dream-tank shattering and spilling all that fluid onto the floor).

What this leaves me with is a lesson about permanence, and how the 21st century just won’t stand for it.  Forces I shall not name seem to want us to treat music as this fleeting, disposable thing that floats through the ether and soundtracks our movements through life.  This is not how I was conditioned to consume my favourite product.  I scrubbed pancake batter off of ceramic surfaces to save money to pay for music, and then, it was mine.  Mine to play, to lend, to give, to dub into mixes, to abandon in a crate for over a decade until one day, the whimsy would strike and find me digging through a closet to find that Cure tape that had Faith on one side and the obscure soundtrack to Carnage Visors on the other.  Do I lament the approaching end, or reflect on the glory that was sweet while it lasted?

Honestly, my strongest impulse is to do neither, and to fall back on the comfort of the one format — vinyl records — that never let me down.  The first album I ever actually owned (the soundtrack to Grease) was on vinyl, and I haven’t stopped buying records since.  Through the reign of the cassette, I still bought vinyl when it was available.  All through the dynasty of the CD, I preferred to buy records if and when I could.  My overstuffed CD binders reflect this – they are dominated by music released from the mid-nineties ‘til about twelve years ago, when the vinyl resurgence began and bands and labels became just as likely to release a record as a compact disc.  The records, as delicate and unwieldy as they may be, have been the only reliable mainstay.  I buy them, the bands get paid, and I get to slot them into my collection next to their twelve-inch brothers and sisters.  Even as I one day grow nostalgic for my clickwheel curator days, those records will still be a tangible, collected presence . . . as long as I stock up on styli.

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is a teacher who enjoys writing and talking about movies, music, and books.

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