Searching for the dankest iPod knockoffs of the mid-2000s

In a land of vinyl sickos, Spotify normies, and Winamp elitists, Wade Nixon, the man behind the incredibly popular YouTube channel “DankPods,” stands alone with a pair of MP3-playing Oakley sunglasses. They were manufactured in 2004 at the sizzling zenith of the iPod craze, and they probably would’ve been completely lost to history if Nixon hadn’t snagged them off of eBay as part of his quest to resuscitate the many baffling misfires of the portable music boom.

Twenty years ago, during that brief pocket of air between the downfall of CDs and the revolution of the cloud, it seemed like everyone, even Oakley, was chasing the elusive cool bequeathed to the iPod silhouettes. The sunglasses are just the tip of the iceberg; DankPods has covered a Batarang MP3 player, an iCarly MP3 player, and a Nerf MP3 player — all of which are chintzy, glitchy, and were most commonly found in ancient Kmart checkout aisles. No MP3 player managed to dethrone the iPod, but Nixon believes the legacy of these failed experiments is worth preserving. And, against all odds, millions of DankPods viewers feel the same way.

“I was a kid during these times. I was born in 1990. These manky MP3 players were what I had,” says a typically cheerful Nixon, early in the morning from his home in South Australia. “I’m nostalgic for them, but they’re pieces of junk. Nobody bought them. And I know that because I’ve had no problem finding brand-new copies of them.”

A fascination with old, bad MP3 players certainly doesn’t sound like the foundation for a hugely popular web series. And yet, DankPods has cultivated 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube and collected an impressive audience of more than 37,000 patrons on Patreon who supply him with around $40,000 a month. DankPods is currently the fourth most popular operation on Patreon among accounts that publicly disclose their patron totals, with more backers than the podcasting juggernaut Chapo Trap House.

Nixon has spent his entire professional life around music; he was a drummer by trade before his social media success and studied something called “Jazz Philosophy” in college. He says an experience with an extremely expensive pair of headphones at school made him a lifelong audiophile. In its earliest era, DankPods mostly showcased Nixon’s iPod modding skills. In May 2020, he stuffed a mind-boggling 2,000 gigs into an iPod Classic. The video was gobbled up by the algorithmuh8, and his life hasn’t been the same since.

These days, DankPods is primarily centered around Nixon’s deep dives into whatever piece of outmoded digital-audio rubbish is currently capturing his imagination. He’s a natural performer: funny and breezy in the way that YouTubers generally are with enough technical fluency to roast the UI horrors of, say, an MTV-branded MP3 player. (It has a tiny microphone built into it for some reason! What were they thinking!) Nixon tells me that he’s not at all afraid of running out of material and that there are literally hundreds of shoddy MP3 players left for him to find in the benthic regions of the secondhand market.

“The way you find the really weird stuff is by searching just the word ‘MP3’ globally and scroll through the 30,000 results on eBay. Honestly, I just sit on the couch and just scroll,” says Nixon, who mentions that this was the method he used to find a Bible MP3 player that was the subject of a recent video. “Once you get past all those results, you start misspelling things. If I’m looking for a drum cymbal, I might type in ‘drum symbol.’ That’s when you find people who have no idea what they have.”

Nixon’s diligence has paid off. It is genuinely staggering to see just how deep the MP3 rabbit hole goes, but I think the ascendancy of DankPods hints at a more glacial generational shift. At 31 years old, Nixon grew up exclusively listening to music digitally, and millennials are currently grasping authority over what our culture is allowed to be wistful about. Perhaps DankPods, in its own cockeyed way, is consecrating the MP3 player in the same way that we’ve consecrated the similarly outmoded turntable. In fact, when I asked Nixon about his love of the format, he sounded a bit like a boomer extolling the virtues of analog warmth — recast in an entirely different era.

“The internet can still be unreliable, even in an age where I can get a 5G hotspot out of my phone. But there are still these moments where it doesn’t work. [With an MP3 player,] it’s yours. You’re holding it,” he says. “I still use a black-and-white iPod to this day. It never stopped being good.”

Older folks used to foster the same complaints about digital music — how can anyone claim to own a collection that doesn’t take up physical space? But streaming managed to abstract our relationship with our favorite records beyond all recognition, and now the idea of importing a handful of MP3s into a hard drive possesses a sort of antiquated, connoisseur-ish mirth that never existed back when everyone had an iPod. (All of this nostalgia hit an apogee last month when Apple announced they were formally halting iPod manufacturing, prompting Nixon to hold a candlelight vigil.) DankPods might be at the forefront of a dawning MP3 renaissance that hasn’t been fully articulated yet. He certainly has the subscriber count to show for it.

Of course, like every creator on YouTube who’s become enormously popular in a short amount of time, Nixon is wary about how the bulk of his finances is tied up with the almighty platforms. YouTube is notoriously faulty in its content moderation, and Nixon tells me that his second channel, Garbage Time, was flagged after he played drums to the Wii Sports theme. That’s one of the many reasons Nixon refined a massive Patreon following, where he hands out extra videos to his boosters for a dollar a month. But he also finds some of Patreon’s tech to be finicky and unreliable. To be an internet celebrity in 2022 is to be constantly ready to pick up shop and move to greener pastures if the apps go sour, and Nixon is no exception.

“I do feel secure because the people are there for me. Even if I was demonetized for months, I could keep going. I’ve saved all my videos, so I could go to Vimeo. I have all sorts of contingency plans in mind if I had to leave YouTube or Patreon,” he says. “I’ve got parachutes on top of parachutes to pull. I’m here to stay.”

One of the beautiful things about DankPods is the way the show harkens back to a pre-algorithmic age, when our listening habits were dictated purely by whatever we could afford on iTunes or crib off of Napster. When Nixon fires up a rickety old MP3 player, I’m often amazed at how the files are still intact. Yes, you really can go listen to the Converge albums left to molder on those Oakley sunglasses for who knows how long. MP3s are stubbornly immortal at a time when the rest of our online experience feels increasingly transient, and I think Nixon has adopted the same posture. DankPods will survive for as long as questionable portable music players survive. Right now, that’s looking like forever.

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