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The iPod Kids Aren't Alright

Posted by iNext - 2006-01-06

Step aside, Tipper Gore. The new icon thumbing his nose at what kids are listening to these days is none other than The Who's Pete Townshend. OK, so maybe the legendary guitarist with the classic pendulum strum who rocked on about My Generation -- ummm, two generations ago -- isn't overly concerned about the lyrical content.
In a personal blog entry last week, Townshend wrote about the possibility of hearing loss due to folks streaming their iPods at high levels continuously.

"I have hearing trouble," he admitted. Then he went on to dismiss the fact that it was caused by years of playing in front of decibel-cranking monitors, amps, and speakers. He argues that his ears don't ring after a live show, but, rather, after wearing headphones after a long recording studio session.

"If you use an iPod or anything like it, or your child uses one, you MAY be OK. It may only be studio earphones that cause bad damage," he wrote. "But my intuition tells me there is terrible trouble ahead."

So was that trouble or treble? Townshend isn't a doctor, though he does happen to command one of the sharpest minds in the music business. It's why Apple Computer should react to Townshend's remarks one way or the other.

Obviously, there is no way to know any long-term implications of being collared with iPod ear buds because the iPod has only been around for a couple of years. However, as fellow Fool Alyce Lomax pointed out to me Wednesday, when Sony had a hit with the Walkman, it's not as if we found ourselves ultimately treating the Walkman Generation masses for eardrum injuries.

Unlike Sony, it isn't in Apple's best interests to preach moderation. While Sony eventually got serious about the music business with the acquisition of CBS Records' Epic and Columbia labels in the late 1980s, Apple has even more at stake, because more time spent listening is likely to translate into more iTunes downloads being sold.

Digital music has become more than just a cottage industry. Companies like RealNetworks and Napster are banking plenty on their music subscription services. Music labels like Warner Music Group are winning over investors because of stellar growth in the high-margin terrain of digital distribution.

Should buyers of portable music players get clearer warnings on the dangers of hearing loss? I don't know. I am less of an authority than Townshend on this front. However, I trust that Apple knows the answer. Either way, it should provide a response -- even if it's as simple as saying, "Pssst, Pete, the kids are alright."

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