Streaming killed the music gadget years ago. Just up and drove a stake through its silicon heart as listeners traded 99-cent song downloads for $10 monthly subscriptions to all-you-can-listen services. OK, maybe you have some Baby Driver-induced nostalgia for an iPod. But when was the last time you ripped a CD, or dropped 15 bucks on an album? Even the idea of choosing 5,000 songs to carry with you and plugging something into a computer to load them seems like an ancient ritual. Plus, it requires using iTunes. Gross.
So you can understand why Anthony Mendelson, a Google engineer turned winemaker, felt nervous launching the Kickstarter for Mighty last year. At its most basic, Mighty is an iPod Shuffle for Spotify. Mendelson envisioned it as a workout companion, a way of letting people run and hike and Soulcycle without lugging their phone around. Turns out people loved the idea. Mendelson raised a bit more than $595,000 from Kickstarter and Indiegogo1. Tech writers went bananas over the Mighty, and more 9,000 people dropped $70 or so to pre-order one.
But then… nothing. The November ship date came and went. So did the February ship date. People started wondering if Mighty was just another Kickstarter, a cool idea that went nowhere. But Mendelson kept at it. His team redesigned its product. Figured out how to build and ship them in big numbers. Built the requisite iOS and Android apps. Worked with Spotify on a new certification program, then spent months waiting for Spotify to negotiate terms with the record labels. And at long last, shipped some stuff. The company finally fulfilled the last of its preorders last month, and starting today, you can buy a Mighty all your own for $85.
I’ve been using one for the past week or so. I mostly love it. But using it made me realize something Mighty discovered during the two years it spent developing the player: How people find and listen to music, and how artists create and distribute it, looks completely different than when Apple introduced the iPod Shuffle way back in 2005. And that forced Mendelson to grapple with a difficult question: What does a music player even look like anymore?
Every Day I’m Shuffling
Before Mighty launched, Mendelson showed the folks at Spotify a prototype. Spotify had no history with dedicated hardware, let alone a system for supporting it. Everything happened on your smartphone. So the original Mighty was essentially an Android phone without a screen.
“They probably could have figured out a way to shut us down if they wanted to,” Mendelson says. Yet Spotify played along because Mighty raised an intriguing possibility: What if you could run Spotify on one device and download files to another? Spotify needs to figure out how to make that work if it wants to put music on wearables, headsets, headphones, and anything else without a screen. Getting the technology to work is hard. Getting the record labels to go along with it is harder.
It helps that Spotify and Mighty want essentially the same thing: more people paying for Spotify Premium, which you need to use Mighty. But Spotify has no interest in building hardware, or letting someone make something that looks like an Official Spotify Music Player. So it quibbled with Mighty’s first design—a small square with six buttons on the front, a headphone jack up top, and a clip covering the back—because it splashed Spotify’s signature shade of green around the buttons. You can get the final version in black with blue accents, white with black, or orange with white. It looks a lot like an iPod Shuffle. Thicker, with less Jony Ive Special Preciousness, but a Shuffle just the same.
For now, the Mighty remains intentionally simple: You can play your Spotify playlists, and nothing more. Mendelson says he may one day include a fitness tracker or some way of logging your workout, but you’ll never use Mighty to boss Alexa around or summon an Uber. “That’s pretty explicitly not the vibe we’re going for,” he says. Mighty wants to add music to your life and help you disconnect, not shrink a smartphone.
Log In, Tune Out
The first thing you do after ripping open the box is pair your shiny new Mighty to your phone. Create a Mighty account, link it to your Spotify, add it to a Wi-Fi network, then connect your Bluetooth headphones or plug them into the jack. Boom. You’re done. It takes all of five minutes, unless you run into connectivity weirdness like I did, in which case it takes eight tries and three hours.
Once you’re in, the Mighty app provides a list of every Spotify playlist you’ve made or followed. Pick a few (the device can hold about 1,000 songs) and they download almost instantly. You are now free to roam the planet to the soundtrack of your choosing, freed from the shackle of your phone. Press the button on the top right to scroll through playlists one by one. Mighty announces the name—my editor likes “Workout Twerkout,” and 1 million followers can’t be wrong—in a voice that sounds like a robot uttering its last words. The volume button worked intermittently, depending upon my headphones, but the playback button did its thing reliably. Once you’ve filled the device, you only need to connect to your phone to add or remove music.
Everything works OK, but it occasionally feels clunky. I’d rather manage my playlists within Spotify instead of updating a playlist there, then syncing it on a separate app. I’ve got dozens of playlists, and scrolling through them all takes for-ever. And you can’t sync individual albums or songs, so adding Something To Tell You means making the album a playlist. The battery lasts nine or 10 hours, but Mighty tends to die in my bag if I forget to shut it off. Most insane: Mighty lacks any way of shuffling songs in a playlist, or playing everything I’ve synced in one big musical mush. My “Run” playlist features hundreds of songs. I like to mix it up to keep the cadence fresh. With Mighty, I hear “Work Bitch and “6 Foot 7 Foot” every time I lace up my shoes. I’d like my shuffle to actually Shuffle, please.
So it’s not perfect. But Mighty’s on to something here. I’ve used it while working out, walking the dog, and driving, which is my favorite use case. I don’t text while driving (much) or fiddle with Google Maps, but I’m forever scrolling through Spotify playlists looking for just the right track. Mighty lets me flip through music the same way, but with fewer options and more tactile controls. I want to glue it to my dashboard.
That said, Mighty must find a way of dealing with how music is changing. Users find new tracks through Spotify’s algorithmic and curated playlists, which morph constantly with data. Mighty provides no way of saving or thumbs-upping a track, so how will Spotify know what you like? Spotify worked with artists like Tiesto to create tracks that adapt to your running speed to suit your workout. That’s not a playlist, or even really a song, so how do you sync it? Mighty can’t handle podcasts or video, which play heavily in Spotify’s plans. And sure, it’s nice to dump 1,000 songs into a tiny rectangle for offline access, but using Mighty means limiting yourself to the old-school parts of the music experience.
Mendelson sees many more ways of engaging with Spotify’s features, and you can bet more Spotify-powered gadget are coming as Spotify makes its developer tools available to others. Spotify wants to be everywhere people listen to music. People want to listen to music everywhere, even when they don’t have their phones or a cellular signal. Until now, that’s been much too difficult. Thanks this tiny iPod Shuffle-inspired gadget, that’s becoming a little easier.
1July 12, 6pm EDT: This story was updated to accurately reflect the total amount Mighty raised on crowdfunding platforms.