I’m finding it harder than ever before to manage all the music I have accumulated over the years. I suppose I began buying music around age 8, though I couldn’t pay for it myself yet. My mom or grandmother would take me and my brother to the mall, and sometimes we would get an allowance with which to entertain ourselves. With about $10 a pop, I could usually afford a cassette or 12″ record at the local record store. I would come home and practically wear out the music I bought on my little boom box or mom’s turntable. Some of my first purchases were Van Halen’s 1984, Falco 3, and Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express.
In 1987 I got my first CD player, and now the tape and 12″ album collection I had built began to diversify into this new medium. I also started buying more music at this time, and both Depeche Mode and New Order began to dominate my collection. Later, when some of my friends and I could drive (and had jobs), we would drive from the suburbs into the city and check out all the myriad record shops for better selections than we could find at the mall. I also could afford to spend more on music, and that’s when I began to notice that it was getting harder to manage all the pieces of music I could play.
Of course, I didn’t stop there. In college I began to DJ, both at the university’s radio station (WRCT at Carnegie-Mellon, shout out!) and at local parties and clubs. At this time, DJing was still all about vinyl. Sure, the radio station had some CD decks, but they did not have pitch control. They definitely didn’t have any kind of tactile interface for cueing. So while my personal listening collection of CDs grew, so did the collection of vinyl I used in my DJ toolkit.
The next prong of media diversification in my personal music library happened in about 1996. The MP3 compression format from Fraunhofer enabled the storage of literally tens of thousands of songs on a server at my employer that we could play throughout the day. I was excited by how good the compressed songs sounded and impressed at their tiny file size. It sounds so quaint today, but this was truly a giant leap forward. Without advances in audio compression technology, we would never have digital music players with such vast libraries that we have today. Forget about selling digital songs over the internet unless you’re ready to suck down linear-PCM encoded files clocking in at about 10MB per minute.
So as my nascent digital library grew, I thus began to buy digital music players so I could listen to them anywhere. Sure, like every other kid in the 1980s, I had a Sony Walkman, but these new digital players were different. The first one I bought was the Diamond Rio PMP300 (1998), which had 32MB of storage on solid-state memory. Solid state! That meant I could jog around outside with the player and not have to listen to tape sag each time my foot hit the pavement. Plus, it was very small. The drawback? 32MB of storage just didn’t seem like enough, even with the new affordances of MP3 compression.
The next step up from the original Rio was the same thing, only with more memory: the Diamond Rio PMP300 Special Edition (1999). This one had double the memory, and I also bought a 16MB card for it, bringing its storage capacity to a whopping 80MB. I ultimately decided that it just wasn’t enough fun to have to decide which 14 songs I want to put on my player. Sure, I could compress with a lossier bit rate, but that sacrificed the quality of the songs. If this were truly progress, shouldn’t I be able to listen to good quality and have more than one album on my player?
Somehow I skipped the first iPods, and the first one I owned was the iPod mini (2004), which had 4GB of space. This was finally enough, I thought. It wasn’t solid state, but rather it used a new tiny hard drive called a microdrive. But the microdrive was resilient enough to withstand walking or running, and the battery on the iPod lasted a pretty long time. The only trouble was, by this time my music library had grown past the 4GB point. I think I had about 7GB of music at the time, and it was beginning to get tiresome deciding what to put on the player and what to leave off.
Since then, my digital music library, listening habits, and music players have all transformed significantly. I bought a 30GB iPod Video to hold the entire music library on one device. I began to buy music digitally from Apple’s iTunes digital music store. And I went to work for Zune to develop music recommendation algorithms and social information processing code — of course, when I arrived at work I got a Zune there, too. Now, I’ve owned two cellular telephones that also are music players, and I have a 1GB iPod shuffle for working out. I still have my Zune Pass “all you can eat” music store subscription, which means I have an unlimited supply of music at my disposal. My iTunes library clocks in at over 8400 items, representing 32 days of music at 82GB. Oh yeah, and I also have a giant physical music collection of both vinyl and CDs. I’m feeling overloaded.
Where do I go from here? I know I’m not alone in this predicament. I don’t think new music players with more capacity or smaller footprints are going to solve this problem for me. Tagging, searching, and sorting my iTunes library helps, but the user interface is still more accounting in Excel than it is flipping through records. To make matters worse, I now feel that my physical music library is just sitting there decaying. I play records and CDs sometimes, but usually I am just dialing up a song on iTunes or Zune. I read a lot of blogs, which just blast new music at me 24/7/365. Smart DJ, Genius, and Pandora are all there to help me find music I want to listen to, and they do a decent job. But I think what I really need is less, not more: fewer devices, programs, and sources of music — to savor the experiences music provides rather than to be such an avid consumer. It’s hard to turn off all the voices pushing new music in my face, but I think that’s the only way to stop being a collector and to start being a listener again.
At Zune, one of the most striking pieces of analysis of our customers’ listening habits demonstrated that in general people listened to new music almost exclusively. Building the histogram of play events against release date was telling. I think music has been commercialized into a consumption culture for quite a long time, from the content producers to the distributors and also to the electronics vendors that create new formats, devices, and technologies. But alas, I think now I am going to strive for simplicity. I might just enjoy all that music sitting around here rather than find new ways to gobble up new bytes.Posted: August 1st, 2010 | Tags: digital music, iPod, libraries, mp3, trends, zune | 4 Comments »