Letting go …. almost

February 3, 2013

While I’m here in the office this Sunday afternoon, my MacBook Pro is home, moving my 70,000 track iTunes library onto a new 2 TB hard drive.

It’s a move occasioned by a recent glitch, in which I had to have my MacBook’s hard drive replaced. In itself that was no big deal, but in the process I had to re-install my system hardware and set up a new iTunes library, something I’ve probably done 15 or 20 times over the past decade. It’s not terribly difficult, but when you’re dealing with as many tracks as I am, it is time-consuming.

Especially if you’re like me, a little obsessive compulsive. I want the album art to be right, and the tracks listed by artist, alphabetically by last name except when that’s ridiculous. (As in Pop, Iggy.) It’ll take the Macbook Pro six to 12 hours to rebuild the library, and it will take me another year to get everything exactly how I like it.

(I should say that my Macbook Pro is now dedicated exclusively to iTunes and running my digital audio workshop of choice, which at the moment if Apple’s Garageband — though I might go back to Logic if I ever get the hang of manipulating MIDI files. I have a new Airbook to write on. I have lots of First World problems, I know.)

Anyway, I don’t know why I’m even bothering with setting up iTunes again, or why I still maintain my CD collection.542424_10151444224791212_1728621456_n

I have finally made the move to Spotify. Though I was an early invitee—during its first weeks operating in the U.S., you had to be invited to use Spotify—it took me quite some time before I actually began using the service.

If you don’t know exactly what Spotify is, you can think about it this way: It’s a service that provides its subscribers—or maybe it’s better to say “listeners,” since most of its clients, in this country at least, use an advertiser-supported free version of the service—access to most of the recorded music in the world. (It’s not the only streaming service—there’s also Rhapsody and the online radio service Pandora, as well as a number of smaller players—but it’s the one with which I have the most experience.)

On one hand, Spotify is like radio; it gives you music in exchange for the opportunity to expose you to advertising—if you want to forego the advertising, you can pay about $10 a month.

But it’s really more like having an immense personal library of music stored online—in what people call “the cloud.” Unlike radio, there’s no programmer deciding what tune will be played next (or what will be played 50 times in the next week). The Spotify listener can search and find (almost) whatever they want. They can search by artist, by album, by track, by keyword.

Some artists don’t allow their music on Spotify—there’s no Beatles aside from some tracks they recorded in 1961 in collaboration with Tony Sheridan and lousy-sounding early home recordings featuring Stuart Sutcliffe— but it is amazing what you can find with very little effort. Need to remind yourself of the track listing of Dave Edmunds’ 1977 album Get It? It’s there on Spotify. High Tides’ Sea Chanties from 1969? It’s there. I found four versions of Hudie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s “Governor Pat Neff” instantly.

A couple of weeks ago, Karen caught an episode of Stephen Koch’s Arkansongs that was about heard about the harmonica player Lonnie Glosson — an early exponent of the “talkin’ blues” style practiced by Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. I don’t happen to have any Glosson in my collection (which on the face of it is odd, I have a lot of Depression-era Arkansas artists).

Anyway, it took about six seconds to dial up a few Glosson tracks on Spotify — “Lonnie’s Fox Chase,” “I Got the Jitters Over You,” “I Want my Mama” and his big hit from 1936, “Arkansas Hard Luck Blues.”

For someone like me, who writes about music, Spotify’s a very handy thing to have on my computer desktop. I often use it when I’m reviewing recently released music—if it’s out, it’s probably on Spotify. Along with the artist’s previous work. It’s easier than lugging around a CD case (or a hard drive).

I don’t usually use it when I’m listening to music for pleasure—or playing it in the background at a dinner party—simply because I’m not as comfortable using it as I am with my present iTunes-based system. I suppose I could figure how to play Spotify throughout the house, but that would require a little more effort than I’m willing to give it.

Spotify claims it is the world’s largest streaming service, with about three million paying customers worldwide. Yet my sense—which I’ve heard echoed by people who have genuinely analyzed the sector— is that no one has really figured out exactly how to make on-line music streaming financially sustainable yet. But don’t worry, they will. Soon, you won’t need a personal library of MP3 tracks, much less racks of CDs or vinyl LPs.

What this means is that what I quaintly think of as “my record collection” is obsolete. If I can, at any time, access virtually anything—including everything Skip James and Peetie Wheatstraw ever recorded—what real utility is there in keeping the physical copies of music in my house? Okay, maybe some would make the case that digitalization somehow sterilizes music or that there are still occasions when the Internet drops out for a while (though at my house, we have a back-up). But I almost never play a CD anymore, and the only time when I play a vinyl record is in order to create a digital copy of it.

No doubt there are a few audiophiles who will insist on 180-gram vinyl and Mcintosh preamplifiers, and, leaving aside questions of sonic fidelity, collectors under the tyranny of the tangible who want a tactile record of their experience.

But even though digitalization of media does not inexorably lead to the death of collecting, it certainly devalues collections. I still have a rack of more than 7,000 CDs, and probably another 5,000 stashed away in file boxes and folders, as well as nearly 70,000 tracks on a hard drive — a collection I have amassed and “curated” for more than 40 years. Now, for about $10 a month, anyone can have a comparable collection.

Check that — a much more complete collection.

Similarly, there is no stronger argument than nostalgia for my continuing attachment to cloth and paper books, or for that matter, newspapers in their traditional form. (Though I prefer working crosswords with a pen, rather than a keyboard.)

This makes me uneasy, in part because one of the ways people of my generation defined ourselves was by the media we consumed, and we advertised ourselves through these collections. One of the best ways of quickly learning something about someone you just met was to flip through their record collection or to case their bookshelves. Now, I suppose you might glean something from examining the contents of someone’s iPod or Kindle, though neither of these appliances seems designed to facilitate public display. (Though Spotify does have a feature that posts what you’re listening to to the newsfeed of your Facebook friends, I have turned this off, lest people misunderstand when they learn that I’ve just listened to Homer and Jethro’s “How Much is that Hound Dog in the Window.”)

The past couple of years I have committed to a program of divestment—I keep very few of the CDs, DVDs and books that cross my desk. And if I do keep one, then something must go; 400 books went out the door earlier this year. I no longer have the excuse that I need an extensive library of reference books or a complete set of Alan Lomax’s field recordings to adequately do my job.

I suppose I should feel liberated—and the digitalization of all things has allowed me to relax a little, as I better understand that there’s very little that would actually be lost should my hard drives fail. But I can’t help but mourn the pleasures of the hunt. When we were young, one of the thrills of going to another city was the chance to root through different record and book stores. You can’t discover a digital file at a garage sale or in a thrift store. They can’t be autographed. They make lousy souvenirs. I still have my walls of books, but I understand that they are as anachronistic as pretty manners, something that may be appreciated but hardly seems necessary in these interesting times.


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