Monday, February 06, 2006

Digital v Analogue #3: Why I love iTunes

In 1989 I purchased my first CD player to supplement the amp, tuner and cassette deck that comprised my design studio’s sound system. I also bought my first CD, a copy of Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy. Month by month I added more shiny discs to my collection. At first I stored the CDs thematically. However, once the collection grew to more than 300, this became impossible to maintain, and so I adopted the conventional (male?) ‘alphabetical, by artist’ approach (with ‘Now That’s What I Call A Great Marketing Idea’-type albums in a separate section). As time went by, I got a CD player at home as well, and some of the CDs began to migrate there, also stored alphabetically.

Fast-forward to 2006. I now possess over 3,000 CDs. A third of them are housed in my Slough-based design studio. Another third are stored in various locations in my house. The other third are with various family and friends I’ve loaned them to over the past 20 years (deep sigh...).

B.I. (Before iTunes) if I wanted to listen to a particular song, I would have to:

a. Remember who performed the song;
b. Remember what the song was called;
c. Remember if the song was on a CD by that artist, or;
d. Whether it was on a compilation CD (and if so, which one!);
e. Remember where the CD was (studio, home, on-loan, car…).


However, now that all the songs I possess and enjoy are situated on my PowerBook, when I think of a song I want to listen to I merely type a few letters into the search bar of iTunes and ‘Hurrah!’, there it is (along with a number of other, easily distinguishable tracks containing the same key words).

No more worrying whether the track is by Kevin Prosch, or the Black Peppercorns, or if it is on the CD he did with Bryn Haworth. No more struggling to remember what that song is called on Blonde on Blonde with the great ‘everybody must get stoned’ refrain at the end of each verse, just type in ‘blonde’ and ‘dylan’, view the 12 tracks, and then, if necessary, play a few bars from each.

Of course, if you’re anything like me (pause for long silence, followed by skyward stares and tuneless whistling), you also type ‘everybody must get stoned’ into the ‘comments’ field of the track, making it even easier to find! (The track is ‘Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35’, but then, you’ve probably already looked it up on Google :-).

Now, I could get even more boring on this subject (no, really, I could!). How I make ‘smart playlists’ to make sure I don’t have to listen to the same song twice in any given month, to filter tracks that might be embarrassing in certain situations, or... OK, I’ll stop now, while I’m behind.

What I do know is that iTunes allows me access to music in ways that were previously impossible. I don’t forget to put the CD back in its case, or put it in the wrong one. I’m not constrained to one method of storage or selection. And I can carry my entire collection around with me wherever I go.

But it's not perfect. The ghost of analogue is never far away, and never more so than with this kind of stuff. And we'll be looking at that in the next DvA article.


ConradGempf said...

For those times when you think "I want to hear a song," yeah. Is that primarily how you think of your music collection, though? A vast collection of songs? Is that how you want to think of your collection?

A CD collection arranged alphabetically encourages you to think not "I want to hear that song" but rather "I want to listen to that artist" and you put them on and a few songs will surprise you "Oh, I forgot that was on there."

A CD collection stored by genre encourages you to think differently as well.

And don't you miss looking at the rack without a clear idea of what to play and feeling like some CD is calling for your attention? Your subconscious has fashioned a link between the music and the experience of looking at the cover such that looking at the bank of covers is browsing experiences as well.

Much of this can be simulated with cover art and smart playlists, but not taking in the vista of a couple of shelves of CDs at once and thinking "Which of these do I feel like hearing next?" And if your collection includes classical works, well, smart playlists still can't seem to handle symphonies as units made up of sub-units.

And I miss the days when I'd look forward to a new Cockburn album coming out, thinking "It'll be good to hear what he's been up to lately." It was like catching up with an old friend. I don't seem to have that same relationship with musicians now, for a variety of reasons. One of them is that now iTunes and eMusic are teaching me to evaluate each individual hermetically Song Unit and decide "Do I want this one? This one? This one?"

brett jordan said...

OK Conrad, just SPOIL my next article why don't you!

Major Look said...

Conrad - Surely you could just browse by Genre, Artist or Album by using the Browse button at the top right hand side in iTunes and have a similar experience?

Also, the more Genres you have the greater the surprise :-)

But I know what you mean.

Can Opener Boy said...

Hi Brett,

I liked your article. I remember the hours and hours of putting CDs into my iMac.

And now, with my iPod, I can't fit all the music I have (it is *only* 20GB -- I think my first computer had a 40Mb hard drive and that seemed HUGE!).

While I love digitized music, I also still really like the analogue sound (even with the scratches and hisses and pops) of playing "records" on a turntable.

So I also sympathize with some of Conrad's rhetorical questions.

On a related subject, I think there will always be books because not everyone will derive the same pleasure from reading a pdf as from dog-earing a page or curling up on a couch with a cat and a good volume of Stephen King!

~ Keith