Monday, February 13, 2006

Digital v Analogue #4: Answering Dr Gempf

In the last DvA article, my good friend Dr Conrad Gempf (who, despite being a Lutheran and a theologian, is an OK guy) contributed some 'comments'. I'm going to respond to them in a Q&A manner, because a. they are good comments, and b. if I don't, he'll probably ruin my next article by putting loads of other comments at the end of this article. Conrad's comments are in italics.

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?

I do think of my music collection as a 'vast collection of songs'. But not in a mathematical, impersonal way. In fact, more than any other collection of stuff that I possess (books, DVDs, typefaces), it is an organic collection. One song can trigger memories of another song, via a wide range of assocations, time, location, emotion, tune, lyrics... which is why having a huge number of songs 'on-tap' is something I enjoy, and the ability to find, list, organise and play them in a huge number of different ways, as the mood takes me!

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.

Yes, all those things are true. However, most of those things are also an argument 'for' rather than 'against' using iTunes. As I mentioned in DVA#3 I started organising my CD collection by genre. However I soon realised that a lot of CDs had a mix of genres, in fact, even deciding what genre an individual track was became tricky. 'Another First Kiss' by They Might Be Giants, humour? love song? pop? rock? alternative? That's why I (reluctantly) chose alphabetical. But that gave its own problems. Do I file the CD under 'Sting' or 'Police', 'Wilson' or 'Beach Boys', 'Mike Scott' or 'Waterboys'? (oh the childish joy of realising 'Maria McKee' and 'Lone Justice' nestled together!).

I do use (multiple) genres on some tracks, but often to exclude as well as include. Songs with offensive language get marked 'profanity', novelty songs with 'smileworthy' or 'bad taste', so I can prepare playlists that are guaranteed not to include them!

However the huge choice that iTunes provides can end up restricting you!

Toward the end of last year I was involved in a nasty car crash. Fortunately no one was hurt, however my trusty, '180,000-miles-without-a-hitch' Toyota Previa was written-off. I purchased another Previa a few days later, identical in just about every way, except for its audio system. Not that the audio system in the new Previa was awful, in fact (as the guy selling it to me was at pains to point out), it had been fitted with an after-market head-unit and a 6CD autochanger

However, the previous Previa had been fitted with a very substantial audio/visual system, including a dock for my iPod. This has now been transferred to the replacement Previa, however in the intervening weeks, I was reacquainted with using CDs. For the best part of four years, CDs have been bought, transferred onto my PowerBook's iTunes library, then 'filed' in one of my CD collections.

And so it was that I found myself choosing and loading 6 CDs into a cartridge before my regular trip to pick up the kidz. The first thing i noticed was how it limited my selection process... I had to decide on which 6 CDs I was going to use for the whole journey... 96 tracks, rather than the 15,000 that I usually have 'on-tap'. After a few minutes deliberation, I put in some old favourites, Brian Wilson's 'Live at the Roxy', Bob Dylan's 'Live 1996', World Party's 'Goodbye Jumbo' and Westlife's 'Face to Face' (OK, I might have lied about the Westlife album).

And so the journey began. It was as the second Brian Wilson CD came to a close I realised it had been months since I had listened to an album all the way through, and how much I had enjoyed the experience. My iPod allows me to do this, but I had got used to listening to it much like my own personal radio station, rather than sequential tracks. The 'album' mode will be selected more frequently from now on.

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.

If I didn't have racks of CDs, I would miss this. That's why I haven't got rid of them (although I know people who have). And although I do download music (primarily from emusic) I still prefer owning and browsing through CDs (something I will be exploring in DvA#5). I've read the classical music arguments on other forums, my knowledge of classical music is so limited that I'm not qualified to comment, but I know that iTunes has moved some way towards resolving some of the problems, and I'm sure that ongoing pressure from people who enjoy old, slow, boring music will see these progressed in the future :-)

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?"

Yes, I agree with this, and it is another reason why the 'listen to by album' is something I'll be doing more of in the future. However, there have always been tracks that I just plain dislike, and it is good to be able to avoid them completely. And now I can listen to a random selection of everything by Bruce Cockburn. Or everything by Bruce Cockburn between 'Nothing But A Burning Light' and 'The Charity Of Night', or every Bruce Cockburn track with the word 'fall' in the title (there are three in my collection).

Like all technology, we shape it, then it shapes us. It is our job to make sure that we exploit the advantages, avoid (and fix) its pitfalls, and acknowledge the areas where the old is better than the new. If Conrad doesn't force another diversion, I'll be looking at that in the next DvA article.


DrGempf said...


brett jordan said...

Save it for the liturgy, big mouth!

Jason Clark said...

I wish iTunes would let me browse by CD art cover....that would add the the visual subconsious experience.