The other day, a guitarist friend shared the philosophy that guides his music collection.
He still buys CDs, but only those titles he knows he will return to often -- music he's studying, his all-time favorite albums, etc. His "second tier" collection resides on laptop and phone; this one is larger, and includes everything he's pursued and purchased. Then there's the even bigger reservoir of music he keeps nearby in his Spotify account -- bands people are raving about, recommendations from social-media "friends." And there's more: Below that, he estimates he's got anywhere from 50-100 mp3 files floating around his email inbox, everything from classics to demos from collaborators.
As he was giving this virtual tour, I realized that my collection is a similar scattershot, with an added shelf of promo-version boxed sets sent to critics during the boom years, and an overstuffed queue of password-protected streams sent from labels for advance screening purposes. It's a lot of music. I'm grateful for it every day. And just about any librarian worth his salt would conclude that it's a mess. Not simply owing to the differences between physical documents (CDs, vinyl, etc.) and digital files -- or even "renting" versus "owning" -- but because within each subset there are dramatic variations in terms of audio quality and accompanying information. A question that not long ago would have seemed ridiculous -- "How do you keep your music? -- suddenly has meaning. For professional music omnivores and casual iTunes users and everyone in between.
Most people would say that it's become important to develop some sort of hierarchy, an A list of go-to titles that can be accessed rapidly. Beyond that, is it even possible to impose order on such a glut? It might just be too much to manage, and since everything's just a ping from a cloud away, there's less immediate need to make a decision about what should stick around in the "favorites" or be banished forever.
This has implications for consumers, and also for producers of music. It seems to have already changed the initial investment of time and energy we make when we encounter something new. It lowers the stakes in a way -- if something doesn't hit you immediately, no sweat. Just move it to the "Maybe" playlist, to be revisited later. Or not. We can afford to rush to judgment on any given work, because there's so much more at our fingertips.
Unknown talents hoping to claim a bit of attention for the latest opus might spend a moment to consider these end-user ecosystems where music lives. They're probably like mine -- a bit of a mess. It can be discouraging to think about where your file will end up sitting, in some remote corner of the hard drive next to some neglected audio book. At the same time, creators preparing to send new work out into the virtual world can see this as a healthy challenge: Sure, you can buy Twitter followers and manipulate lots of the metrics surrounding music. But what magic combination of tones and moods and sensibilities does it take to really captivate a listener for more than 30 seconds? To make that listener want to sort through the clutter of files and come back?
Naturally this first-world problem cluster contains myriad opportunity for sleek technological "fixes." There's probably already an app that offers an elegant music organization system across various platforms, streaming services and storage mechanisms. If not, it's likely in the pipeline. If not, well, consider this a free idea. Please, coders, have at it.
Tom Moon is the author of the New York Times bestseller 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, and a contributor to NPR's All Things Considered. His latest music endeavor, Blue Night by Ensemble Novo, has just been released, and is available here.