Since I was 12, I’ve maintained a fairly impressive iTunes collection. What began as a place for me to digitize my CDs has grown into a fifty-plus gigabyte collection that is, frankly, a bit unwieldy to browse through. I’ve been thinking about the differences between having a digital musical library versus having a physical music library–one where you can browse through CDs or other methods of music storage, such as vinyl or cassette tapes–and I’ve considered a few differences overall.
- In a digital music space, organization is more fluid and more customizable.
David Weinberger notes in his article “The New Order of Order” that iTunes taught us “the natural unit of music is the track” (para. 5). When you input thousands of songs into a digital repository, you can easily organize them however you wish–by name, by artist, by album, even by genre. This runs counter to having a physical music collection, where everything must be taken as a unit. If you have a copy of Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, for example, you can’t just remove one song from the album and place it with others. Likewise, if you have a compilation album of various artists, such as the charity compilation Dark Is the Night, you can’t put songs by individual artists with other work by those artists; the album must be consumed as a unit. Both approaches have their advantages: digital organization helps users find individual similar items fairly easily, while physical collections allow users to see tracks as part of a whole, separate product.
In addition, digital music libraries allow users to customize playlists–i.e. different groupings of songs based on how the user wishes to group them. I can have a “Workout” playlist that features songs I find good for running. What I think is good running music, however, might not be what someone else considers to be good running music. Playlists end up being hugely subjective and sometimes require guidance from the person who created them; a casual user who is not familiar with the library may need certain groupings explaining to them, as the logic may not be terrifically obvious to begin with, making the library difficult to navigate by themselves.
- Audio quality can vary wildly.
Like most young people who grew up in the 2000s, I did a good share of illegal downloading as a broke teenager with no money. (I don’t advise resorting to piracy the way I did.) If I couldn’t buy materials off of the iTunes store, I would end up resorting to Limewire, a filesharing service, with mixed results. Limewire was a true crapshoot in terms of what you could download, and as a result I have files that are .MP3, .WMA, .MP4, .AAC, and .WAV. To say they’re not consistent is definitely one way of looking at it. Some of these tracks are lossier than others; you can hear digital artefacts, like pixellated noise, or the audio gets tinny. In addition, some tracks that have been part of my music library for over ten years which were converted into Apple’s “”lossless” format (.AAC) have begun to glitch and erode over time. By contrast, the CDs that I have, for the most part, sound as good as they did the day I got them. I’ve run the risk of scratching them if I played them too many times in my stereo, but otherwise the audio quality has remained the same. It seems that digital music libraries may require constant upkeep and re-updating of files to ensure they do not become lossy over time in a way that physical forms of music may not require.
- Metadata becomes more customizable–and potentially nightmarish.
When you digitize music, there’s usually a good deal of metadata that arrives with the music itself. If you buy from the iTunes store, for instance, the names of songs will already be filled out, as will the name of the artist, the album title, any relevant composers, and even genre. There is usually a space for album artwork and lyrics as well, should you choose to add those. But is there a good, coherent way to organize music digitally by genre in a way that will make sense for casual users?
Musical genre can sometimes be a minefield. For music aficionados, it becomes a question of whether or not music should be classified broadly (i.e. “rock”) or by narrower subgenres (i.e. “alt-folk,” “acid jazz”). Genre distinctions can be difficult to narrow down, especially in a formal sense. Kulczak and Lennertz Jetton (2011), for instance, note that MaRC (a formal library cataloguing structure) is geared towards classifying classical music rather than pop music, and that LCSH subheadings for newer music genres, like EDM, may not exist yet (218). In addition, users may not agree as to what genre(s) a piece of music may belong to–there’s usually a general consensus among the broader category, but the level of detail is subjective to the user (230). This presents an additional challenge for users who may be navigating an iTunes library with little knowledge of genre, especially if the person who has organized the music library decides to use narrower terms for genres. The controlled vocabulary for a person’s individual music library is going to differ based on their preferences and how much of a music nerd they are; however, it can also make searching within the library difficult if a casual user has no idea what to look for.
In contrast, a physical music collection only has the metadata that is presented on the CD/vinyl case–nothing more, nothing less. To some degree, that makes it standardized; a hard copy of an Adele album will always have the same tracks listed in the same order and will probably include the composition credits in a leaflet inside the CD without additional frills. Browsing through a physical music library may help someone who is fairly new to music and who does not want to be overwhelmed with information all at once, while browsing a digital music library may be better suited for those who are more familiar with the collection.
Although I know we will be building digital libraries that are different from an iTunes library, I cannot help but think about how I’ve organized my own digital music library over the past few years. Other people must also have music libraries that only make sense to them. It’s fine for personal use, obviously, but not an ideal way to organize a formal digital library for unfamiliar users to come in and browse. Clearly, I’ll need to take a different approach when I begin designing my digital library for this course.
Kulczak, D. E. & Lennertz Jetton, L. (2011). “Lexicon of love”: Genre description of popular music is not as simple as ABC. Music Reference Services Quarterly, 14(4), 210-238.
Weinberger, D. (2007). The new order of order. In Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder. Retrieved from http://arola.kuurola.com/356/spring12/readings/unit1/weinberger_ch1.pdf