How Much Music Is Enough?

Marginal Revolution wrote again this morning about the Bach box (which I really want to get), but also pointed me to a great question: “How much music is enough?”

Jane Galt writes:
Currently, I've got about 1100 songs, which is fine, but not enough for me to achieve that sense of security that comes from knowing that you'll have something you want to listen to every single time you fire up your iPod.


But how many is enough? 1,100 is, as I can personally attest, well short of enough; every time I open iTunes there is something missing. So how far am I from achieving my goal of musical nirvana? 3,000? 5,000? More? I'm not asking when I'll stop needing new music; presumably, there will always be room in the inn. But when will I stop feeling that empty, yearning sensation every time I open a music player?
Definitely check out the rest of her post and the comments, for some interesting and funny insights.

But here are my thoughts, since you asked:
After losing some of my music when my iBook died (not all of it - I do back up!), I was actually blessed by being able to start over with my iTunes library. All the songs I had accumulated over the last several years were now on equal footing - zero plays, zero stars. Once I had restored what I backed up, I took to ripping albums I hadn’t ever ripped because of space constraints - now I had a much larger hard drive on my notebook, and two really huge LaCie external drives on which I decided I would now be storing my music. Why the external drives? Well I reasoned that there were two times I could be listening to music: in my room with my computer at my desk, or somewhere else where I would have my iPod. There’s nothing really between those two situations - no time where I would want to listen to music on my laptop while, say, in front of the TV. So I had a plan to rebuild and finally optimize my iTunes library to my listening habits. Later this week, I intend to post more about the system I use, and some tips for rating and organizing your music, but for now, we’re talking about size.

Just how big is my library?
Well, between my old CDs and mp3s, stuff from EMusic, and other sources, I managed to increase my library to its current size of 15,597 songs (Very nearly 80GB). That’s music from over 2,000 albums, spanning from Hayden and Bach and Bulgarian folk songs to Horse the Band, Bauhaus, and Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs. It is a lot of music, and no, I haven’t yet listened to every track (not even in part). However, in less than three months (and really only one diligent month with the system I came up with), I have over 7,000 of these songs rated and will have the entire library rated by May, I’m sure. Is it enough music, though?

No. Here’s why:
For me, music is - always has been - about discovery. It’s what used to be amazing about listening to the radio (before it became choked with ads and regurgitated the same 20 tunes) - a random song you’ve never heard before comes on and is just perfect, hits just the right chord, at that singular moment in time. The joy in subsequently figuring out the artist, buying the album, and then popping it in your CD player was unbeatable. Being the first, telling your friends, sharing the experience of listening to something new and life-changing - being surprised by something you didn’t know even existed - that is totally what music is about. Was about.

Was about?
Yeah, like it or not, our listening patterns have changed. With the introduction of mp3 players (more honestly, the iPod) we were all given incredible levels of control over what we listened to at any moment. It’s simply next in the progression from LP (moving the needle from track to track), to cassette (pressing FF and guessing), to CD (pressing next, but still limited to one album). Now, at your fingertips, there is the power to pick any song, play it for any length of time, and skip to another song, and keep skipping until you find what it is you want to listen to.

While there is great, great joy to be had in simply shuffling at random (the wild success of the iPod Shuffle definitely illustrates this), I think all will agree that it is not enough. Now that you have control, how can you resist the temptation to take control? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s set my iPod to shuffle during my morning commute, only to be aurally assaulted when a song by Melt Banana follows a song by Air. Likewise, who can deny the embarrassment and awkwardness when, in the midst of a tender, romantic, passionate make-out session, a Daniel Johnston tune pops up to destroy the moment entirely? (Note: I’m sure there are people in this world who love to make out to Daniel Johnston. That’s cool for them. Not for me.). Shuffling just isn’t practical, all the time. Part of the reason that radio used to work is that the playlists were hand-picked so that there could be surprises, but none like this:

A: Hey, guess what?
B: What?
A: Herpes! Are you surprised?
B: ...

Blind shuffling can actually be detrimental to your music listening habits, causing you to have unfortunate and negative reactions to music that, under some other circumstances, could be your favorite tune of the moment. Hating music is not cool. That’s why it is important to gain control over your library and use it to your advantage.

Zen and the Art of Exercising Control
It is only by exercising this control that one can begin to reduce (and this is the ultimate, Zen-like goal of all this). I don’t mean to reduce the overall size of the library - but to reduce it to little, digestible nuggets of relatedness. You can do this in a number of ways, and I’ll detail some of mine in a later post, but once you find a good system, and get your entire back catalog aligned with it, future additions to your library can be added easily and effectively. The important thing to keep in mind is this: you don’t have to listen to every single song all the way through to decide where it needs to go. Initially, the rating/sorting should be based on your immediate reaction to the song. As you live and grow with your music, you will find things that need to change. You will continue to be surprised, in a good way, by things that you own.

There’s an important balance to achieve in sorting your library. The level of detail radio stations and DJs pay to arranging their playlists is more than you ought to, typically. You will end up knowing too well what’s on each list, and could easily become bored. The point is to craft these lists to encourage moments of serendipity, moments of accidental harmony with life. To take control is not to control, but to guide. To create paths of flow.

How much music is enough music?
This is like asking “How much air is enough air?”

You can only breathe one breath at a time. But you can breathe every single moment of every single day for your entire life.

How much music is enough music? I don’t know...I haven’t made it there yet.