I recently started using my Zune for music during my work commute, and I’ve since realized some things about myself and my practices with music.
When I first began curating my own music collection, I was in a far different situation than what I am today.
Somewhere around 13 years old, I knew very little about digital music and didn’t have any way to fund my catalog of music. I did, however, have an older cousin who taught me the art of illegally downloading music. By requesting albums from bands I liked for birthdays and Christmas, and supplementing this with individual tracks from the flavor of the week music downloading client, I gradually built up a decent collection of songs.
In a household with a painfully slow dial-up internet connection and family who frequently used the phone, constant internet access was completely unheard of. Therefore, I manually entered the album and track data of any albums I acquired. If I didn’t have a case or the case didn’t have track listings, I would listen to each song and label it with my best guess at the title. Once I finally discovered that Windows Media Player would automatically populate these fields when ripping while connected to the internet, I made a point to only rip songs when I could be online. The benefit was twofold, as I got correct information and didn’t have to enter it myself.
Given the speed and irregularity of internet access during my childhood and young teen years, downloading a single song was a huge ordeal. Whether I was using Kazaa, Limewire, or Frostwire (I caught the tail end of Napster, but never used it personally), an average length song might take me 30 minutes to download. Obviously, I had to choose carefully which songs to acquire, and finally listening to the track in its entirety was a blissful experience.
If I really liked an artist, I might put in the time and effort to find a track list and attempt to build an entire album from individually downloaded songs. Finding singles and other popular songs was usually pretty easy, but some of the more obscure songs on an album were nearly impossible to find. Intro tracks that served as an instrumental or spoken lead-in to the actual first song? Pft, forget it, nobody had those available.
My untrained ear had no idea what bitrate was, and honestly didn’t care. All I knew was that this field usually had a value between 100 and 300, and most of my downloads were on the lower end. Listening to 128 kbps tracks now is nearly unbearable, something akin to the screech of nails on a chalkboard. On the other hand, a properly mixed 320 kbps track sounds like the serenade of angels.
After a few years, I had managed to pull together somewhere between 2000 and 3000 tracks into my personal collection, and I was extremely proud of this feat. If someone brought up their love of music, I’d throw around these figures as a measure of my own superiority. Oh, you think you’re cool with your sleeve of 20 albums? Check this behemoth of a collection out.
Once I started college and encountered others with a love of music like my own, I was exposed to new means of gathering music and my collection grew tremendously.
MediaFire was a huge influence in my transition from individual tracks to entire albums. Not only was it easier to acquire full albums than single songs, I was exposed to all the tracks on an album rather than just picking and choosing the ones that I knew I liked. Listening to songs I’d picked up as an afterthought introduced me to some of my favorite music.
In addition to the legally and morally questionable MediaFire, I also discovered the plethora of fully legal music available at the local public library. Paid for by the taxes of local residents, I had shelves and shelves of albums available to be ripped at no direct cost to me. With a limit of 10 items at any given time, I spent quite a while choosing albums almost at random to rip. If I’m not paying any extra for it, why not check them out?
With so many musical outlets at my fingertips, the collection that I had taken such pride in before seemed quite minimal. I quickly boosted my collection to 8,000+ tracks and realized that this number could very easily and very quickly climb much higher.
As I matured in music taste and acquisition method, I began to transform and see music as something to be carefully gathered and presented in the most organized and informative way possible.
The turning point for my approach to music came when I discovered Google Play Music. Instead of relying on locally stored music from my Zune or desktop, I could have my collection available online to stream from anywhere. Furthermore, the user interface allowed me to sort and select music with numerous different criteria. The heavily visual UI presented album art front and center, and tracks with wrong or missing data or artwork were obviously out of place.
I spent months attempting to clean up my music collection, all the while continuing to obtain new music. I hunted down album art for almost every track I had, mostly thanks to allmusic.com and Amazon. Figuring out the public library’s online catalog and how to place holds on albums made finding albums and artists I was interested in immensely easier. Instead of grabbing an album I would come across here or there, I would place holds on an artist’s entire discography if available.
My rate of obtaining new music was out of control. The 20k track limit on Google Play Music, once a ridiculously impossible sum, quickly became no more than a few hundred tracks away. I began actually listening to albums as I obtained them, and deleting them if I didn’t really enjoy them. Sorting out the chaff gave me a better idea of what all I had in my collection, but also made me gather music with caution.
Track bitrate, which I previously had no clue or care about, became increasingly important. I refused to rip albums below 320 kbps, and I even began attempting to replace any inferior tracks with a higher bitrate version. Albums that I had ripped before learning about bitrate, I simply deleted the current digital version and replaced it with a newly ripped version. Songs I had acquired from the various downloading services I used before were a bit harder to address. The public library obviously had many of them, but a few still linger with no viable replacement (other than paying for them, and who pays for music?).
One amazing feature of Google Play Music that vastly changed how I consume music is the “thumbs up” auto playlist. The rating system of GPM by default consists of a thumbs up or thumbs down. Tracks that users give a thumbs up are automatically aggregated into a playlist. This means that instead of shuffling every bit of music I own, I could only shuffle tracks that I genuinely enjoy. Why keep music I don’t like? Well, as I mentioned before, music became more about completion and collection than simply listening.
Luckily, as I teetered in the 19,000-20,000 song range, Google increased the limit from 20k to 50k uploaded tracks. For many people, 50,000 is probably more music than they would ever listen to in a lifetime, let alone collect in digital format. I am not many people. While I was immensely appreciative of this track limit increase, I was not so unwise as to think that I might never hit it. I once thought 20k was a huge limit, but I eventually found it to be extremely constricting.
Listening to a Time Capsule
Trying to conserve phone battery and storage space, I recently decided to employ my Zune again as a dedicated music player. Though it doesn’t have anywhere near the full library of music I’ve curated, it doesn’t take up my precious 16gb of phone storage, nor does it eat up my battery.
Immediately upon shuffling the contents of my Zune, I was blown away by such a fantastic stream of music. Songs I hadn’t listened to in years, and track after track was just an amazing piece of art. Obviously, all these tracks were in my Google Play Music library as well, but many of them had slipped under the radar without receiving a thumbs up, and even the ones who had were mixed in with thousands upon thousands of other tracks. I shuffle my entire Google Play library and only truly enjoy a small subset of what plays, only recognizing maybe half of it.
Nostalgia is a strong emotion (is it technically an emotion? experience maybe?), and the intense approval of music from shuffling my Zune eventually began to fade somewhat. Not that I liked the music any less, but it wasn’t quite as prominently fantastic as when I first hooked it up. When I started looking through the music on my Zune, however, I was taken aback at how unorganized it was. The very first item in the artist list was a collection of tracks with no known artist or album information. Such chaos bothered me, but the songs in this group were an absolutely stellar collection of tracks. These were songs that I remember playing on repeat over and over, just because I loved them so much.
I wondered for a moment why it would be that all of the songs without artist or album information were so fantastic. Finally, it occurred to me: these were songs that I enjoyed enough to specifically seek out when obtaining music was difficult. These weren’t songs from an album I’d ripped or downloaded because of 1 track. They weren’t as easy as checking out a stack of discs and ripping them all one after another. Every single one of these songs was painstakingly acquired specifically because of its individual worth. I didn’t have any idea who sang them or what album they were from, but that didn’t matter. These songs were just amazing.
After a pensive time of exploring myself, I began to realized how the joy in getting new music was all but gone. Instead of specifically searching for that one song I just couldn’t get enough of, I could grab 10 albums at a time and not listen to a single one of them. Sure, they were carefully labeled with the proper title, artist, album, genre, and all the other metadata, but that didn’t mean the music was good. My music collection had become something to look at and marvel over the organization of, instead of listening to great songs.
Though the old music on my zune gave me a huge dose of nostalgia, I wouldn’t trade my current music collection away for the world. In the past decade or so, I’ve been exposed to a ton of new artists and genres I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. My current music acquisition habits are both legal and ethical, and they support the artist in at least some small way. I have proper metadata now, so I can easily locate a specific song, album, or artist with very little hassle. I’ve replaced many of the old, low bitrate tracks with higher bitrate versions. And if I really want to experience the nostalgia of the music on my Zune, I could just make a playlist of those songs from my current collection.
I’ve evolved through the years as a person, specifically with my approach to music, and in many other ways as well. However, I genuinely feel I will always have a love for music. Even if I gather the music in different ways, or listen to it on completely different platforms, the audible art will always have a special place in my heart.
Note: Please be aware, my above comment about nobody paying for music is completely tongue in cheek. I certainly don’t hemorrhage tons of money into the industry, as I am a very frugal individual, but I do occasionally purchase albums that the library does not have. Obviously, I want the bands that I enjoy to continue making music, and they are only able to do that by earning money from their work.
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