Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Collector

I'm a lifelong devotee of music. In my early teens I saved my money to buy my first stereo set and began collecting LPs. The advent of the CD came in my junior year of college, and I promptly sold all my LPs and put the money toward CDs. (This is a pattern destined to be repeated in later years.)

I actually bought a couple CDs before I had any means of playing them--I still have them: a Denon disc of Sweelinck organ music and some ceremonial music of Handel--and had to take out a bank loan to buy my first CD player, a Sony CDP-610 ES. I remember it was $850 bucks (at a time when $850 was a lot of money, at least to me).

Anyway, what began as a musically-related stereo machinery fetish pretty quickly became a music fetish and a CD-collection fetish. I was particular, so I didn't just grab anything I could get my hands on (I knew people who did this), but music was my primary recreational outlay for a couple decades. I managed to amass about 5,000 CDs before the download era began, for me, with the advent of iTunes.

The impetus to collect must be related to the need to hoard. Maybe it's exactly the same.

Anyway. One of the challenges of the era of downloaded / streamed music was the fact that you didn't GET anything. That's especially irksome to a collector when you had to PAY for the download. In essence, you're paying for the right to listen as often as you like to iTunes's copy of a CD. In the beginning, I burned a copy of everything I bought at the iTunes Store, telling myself that this guaranteed I retained the music for which I'd payed if I were to abandon Apple and go to some other music streaming site. (I don't even remember when I downloaded my first music from iTunes, but it must have been close to 15 years ago. And in the beginning there was no guarantee that 1) streaming / downloading was really the way to go, and 2) that iTunes would be the place to keep doing it.)

Mostly, I think I just wanted to HAVE something for my purchase.

Well, I quickly acclimated to the new protocol, and even shopping for CDs--once my favorite single way to spend a day in a big city--became burdensome compared to just sampling things online and clicking "BUY." For a number of years I continued to buy some physical CDs, mostly because the obscure pipe organ music I collect often did not find its way to iTunes. But even these specialty retailers have shrunk and disappeared, most of them, so that nowadays it's downloads or nothing.

It's really been a huge shift in how we acquire and use our music, and I can only imagine what a change it represents for musical artists. The ability to make a top-shelf recording on your laptop is now very much in hand, but the ability to get that product to a wider audience is SO available as to be almost useless for the average Jane.

And now things have moved another step away from the old model. First came iTunes Match, where for a yearly fee Apple would upload ALL your music to their cloud--whether you bought it from Apple or not--and then make it available on all your devices as a streaming service. That's REALLY brilliant. I have all 60,000 pieces of my collection available anywhere I have data (cellular and wifi in the US, wifi everywhere else), and I'm able to save things locally for offline use. And save for that last bit, I don't need to take ANY memory on my device to have all this music available. Even better, if it's music that Apple has in its collection, it streams to you at CD quality, even if it was ripped into your personal collection at lower quality (to save precious memory space).

That's just really, really cool.

In the beginning iTunes Match was restricted to libraries of 25,000 songs or less, so I had to wait five or six years before the restriction on library size was quietly lifted. And with one click (and $25) my library was suddenly everywhere--a fact in which I reveled when last week in Germany I was listening to some obscure Charles Tournemire pieces from my library on my iPad--which had never had those pieces onboard at any time previous. Fabulous.

The other wrinkle is Apple Music, a monthly subscription that lets you listen unrestrictedly to almost anything in Apple's library. That sets you back $10 a month ($15 for a family account), which means that I can listen to almost anything now anywhere for about $150 a year--which is about what I used to spend a month on music. And for a guy that travels for a living, this having access to almost anything almost anywhere is nearly too good to be true. (If you're a completeist, there is still an opportunity to spend additional money. Apple's free library contains millions and millions of things, but many artists withhold some of their albums from the service so you have to pay for some things. But a couple years into this now I have yet to succumb.)

But what of the collector in me? I now have access to almost any music I can think of--including an infinity of stuff I don't care a whit about--but I possess none of it (or none of the new stuff).

Well, I find my attitudes have shifted (slowly, because I'm old and crotchety) again.

A collection is really a structure in the human brain. That's really the thing I've had to assimilate. What makes my collection mine is me. It's my brain, my preferences, my tastes, my habits. And apart from the desire for acquisition (which strictly speaking is a thing that maybe it's good to stifle), all these things remain quite intact with or without the physical items. (It's like the WWII history expert: her expertise has little or nothing to do with what physical things she possesses.)

Well, that took some adjustment. But now I've begun to wonder at the wall of CDs in my music room--which, frankly, I haven't looked at in the better part of a decade. And with every passing year I'm less and less to ever look at them--and I'll eventually have no means of playing them in any case (My computers already are without disc readers / burners except for the external ones I buy just in case.) Even the liner notes are of little use: I just zip over to Wikipedia to get a question answered.

When the iPad first came out, I snapped one up (well, the second generation). And literally after reading my first book on one I promptly sold almost every physical book I owned and put that money toward re-buying electronic versions of the ones I cared about. Particularly for my lifestyle, the ability to carry my library with me was almost unfathomably grand. Notwithstanding my friends who are staunch advocates of the paper book 'til death, I've honestly had zero regrets. Just the opposite.

But music is a much bigger deal to me. Selling off / ditching my CDs is really like cutting a piece of myself off and throwing it away. That's what it feels like. Stupid or not, a piece of my self-identity is wrapped up in that collection of physical things: it's a piece of my brain on public display. I don't know why this should matter, and maybe I'm making my way to a place where it won't matter, a place where I'm secure with the notion that my collection lives in me and not outside of me.

Most of it. There's some stuff overhead and more behind the view-blocking treadmill. And a cabinet full of stuff upstairs. The remains of my paper books are there on the bottom shelf. Apple should love the shit out of me.


CyberKitten said...

That is one IMPRESSIVE music collection!

William Stachour said...

By now I"m guessing nearly half the collection never existed in CD form--well, maybe 1/3 of the collection. So it's bigger than this by a goodly amount.

And yet with Apple Music, it kinda doesn't matter! ;-)