Essays on Technology and Culture

Whittling Down the Musical Backlog

My name is Richard J. Anderson, and I have a problem. I have a huge music collection, and I’ve barely listened to any of it. I have a Smart Playlist in iTunes for all music with a play count of zero. It contains 90 gigabytes of music. 90 gigabytes. That is a lot of music. This happened because I am, by nature, a completionist. I want complete discographies of my favorite artists, including singles, B-sides, and live albums. I gravitate towards extended versions of albums, special editions, bonus tracks and bonus discs—even for artists and bands I’m just starting to get into. Now, I’m in a crippling music debt, and Crush On Radio isn’t helping.

I’ve decided to whittle away at this backlog, slowly but surely. It’s starting with an official moratorium on new downloads—excluding picks for Crush On Radio. It’s a little thing, but it keeps the problem from becoming increasingly, exponentially, worse.

The second part is to sit down and actually listen to the music. I’m accomplishing this with a pretty simple setup: a Smart Playlist of unplayed tracks, and LaunchBar. Since iTunes handles playcounts on a track-by-track basis, it’s impossible without scripting to pull a list of complete albums with unplayed tracks. Instead, the Smart Playlist gives me a visual overview of what is sitting in my library, and I summon the complete album using LaunchBar.

If there’s a missing element to this, it’s music on the go. I’m willing to think in depth about solving this problem, as I have a short commute and mostly spend it listening to podcasts over music. However, the basic framework for a solution is in place here, starting with another Smart Playlist, this one of music that I’ve added to my library in the last two weeks. This gets synced with my iPhone and iPad—whenever I think to sync—and gives me the freshest music in my library.

Handling the archives of unplayed material is going to be trickier. I’ve found some scripts that can help pull and generate playlists of albums, but I’ll still have to winnow those playlists down to fit on a 32GB device, and nestle alongside apps, books, and my evergreen portable music collection.

Remember, that’s 90 gigs of music. If they ever put out a 256GB iPhone and iPad, this would be less of a problem.

Finally, there’s the hardest thing to do for any music fan: culling. Typically, I cull music from my library only when I’m upgrading an album to a superior version. I don’t need two versions, for example, of Frank Zappa’s Hot Ratswhen the 2012 remaster is so much better than the previous version. I have music in my collection that I’ve picked up with the full intention of listening to so I can see if I will like an artist or band, only to put it aside. I need to isolate those albums, play them, and decide if they should stay or go.

I’m probably never going to have a music collection small enough to use iTunes Match, or not need an external hard drive, or cause iTunes to take several minutes to launch. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t know what’s in there, listen to it, and have only things in it that I enjoy.