Monday, July 25, 2011

Inspiration Information: My Music Library As Data

Last week, I woke up and turned my computer on. These are typically the first two things I do on a given day, and I was doing them especially early on this day, thanks to oppressive heat. But my computer wasn't turning on. It would start to boot up, then I'd hear a click and it would shut off. Every time. I was thinking "fuck, it's the hard drive."

I took it in that afternoon, and was told to expect the worst. My first thought was that I had lost my music files. I've spent years collecting them, listening to them, and ensuring the tags are correct. To lose my mp3s would be--and I'm not exaggerating--a tremendous blow to my well-being.

Thankfully, I don't keep most of my music on my computer's hard drive. I have an external drive for that, which I had forgotten about in my panic (aside from music, most of my life is on that hard drive). But it's a pretty precarious situation. My music is on there, and nowhere else, in many cases. I back up things I don't physically own once a year, in August. If my external hard drive stopped working tomorrow, I'd lose everything I've been listening to in the past year. I'm sure I'd remember to replace the Destroyer and Four Tops that have dominated my listening. But I probably wouldn't seek out the Vibrators' excellent first album, which I borrowed from Nathan--I doubt I'd ever hear that again.

If my library disappeared, I'd lose considerably more than files. This is why I still prefer CDs to buying music digitally. To pay for an mp3--that seems like paying for air. It's a strange experience, purchasing something you can't touch. And I never really learned that mp3s had any value. I spent a lot of time on mp3 blogs a few years ago, and was never asked for a fee. When I did college radio, labels just sent mp3s for free. When I do buy an mp3, I'm cognizant of the fact that it could disappear tomorrow.

But anyways, the reason these files are more than just data--that people would consider buying them at all--is that they're music, and they're really important to people. Losing these files is to lose the locus of every memory and connection you felt to them. To me, it's important to have the music I listened to in 2006 because that is one of few tangible connections I have to my life then. It's not that I fire up iTunes and listen to The Hold Steady all the time. But it's meaningful that I can access this music (and its personal context) when I choose to. It's even more significant with the music I wouldn't remember to seek out again--hearing the marginalia of my old listening on shuffle is one reason I love that feature so much.

So, count me as skeptical of the new cloud services. The concept itself--there's a lot to recommend it. But the idea that I would put my entire library in the hands of these companies (and pay fees that will rise once one of them corners the market)--that's crazy.* Apple, Amazon and Google don't really have my interests at heart. Trusting them to manage my music, without backing it up, is a terrible idea. Already, their services charge extra if you have a large library, or want to store music you didn't buy from their store.

I'll be holding off on the cloud, purchasing instead a second external hard drive. As for my computer--the hard drive was actually fine. It was the logic board, an even more expensive piece of equipment. But the other issue here--the precariousness of our information--has no easy fix. I have a lot invested in my data. If we're living in a time where information is easy to access, but more complicated to collect and maintain...that's a devil's bargain.

Clearly this is worse with things you've created yourself--music, writing, photos or whatever. And it's surely a bad system for archiving things. If the movie studios of the early 20th century couldn't keep tabs on their physical products, it seems unlikely  that a music industry in freefall is carefully guarding its digital files for the long haul. I guess if there's a point here--been a while since I wrote a rambler like this--it's that archiving is essential. Both for a culture that respects its past, and for people who have a personal connection with their data. Because if we're going to sacrifice sound quality and physical product, surely we should get something out of it? Aside from a compromised convenience, that is.

*I don't trust YouTube to store my music either--things get yanked off there all the time.

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