The £10,000 playlist

It wasn’t long ago that buying a purely digital piece of music — downloading a file rather than paying for a piece of holdable plastic — seemed terribly modern. But already I feel like an old fool when I visit Amazon or 7Digital to pay for an MP3. These days, a several-megabyte file on my computer is starting to feel as much of a burden, as much of a physical thing to cart around for the rest of my life, as a CD or a cassette or a record.

Now that I can stream, at no or little cost, most of the music I’d want from services like Spotify, why am I paying for “physical” files? What is it that I’m buying?

What is it, in fact, that I’ve already bought? I have 19,471 tracks in iTunes, something the 14 year-old me, having spent Christmas record tokens on his first two vinyl albums (No Jacket Required and Brothers in Arms, since I like to imagine you asking), would barely be able to imagine. But 19,471 tracks is nothing compared to the several million available on Spotify.

Looking at the costs objectively there’s no comparison. If each track I own is, for the sake of argument, worth 50p my music collection would cost nearly £10,000. That’s 83 years of Spotify premium membership.

If we look at Spotify as a subset of all available music, and my iTunes library as a much, much smaller subset of that, then I’ve spent thousands of pounds on nothing but a playlist.

OK, there are differences, that help make my library worth spending on.

  • There are many things in my library that aren’t available on Spotify and never will be.
  • There is still something important, to me, about owning the music, that particular selection of music. Barring disaster, it will be with me for the rest of my life.
  • My library has history, layers, a gradual accumulation over my life. It’s not just a playlist but a timeline that in itself is important.

And there are two things here, two things about the amount of music available.

First, it’s a shame if people stop buying and downloading music and rely solely on Spotify-like streaming services. They may be choosing from a vast selection but it’s still only a commercially-available subset of all music, chosen by a company.

All music, Spotify, my music

But, second, having said that, what I like about my music library is that it’s small. Relatively. I know my way around it. I feel daunted by having to choose between six million tracks on Spotify. Where to start? Option paralysis. My music library is a reflection of me, a reflection of my life since I bought my first CD. As I’ve grown up, the city has also grown, from hamlet to metropolis. It will keep growing, but it still carries my history within.

Which makes me think about sharing large playlists on services like Spotify. Forget lists the size of a mixtape or a radio show, TV soundtracks or festivals. I want to explore John Peel’s entire record collection, or Greil Marcus’s. Or browse every track ever broadcast by Radio 1. I think. These are big, bigger than a conventional playlist, but they’re a manageable, coherent space within all music in which to explore. I wouldn’t pay £10,000 for someone else’s record library though.


  • Ah but Phil, Phil! You've never *owned* the music, only ever the carrier.

    All that inevitable march to all music available all the time, your option paralysis, will lead you back to this desire for a thing, an object, that you can build, lego-like as part of your life experience: it's not the music you want to own, but your journey to and through it: the object of memory ...

    and after your option paralysis of "all the Peel", you will be crying out for an editorialised "playlist" turned into some kind of stream. Then with some narration in a dry but witty tone that tells you about the journey of the person who made it. Ideally, it'd be live to give you a sense of living in a living world, not the great digital archive of the soul.

    Radio is dead. Long live Radio!

  • The mercury meniscus of the white dot is key for me, there - there are things in my iTunes library that will be a very long time coming to Spotify on its current model, and things I'll want which will need to be tracked down and converted. My baseline on this is "Finding a Needle (in a Squeeze)" by the Tiny Clocks - if a music service has that, it's heading for the singularity.

    If Spotify started using its connection to access and share music on specified folders on users' hard drives as well, in an ungodly synthesis of iTunes, torrents and the trainspotter ritual... probably impossible as the service is constituted (like Google Books scanning without permission, but without the huge resources), but that would be kind of sexy. But would do nothing for your apprehension of bigness.

    (Spotify v. good on Mountain Goats, but oddly useless on other things of roughly comparable scale, incidentally...)

  • @Gavin, although I like radio (well, tiny bits of it), I'm not sure I do want radio. Not just radio anyway. There are very, very few bits of radio I like enough to listen to, precisely because I don't like much of the talk in between the music. There's something much more comforting about only listening to my own collection of music (which isn't a good thing; it's not a way to hear new stuff).

    @Dan Yup, I can't really see Spotify etc ever completely replacing my collection. There are pieces of music I only ever found via the late, much missed, Audio Galaxy, pieces of music I've transferred from cassettes of stuff taped off the radio, and, as you suggest, just obscure things that will never be commercially available again and/or just won't make it to these services.

  • Wouldn't it be good to have something that would just go through your MP3 collection, find out the stuff that you have "elsewhere", and then delete it?

    Well, not delete it, perhaps: just replace it with a link, and then shunt off the MP3 to that place we put files which we don't want to have around, but do want to just exist somewhere we can get them if we actually needed them. The Celestial Back of the Garage.

  • Yes, that would be good -- so you only have the tiny number of unique-ish files and stream everything else.

    Although as my Celestial Back of the Garage is currently my laptop's hard drive it wouldn't really save me anything.

  • That seems to be the sort of place Playdar is coming from.

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22 Oct 2009 in Photos

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  • 2:19pm: Fix, the re-opened Coffee @ Whitecross St, is just as nice as it used to be. Must come more often. The fridge is still noisy though.
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  • 10:55am: @paulpod Can't Tubestick use the data broadcast over Freeview for the EPG?

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