Music

My Troubles with MP3s

todayDecember 30, 2021

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MP3s continue to be a source of confusion — consternation? apathy? entropy? all of the above? — for me. I should be clear that by “MP3s” I mean any fixed digital documents of audio. So, by “MP3s,” I also mean WAV files, and FLAC, and ALAC, etc. Actually, I specifically don’t mean WAV, because WAV files don’t play nicely with metadata, and files (at least cultural, third-party files) that don’t include self-explanatory contextual information seem inherently problematic. But in any case, I’m using “MP3” here as shorthand for fixed audio files that have contextual information (in this case, things like artist, title, album, year of release, etc.).

I struggle with MP3s to the extent that I have failed over the course of two and a half decades to actually employ them in the long term, to engage with them repeatedly, casually, in an active archival manner, as I have, by comparison, with CDs and vinyl. MP3s are fine to download, to preview music, to listen to for a while — but actually returning to them? Scanning through a collection of files as one might a wall full of alphabetized spines? That was barely a habit for me in the age before and of the iPod, and even considerably less so today.

Yes, physical formats involve their own shortcomings. I have tons of old CDs packed away I haven’t listened to in years. The organization of my LPs is sloppy at best. I recall one time, back in the late 1990s or early 2000s, when a friend mentioned how I hadn’t talked about a certain type of music in a while. Initially I was confused by the comment, but a week or so later I noticed I had, indeed, at some point put boxes of research materials directly in front of the lower wall racks where those particular CDs were stacked. I hadn’t listened to the music because it was out of sight and, thus, out of mind. With MP3s, which bear no physical form besides pixels on a screen, out of sight is an even bigger issue.

There are technical matters, as well. Time has not been kind to CDs. The media was plagued with rumors that they would decay when the years passed. The years have passed. As someone with thousands of them, I have never experienced a single one going bad; perhaps there is a ruined one buried deep in my collection, but I’ve yet to come across it. However, the things we play CDs on don’t work forever. The multi-CD changer in my living room died recently, after 30 years of service, and finding a good single-CD replacement has been tellingly difficult. It’s easier to locate a good turntable these days than it is a proper CD player. I bought a cheap DVD player to fill the void in my stereo system, but only temporarily: it doesn’t even have a readout of where you are in the disc. I have my eyes out for a used one.

Now, part of this MP3 issue is about my own listening habits. I’ve always been listening forward, listening ahead, dipping back on occasion, but doing so more instinctively and for research. I’ve always been focused on new releases, part by predilection, part because I’ve written professionally about music since 1989 and did so in college beginning in 1985, and for the high school newspaper before that. I listen back, yes, but what’s coming up is where my ears are directed. As a result, I am not naturally inclined to collate, to tend the garden. And MP3 collections require tending.

And I’m not alone. If there were more of a common habit of managing our MP3 (etc.) collections, there would be better tools to accomplish the task. There are tools, mind you. Apple Music does a fine job even if you don’t subscribe, and there are contenders like Vox (vox.rocks), but their usage pales to streaming. Streaming, in the modern sense of the word, on services like Spotify and YouTube Music, is more like how I imagine exploring my own hoard of digital music files, and yet a useful system to accomplish has never worked for me: RAID discs accessible like a private cloud, nested folders on Dropbox, sync’d across devices like Apple Music and Vox. All nice, or nice enough, in theory, and yet for all my listening, and I listen a lot, not one approach has stuck. And not for lack of trying.

When I purchase an album from Bandcamp, or receive one as a cloud-accessible Zip archive from a musician, or download a set of tracks from a blog, the online place where those files originated is part of the way I think about them henceforth. In the absence of a physical object, the connections between bits of information provides a semblance of an object. I have a few albums I associate with the places where I purchased them (a Laurie Anderson box set I got at a steal used when I could not have afforded it new, a few LPs still bearing the labels of the stores where I snagged them), but it’s different with MP3s. MP3s sort of scream out for context. These lighter than air files that contain music benefit from tethering; additional information — a cover image, a title, the musicians’ own comments — gives them something akin to weight. Best I can, I have tried to gather notes and documents, and set them alongside the tracks in a folder, much as I’ve occasionally slotted interviews, reviews, and other (flat!) artifacts inside album sleeves, not just LPs but CDs as well (folding one-sheets to fit inside a jewel box is a hard-earned skill). These additional files aren’t generally accessible from within whatever app I use (or, more accurately, try to use) to organize my MP3s, so it’s a bit of a fool’s errand — which may be the fact of MP3 collecting more broadly, as well.

So, another year ahead, and along with it more files. Will they linger on hard drives, or will they gather into something useful? I don’t know.

Written by: Marc Weidenbaum

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