I'm more or less a product of the digital revolution. I feel lame even using such a phrase today, but it was trendy during my tween years in the mid 90s (around the time Wired magazine launched), so let's just go with it. Back then, digitizing music was all the rage. I remember ripping my cds and burning mixes onto thick gold/green CDs after buying a 1x Smart and Friendly CD recorder. I remember crossing my fingers while burning discs hoping that the CDR buffer wouldn't fill up, requiring me to start all over again with a new $1 CD. I remember how the CDs wouldn't play in my car, or most other audio CD players.. but I didn't really care because burning my own CDs was just so damn cool.
Around the same time, I began growing my digital music collection. Local bulletin board systems, and later the web, ftp sites, irc, Napster, and other channels provided an unlimited amount of music, available for download for free. After amassing tens of gigabytes of MP3s, and later hundreds of gigabytes of MP3s (I stopped before it became terabytes of MP3s), I'd take my hard drive, or sometimes my entire computer, over to a friend's place or to a LAN party, and we'd swap.. doubling, or sometimes tripling or quadrupling our music collections.
The amount of music you had on your computer equated to how hardcore you were in most geek circles. But at the end of the day, it was a bit silly, because I never really listened to most of the music I had on my computers. And when I did, it was a really bad experience, because there were tens of thousands of songs, and they were never quite organized. This got a little better with the introduction of MP3 ID tags, which allowed each file to be tagged with some metadata such as the artist, album, song name, etc. But of course, these were never correct or consistent across tens of thousands of songs. People would use (and still do use) tools to try to fix the tags in bulk, and in the process would often screw them up further. It'd be impossible to queue up all of my Alanis Morissette songs, because the artist tag for each song would spell Alanis and Morissette differently.
But, we all still put up with this, and most people I've talked to from my generation still put up with it. Why? Because having amassed so much music is just so damn cool, and because it was all free (nevermind the time and stress required to organize or build playlists when listening to it)!
But in the last few months, the way I listen to music and manage my music collection has completely changed. I signed up for an URGE subscription, and after realizing I could now download and stream unlimited music, at home or at work, and listen to it on my iriver clix whenever I want wherever I go, I decided to delete the tens of thousands of songs I had amassed over the years off my computers.
The new way I manage my music goes something like this...
When I hear about some cool new artist or band (from a friend, a magazine, a web site, URGE recommendations, etc), I go check them out on URGE, and stream one of their highest rated songs (URGE has community ratings). If I like it, I just download 2-3 songs (or if I REALLY love it, I download all of their albums). I do this a couple times a week, and then sync up my iriver clix. I then take my clix with me in the car and to the gym, and listen to a hodgepodge of the music - sometimes by album, artist, genre, etc. When I really like a song, I rate it on my clix. When I sync back up my clix next time, the ratings make it back to my computer.
Every now and then, when I'm bored, I'll look at all the stuff I've rated really highly, and go download more songs from the same artists (or even the same record labels for indie and foreign music!), or I'll delete the stuff I've rated really lowly. Sometimes I'll use Windows Media Player or my clix to just play an ad-hoc playlist of my highest rated songs.
I've found since doing this, my music collection is fresher, more fun to listen to, and easier to manage and just generally enjoy. And, it takes up less space!
Most people I've talked to my age who grew up ripping and trading music are reluctant to subscribe to a service for $10-$15/month and get unlimited music because they can only play the music for as long as they subscribe. But $10-$15/month is less than the price of 1 CD, and I download 10-20 CDs of new music a month now (something I never did before, or thought I'd even be interested in doing). The biggest complaint among my friends who use services like the iTunes music store is that they've sunk huge amounts of money into buying songs that they can only pay in iTunes and on their iPods. So they continue to sink more and more money into it, which seems counter-intuitive, but I suppose is actually right in-line with human nature (like gamblers who keep sinking more money as their losses grow). With services like URGE, you can walk away and try a new service any time. I might buy a Zune when they come out, and if I decide to stop using my clix and URGE in favor of my Zune and the Zune Marketplace, I won't feel too bad cancelling a subscription versus not being able to play hundreds or thousands of sunk dollars of iTunes or PlaysForSure downloaded music on it.
Wrapping up my thoughts... it's no longer about how much music one has amassed (in fact, I long ago threw out all the CD cases I used to display prominently on bookshelves). It's about having fresh, personalized, and easily- and well-organized music at your fingertips whenever/wherever you want it, and not being locked in to any service or medium.
There's also still a ways to go in this area. I'd love for the personalization of my music (explicit and implicit ratings, recommendations, etc) to be available everywhere/anytime too via server-side storage and APIs so I could post lists on my blog. I'd love to be able to note down a band on the fly (say, using my Smartphone), and then be reminded to check out their music next time I was online at home or at work. I'd love to be able to instantly share a song I love with a friend so they can check it out (Zune is banking on this feature). I'd love to be able to play my URGE subscription music in my living room on my Xbox 360.
Have you found creative ways to explore and manage music? I'm interested in hearing about them.. Are you still stuck in the "I've got a terabyte of MP3s on my raid array" mentality? Why?