We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the six-pack of Hanson-branded beer that cost $25 to ship is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on disposing of music in a digital age.
Tami Anderson writes via Facebook: "How long do you keep songs in your collection when you rarely/never seem to listen to them?"
First of all, I can more than relate to the problem you're touching on here: I haven't been able to part with literally thousands of CDs that I will never listen to again, all because each one once held some tiny amount of sway over my tastes. There's something about growing out of music that makes us feel our age — that makes the past feel distant — so it's harder to throw music away than it is to part with most other ephemera. But there really is a time to delete what you no longer feel you need. If you're like me, now that we're in an age of MP3s, you're probably looking at more junk and miscellany than ever, with less imperative to actually dispose of it. Still, there are good reasons for housekeeping.
If you can afford the $100+ you'll have to plunk down for a 2 TB hard drive, then you're unlikely to run out of the space necessary to hold most people's digital music collections. (Not mine, and maybe not yours, but most people's.) In terms of cloud computing, transfer speeds and the proliferation of increasingly tiny hard drives, the technology of data storage is evolving rapidly. It's already gotten to the point where throwing away data the size of an MP3, especially one you once deemed worthy of $1.29, seems like a nitpicky waste of time.
But there's more to it than that. The job of maintaining a library — whether you're a casual collector or a professional archivist — hasn't necessarily been made easier by the advent of digitization. If you're okay with not having a physical copy of a piece of music (and many of us aren't there yet), then the issue of storage has gotten vastly easier to face in recent years. If I ripped all my old CDs to high-bitrate MP3s, which I probably should regardless to be on the safe side, I could probably free up my basement for, say, a bubble-hockey machine. But if I did that, that still wouldn't put an end to the issue of organization — the challenge of finding stuff when I need it, be it through searching or browsing.
The downside of everything being transformed into data that can be stored on the wind extends beyond the possibility of a mass technopocalyse. It also means that many of us are compelled to save everything, whether we want it or not — to throw it on the data heap, because what if you want to refer back to it someday? Data hoarding is far more sanitary than the old-fashioned kind where documentary crews gather footage of cleaners finding flattened possum carcasses while emptying out your kitchen. But it can create a similar problem of having everything and nothing; of staring at a disorganized mass of data and saying, "Oh, it's in there somewhere."
In an age when you can transfer a copy of your iTunes folder to a hard drive with a simple drag and click, I wouldn't insist that anyone winnow out anything they don't feel comfortable tossing without at least backing it up first. But I'd also make the argument that MP3s you no longer want to hear aren't all that different from old dress shirts in your closet, long-neglected pumpkin-pie filling in your pantry, or expired sunblock in your medicine cabinet. Even in iTunes, even in the cloud, even on giant hard drives, unwanted music still takes up space in a way that makes it harder to find what you're really looking for.