Friday, October 1, 2010

Music Geek: The Fine Art of Filing

It used to be so easy. Back in the days of vinyl (yes, I’m old enough to remember them), I would bring home an album, get to know it and then file it alphabetically and chronologically within its genre on my record shelf. When I felt that The Psychedelic Furs’ “Forever Now” had become a part of the family, it went in its home, right after the band’s prior record, “Talk Talk Talk.” A record collection was easily filed and easily referenced (if not easily moved, cleaned or played).

And we anal retentive music geeks LOVE to file our collections. Remember the scene in “High Fidelity” where a heartbroken Rob Gordon (John Cusack) rearranges his massive record library autobiographically? Fellow geek Dick agrees that it’s a “comforting” notion. Surrounding yourself with your beloved records, dusting off long-dormant albums lets the music and the artwork take you back to the time when it was the soundtrack of your life.

I can remember specific details of buying many records: My friend Bill and I rode our bikes to the mall the week that Adam and the Ants’ “Kings of the Wild Frontier” came out and then carefully rode with the fragile vinyl back to his parents’ house to listen to it. When I was a Sam Goody clerk, I looked at Prefab Sprout’s “Two Wheels Good” for weeks before I finally relented and bought the record. I’d never heard the band; its cool name and evocative record jacket was enough for me to take a chance. It’s one of my ten favorite albums of all time.

But times have changed. The filing of a music collection has become complicated in the digital age. Anal retentive music fans have to contend with multiple formats, home-burned compilations, frequent reissues, an ocean of easily found “live” recordings, outsized special packaging and a world in which genres are not so clearly defined. Oh, and digital files.

I still try to stick to the method of filing everything first by genre, then alphabetically by artist, then chronologically by release date. My CDs (we’ll just ignore the vinyl for this discussion) are divided into 12 different categories: Rock, Jazz & Vocals, Country, Classical, Soundtracks, R&B, Easy Listening, Miscellaneous (an aggravatingly diverse section of artists like Nancy Sinatra or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins that could fit in numerous genres or records that defy description like the “Incredibly Strange Music” and “Golden Throats” comps), Comedy & Spoken Word, Christmas, People I Know and Homemade Comps. There are subdivisions within some of those categories and the various artists discs are arranged alphabetically by title after the “Z” within the genre. There’s also a small shelf for CDs that are packaged in flat, square sleeves rather than jewel boxes or digipacks (which I hate) as well as separate areas for boxed sets and special packages like the book version of Paul Westerberg’s “14 Songs.”

But it gets hazy. By means of example, as Juliana Hatfield’s catalogue sits on my shelf, her eight solo albums are filed chronologically, from 1992’s “Hey Babe” through last year’s “In Exile Deo” (Promo and commercial CD singles are interspersed after the album from which they were taken). After that, there’s the CDR comp I made of B-sides (from those singles and online downloads) followed by one of those unmentionable “live” CDs. But then I also filed the Some Girls CD, “Feel It” after that. Some Girls is a Juliana side project, and I just felt it belonged with her discs more than under “S.” However, the one-off Blake Babies reunion CD, 2001’s “God Bless the Blake Babies” sits among the “B” CDs with the other albums from Juliana’s former band because there’s history there.

See? It’s exhausting.

What about special edition CDs, such as last year’s 25th Anniversary Edition of the Clash’s “London Calling” (or as I like to call it, the greatest rock album ever)? While the extra disc of unearthed demos could arguably qualify it as a new release, earning placement after 1999’s live Clash anthology, “From Here to Eternity,” I prefer to keep it (as with all reissues) in the album’s original chronology, between “Give ‘em Enough Rope” and “Sandinista!

And what to do with bootlegs (there, I used the word)? Do they get filed chronologically when the concert took place or the year the record was released (which, since there’s no copyright, is usually not noted)? Since it’s not an official release, does it get tacked at the end of the artist’s oeuvre? Or do you start a separate bootleg section altogether?

(As a side note, I am not endorsing the practice of bootlegging... far from it. While I’ll happily make compilation CDs for friends, I steadfastly refuse to copy entire albums by developing artists who find it harder and harder to get paid for their work. You like that Neko Case CD I’m playing? Go buy it.)

The quandaries don’t stop there. If a band releases a “Best of” collection while they’re still active, does that count as a regular release and consequently rest in the middle of the band’s catalogue (as with XTC’s “Compact XTC: The Singles 1978-85”)? What about bands like Matt Pond PA that are named after someone in the band? Are they filed under “M” or “P?” Are the B-52’s filed at the beginning of “B” or after the Beatles and before Big Star? Within soundtracks, the issue of sequels complicates matters. Should the various “Batman” soundtracks go by movie title or order of release? (I file by chronology again, as if Batman were the artist.)

Of course, for people who are far more likely to have their music on their computer rather than any kind of shelf, these considerations are nonexistent.

With programs like iTunes, you can choose any number of ways to organize your files with one click: By song title, artist, album, year, genre, song length, etc. What if I could push a button and have all of my CDs magically rearranged by original recording date, list price, number of times played or the color of the spine? It might be interesting to see the results, but as with all obsessive collecting, the means is at least as much the point as the ends. Record collecting isn’t passive.

Or at least it didn’t used to be. “Record Collecting” is becoming an anachronism. Today, music is more often downloaded than it is purchased, an easy process that eliminates any commitment or connection. Nobody’s ever going to remember when they downloaded a song. There’s absolutely no romance to cold, convenient technology (especially when it sounds like crap, has no visual accompaniment and is often misspelled by the sharing user). It’s a sad truism that the easier something is to acquire, the more it’s taken for granted. For many people, music is now truly disposable. Once you get tired of that Taking Back Sunday song, you can just delete it. Figuring out where it goes isn’t even an issue. It has no chance to age into either a thing of the past to sell or maybe to rediscover years down the line.

I know, I know, you’ve heard it before: the whining lament of the aging pop culture dork. “These kids today” and all that. But it doesn’t come from a place of condescension. I honestly feel bad for people who will never know the joy of debating whether Tenacious D gets filed under rock or comedy.

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