Burn Your CDs

We moved house a while back, and I’ve been gradually getting rid of rubbish that I don’t use any more. It’s almost worth moving house just to force yourself to do this. I decided to try whittling the number of CDs in my collection down to my current age. As completely arbitrary targets go, it seemed as good as any, and yet sneakily still allows for some wiggle room in future.

I got down to 33.

Technology brought me to this place. I’ve honestly never seen the point of hard drive raiders who copy someone else’s entire MP3 collection onto their own computer. I don’t say that in a music snob way, because I take pride in not being a music snob, but because where do these people get the time to listen to all that music? My home computer’s iTunes has got 21GB of music on it which I know isn’t much by some standards but take it from me, that’s an awful lot of music. Songs sometimes even come on that sound familiar but that I still can’t name. Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive collection of all the music I know and love, carved down to 12.2 glorious days of continuous playback. Not even close.[1] I’ve loved and lost many times over the years, first to archived records, then unraveled cassettes, then scratched CDs and finally forgotten MiniDiscs, most of which were never replaced. So I don’t even “own” a lot of my favourite music. But that’s the nub of the thing; I would never be able to compile a definitive collection of all of my favourite music ever even if I tried, so as a work of curation any CD collection I tried to assemble would be a failure anyway.

Those CDs that are there have been neglected and slowly forgotten. Anything new that I buy is ripped once and filed away, never to be taken from the shelf again. Sitting there, mocking my foolishness. My CDs have joined the ranks of of all those promising formats that came before them, those others that I also once placed such faith in but have since shuffled off sadly and slowly to obscurity. There’s no denying it, and why should I want to? What a waste of emotional investment doing that again would be. The truth is, I have suffered the very minor misfortune of amassing my modest collection during the brief reign of the least romantic music format that ever was. I know, what a cross to bear. But to hell with CDs. They are crude, plastic, lifeless things, and even the most considered attempts at packaging them in delicate handmade gatefold cardboard sleeves can’t disguise the fact that the compact disc itself is an ugly, finicky object of no beauty or romance.

At one stage I thought I owned all of those albums. Although I primarily enjoyed the music that they allowed me to hear, I admit that I also took a strange pleasure in amassing a collection of these shiny objects that each represented something personal to me. I was equal parts music appreciator, packrat, and showoff. But what a crass, commercial way of expressing a love of music.[2] I still feel like I own those albums today, or at least the ones I eventually grew to love. The difference now is that I’ll continue to own them even after I’ve dropped the CDs off at the charity shop, never to be seen by me again.

They’re all there, laser burned into the quieter folds of my brain, in high-fidelity DRM-free gapless playback, unlimited storage of free and legal music, better than they sound over any overpriced headphones or speakers. Yes, it’s true: music is not actually a physical object! I know, right? Yet somehow I own it all completely, the way nobody else in the world does, bootleg versions that nobody else will ever hear, because when I try to play back a song in my head, the things I love, hate and remember about it – my unique interpretations and associative experiences – are louder and clearer than they are in any other format. My perspective is singular, my appreciation internal. That’s the essence of owning music, surely. In any definition of love, narrow and deep beats broad and shallow.

(While getting rid of other stuff before the move – not CDs, just other junk – I used a “have I used this in the last six months?” metric to force myself to justify keeping something. Here’s a corollary for music evaluation: look at the track listing on the back of a randomly selected CD (or playlist), and think about track four. Can you hear it?)

I must now admit that I ripped a lot of those CDs before getting rid of them, so it’s a bit disingenuous of me to slag off people who hoard MP3s. I suppose throwing out CDs or collecting MP3s isn’t really the point at all. The thing is, music can only be experienced temporally and serially – you have to put in time to actually listen to it! There’s no way around it. It’s like the idea about memory, that when you learn something new an old fact gets pushed out of your brain. Not true of memory at all of course, but completely true of music listening habits; if I start listening to Talking Heads a lot, I have no choice but to stop listening to so much of The Books. There’s only so much time I can spend actively listening to a single artist regularly. If I really want to know and own more than a tiny amount of music, I have no choice but to throw it all away, fall happily into memory, let new stuff wash over me and then stick or float away, and use all that new shelf space for something useful or pretty.

Likewise (and no doubt prompted by my gawping Sontag/Morris fanboyism), I’ve wondered about the value of taking photographs all the time, instead of simply savouring the moment and enjoying the memory, perhaps imperfect but still unfettered. Maybe anything else is a fleeting attempt at bottling lightning. In a cheap plastic bottle that someone is going to try to sell you again in a few years time anyway.

I know a lot of people have realised this long before me.

1. Have you heard of Dunbar’s Number? It’s the biggest number of social contacts (friends, if you don’t spend enough time on the internet) that some sociologist guy decided you can realistically maintain a meaningful relationship with. More than that and your attention becomes overloaded and diluted, and it becomes all too much to keep up with. Look it up on Wikipedia. Mr. Dunbar reckons that number is 150.

Anyway, I am herefore officially coining and defining Connolly’s Number, the largest number of songs that you can realistically maintain a meaningful relationship with: 1,000.

2. BTW, I’m not knocking commercialism in music; pay money for the music you love.

— 23 Jan 2009