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Starting from scratch: rebuilding and rediscovering my music library

Posted on 17 September 2013

I just deleted everything on my iPod.

And when I say everything, I’m talking about a lot of everything. This is the classic 160 GB iPod and it was almost full. How much music is on an almost full 160 GB iPod?

giant library

If I were to listen to my iPod 24 hours a day, seven days a week it would take me nearly three months to hear it all. That’s not counting podcasts.

How did we get here?

I developed an interest in music later than many people do. Or rather, an interest in music discovery and collection. It wasn’t until midway through high school that I was interested in buying albums (outside of the Space Jam soundtrack), and at that point it was mostly current stuff. It was my first year of university that I got my hands on Rolling Stones’ 50 Greatest Artists of All Time (now 100) issue and started working backwards through rock and roll history. From there, I was insatiable, finding list after list and searching out discographies of great artists from Pink Floyd to Sly and the Family Stone to Dr. Dre. I did this through a combination of purchases, borrowed discs, garage sales, hand-me-downs and… other means.

As my access to music grew, so did my collection. For a while I managed a college station library, which meant previewing a lot of work and many free download links. Sites like the Hype Machine, Bandcamp, and Soundcloud also made it easier to discover and collect free and nearly-free music. And so a decade on… 2000 hours worth of music of every imaginable type.

Then what happened?

The other day, I was listening to one of my favourite albums (Sandinista! by the Clash, which is great) and I was looking forward to hearing one of my favourite songs (“Police on My Back”, which I used to teach Chinese students the days of the week in English, back when I was an ESL teacher and my iPod connected me to home) when the song was skipped over. I went backwards, and it was skipped over again. I tried starting the song midway through and the iPod froze and rebooted. After a bit of trial and error, I discovered a portion of my massive music collection had been corrupted/deleted, and more seemed to be going every time I tried to fix the problem.

If there had been any logic to which songs were going, that would have been one thing. If it was just the “B”‘s or just songs added in the last few months, it would have been easy enough to rebuild. But it was random. A few songs off Abbey Road, one off Stankonia, a single here and there. Not only was stuff going missing, but I had no way of anticipating what was missing- or what would go missing next. My options were to either have a whole bunch of possibly incomplete albums and a rapidly depleting collection, or reset the whole system. I reset.

No backups?

It’s not as if I had never anticipated this happening. In fact, it had already happened to me, once before, only this time it was a busted screen rather than a screwy drive. On that occasion five years ago, I had diligently transferred my iPod’s entire library onto a set of about two-dozen DVDs and then transferred them back onto my replacement pod. The whole process took a few days.

I had since transferred that DVD backup system onto an external drive, but as luck would have it, that drive had just died a few months earlier (cheap brand, lesson learned). I hadn’t yet re-backed things up, and so here we were. If I wanted to rebuild the collection, it would take a few days of transferring things from DVD onto disk onto iPod.

What’s the point?

Before making the decision to delete everything off my iPod, I weighed my options about how to go about preserving my collection. And then I decided to do some research. I made a smart playlist that would show me how many songs in my collection I had listened to more than  ten times. The answer?


That number didn’t get much better when I reduced it five or more plays. Even the list of songs that I had listened to more than once is relatively small- 3,080, which sounds like a lot until you realize that’s only about ten percent of my entire collection.

This number isn’t entirely fair, because I would have listened to a good number of these songs by other means: on my computer, the original disk or, increasingly, streaming services like Rdio. But that being the case, what on earth is the point of cultivating and maintaining a library of tens of thousands of song files that, statistically, I’ll never listen to?

I used to treat my iPod as a deep-dive kind of device. Even if I didn’t want to listen to the complete works of Otis Redding or the best of Pearl Jam now, I could foresee a point when I would want to, or I’d be somewhere with someone else who wanted to, so it seemed worthwhile to rip it onto my iPod just so I’d be covered. But that was in a world where streaming music services barely existed.

Today, the reality is that most of my experimental listening happens in streaming form. I listen to new singles and lists using the Hype Machine, exfm,  CBC Music, and music blogs. I listen to mixes and lists on Mixcloud and Soundcloud. I listen to albums on Bandcamp and Rdio. Rdio, especially, has become a replacement iPod since I can sync stuff for offline listening if I’m going on a roadtrip or out of an internet zone. The point is, I have access to far more catalogues and albums and singles via legitimate streams on the internet than I ever did on my iPod or even my computer. In fact, for all I know my iPod had been corrupt for half a year, because that was probably about the last time I listened to music on it prior to last week.

A curated collection

Coincidentally, just before I made my corrupted iPod discovery, I had opened the closet that contains my physical music collection for the first time in months, maybe longer. And I was blown away by what I saw. A ton of great music that I had basically forgotten about. Classic albums that everyone knows about to personal favourites to CDs picked up at local shows and from friends’ bands. Music that I loved and hadn’t heard in… forever.

All this- my personal favourites- had been drowned out in the sea of discovery. Mostly the internet, but also my ridiculously large iPod collection. An iPod full of songs I had listened to once or not at all, hiding the music that holds some sort of personal meaning or memory.

Starting fresh

And so I hit delete, and am starting fresh. This time, my iPod isn’t a dumping ground for anything and everything I might want to listen to. It’s not as if I’m going to stop listening to a ridiculous amount of new music. I love discovery, and there’s lots of stuff worth discovering. But my iPod is going to be a place for revisiting my favourites, music that I want to listen to not for the first time but for the fourth or fifth time.

I’m also going to make sure I have a better backup system in place.

mach III

Further Reading:

John Brownlee, Why I Stopped Pirating Music

Sophie Heawood, Music Has Died

Hannah Donovon, Everything in its Right Place


Filed under: music, technology

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