The Obsessive World of Digital Music Collectors

When it comes to playing the music, his sprawling setup involves multiple computers, tablets, monitors, speakers, and headphones. His collection stretches back to 2006, though he’s got boxes filled with even older data CDs and hard drives, his adolescence encased in digital amber, ready to be unearthed.

Not all collectors are so chaotic. Marty Sartini Garner, a copywriter at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and music critic who has written for Pitchfork, occupies a place somewhere near the other end of the spectrum. He limits his CD rips to one per day, and moves them to an aging iPod Classic that he listens to with his Airpods and a Bluetooth adapter. This more minimal setup allows him to put down his phone, close the laptop, and narrow his focus to whatever he’s listening to. He’ll download records from Bandcamp, but likes the IRL experience of walking to Fingerprints, his local record shop in Long Beach, California, known for its impressive stock of new and used CDs. He still keeps a vinyl collection and an analog stereo, but his latest move necessitated a pruning of his physical collection.

My personal setup splits the difference between Nappy’s maximalist strategy and Garner’s more Zen-like approach. I still use the same iTunes library I started in 2003, when I bought my first iPod. And I subscribe to Apple Music, which includes a service called iTunes Match, that either matches songs in my library or uploads my own copy to their servers, letting me stream or download any song in my collection from any Apple device associated with my Apple ID. I currently have about 47,000 songs over 700GB, and the library is stored on a pair of hard drives inside my desktop computer that are backed up twice internally—once to a single drive every night, and again to a Time Machine backup that saves hourly incremental backups. Every few months I swap a third backup in and out of a fireproof safe at my parents’ house just in case my building burns down. This process may sound like a lot, but in reality, it’s mostly self-sustaining: Once I add a record to the collection, it’s almost immediately available to play in any room of my home, or on any device I own—anywhere with an internet connection.

Every collector’s setup is different, and what works for you should be based on what gear you already have, your budget for what you don’t, and the effort you’re willing to put in. Storage space has never been cheaper: Even the most durable 4TB hard drives can be had for less than $100 nowadays. Most of the equipment you’ll need—computer, smartphone, stereo, headphones, router—you likely already own. You might even have a dusty CD collection waiting to be ripped, old drives that can be repurposed, or a cloud storage account that can be set up for automatic backups.

You don’t need thousands of dollars, a huge home, or an advanced degree to maintain a digital collection. Some collectors—including me—can be intense, but it doesn’t have to be that serious to be rewarding. Everyone started with one file, one song, one album. All it takes is time, effort, and a little bit of love.

This week, we’re exploring how music and technology intersect, and what today’s trends and innovations might mean for the future. Read more here.

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