Why do we like to collect music?

It’s been a couple of days now since I read it, but I keep thinking about an article I read in The National Post, which has been running a series of pieces about the seven deadly sins. The one I read on Tuesday was all about greed, and in particular, about how some people hoard music. But these people aren’t collecting antique wax cylinders used in Edison’s time, or 78 rpm slabs from the Victrola days; they are collecting mp3 files — in some cases hundreds of gigabytes worth of them.

For example, the story describes a member of a group on Last.fm (called the People With an Absurdly Large Music Collection group) who has more than 75,000 files, or about 368 gigabytes worth, which would take almost a year to listen to without a single repeat. Depending on how you calculate it, that’s equivalent to about 7,000 albums or CDs. One of the good things about collecting mp3 files, of course, is that you can have 75,000 of them on a single hard drive, whereas 7,000 albums or CDs would fill several rooms in your house and/or your basement.

Collecting albums seems to make a certain amount of sense from a sort of fetishistic point of view, though, just as having an absurdly large library does (like one of those ones where you have to climb a giant ladder that runs on tracks around the room). Albums and even CDs are physical objects that you can look at and hold, and album covers were a great art form at one time, something that has sadly been lost with the move to CDs and mp3 files. I was just talking with a friend today about how much I loved to look at the old Yes covers by Roger Dean, and Pink Floyd and so on.

But what point could there be in collecting 75,000 mp3 files. Not only would sorting them and tagging them and so on be a gigantic pain, but you can’t even really look at them — unless you run them all through iTunes and use the Coverflow view, I suppose. But still, are you going to flip through the equivalent of 7,000 albums? No. Of course, I guess the guy (and they are always guys) with 7,000 or even three million actual albums probably never looks at half of them either.

I only have about 3,000 songs — but the main reason I do is because I like to put them on shuffle and get surprised by a song that I can barely remember ever downloading or ripping, but one that I remember listening to way back when. That’s a great feeling. And it’s even better when you can do it with a select group of songs you love, rather than just waiting for one to come on the radio by accident. What if you had access to a constant stream of all the music you could possibly want — the way Fred Wilson describes in his recent post? Would people still want to download and keep songs?

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