My Invisible Music Collection

Member to Member

Volume CVI, No. 1January, 2006

Mikael Elsila

This is a story that might make some 802 members feel old. Call it “I remember records.” Disclaimer: I was born in 1972.

Growing up, I remember being fascinated by my parents’ record collection. I loved my parents’ record player: you could stack multiple records on the changer and the records would play one by one. I loved changing the needle.

I remember dancing around the living room to the “Blues Brothers” soundtrack when I was eight years old.

I remember my “Free to Be You and Me” record melting in the back seat of my mom’s car because I left it there on a hot day. (That was my first lesson that vinyl melted.)

One of my favorite records was Prince’s “Around the World in a Day” from 1985, which came with a sticker that you could put anywhere you liked on the cover.

I loved browsing used record stores and the smell of vinyl.

Then CD’s came out. Slowly I relegated my vinyl record collection to my parents’ attic (where it still resides today). Record needles — and record players — became harder to find.

With CD’s began the shrinking of cover art and liner notes. Sometimes you needed a magnifying glass to make out the lyrics. And the cover became less and less important. Many of my friends simply threw away their CD cases — including the cover inserts — and put their collections in CD books, to save space.

Now we have iPods. They and their generic cousins are a way to carry a huge amount — if not all — of your music collection around with you.

With an iPod, you are simply taking your music and digitally “compressing” it. Compression means saving space but also sacrificing quality.

When we switched from vinyl records to CD’s, we also sacrificed quality: CD’s have a colder, crisper sound than records. I became so used to the sound of CD’s that I actually began to like that sound better. And now I am getting used to the sound of compressed music.

I recently made the decision recently to transfer my entire CD collection to my iPod. Why? I had stopped listening to music over the last few years because I simply didn’t have time to sit and listen. Also, I didn’t like shuffling through my collection to find the CD I wanted to hear.

So, over a four-month period, I took all 400 of my CD’s and one at a time put them in my computer and onto my iPod.

Now that I have my entire CD collection in one little pocket-sized box, I can listen to my music when I’m driving or on the train. I tell my iPod to randomly shuffle my collection so I’m listening to tunes that I never really had the chance to listen to before. It’s great. I hear Charlie Parker one moment and the new Stevie Wonder tune the next. I also have books on tape loaded into my iPod, including David Sedaris’s complete works and the new Bob Dylan autobiography.

(It goes without saying that everything on my iPod is legal: I bought and paid for all of my music!)

But there are some drawbacks. Part of the pleasure of visiting people’s homes is looking at their CD collection. I’m still trying to imagine what I will do to show people my collection. I thought about printing out a piece of paper with all of my CD’s on it and showing it to guests. That seems silly.

Also, I have no liner notes or covers. The music has to speak for itself. And if you want to know the lyrics to each song, you have to hunt on the Internet.

With an iPod, you are less likely to listen to an album all the way through. I tend to skip from one tune to another, randomly, across albums and genres. This is an entirely new way of listening to music, and time will tell how it will affect new listeners. And it means that artists have to adjust to the idea that an album may no longer be a cohesive work but instead a collection of single tunes that listeners graze on.

Finally, on a personal note, I recently became a father for the first time. And having my entire music collection as invisible digital files in one box means that my son will never see my CD collection spread out before him, as I did with my parents’ record collection.

In the end, I’m glad I compressed my entire collection into my iPod. I’m listening to more music than ever before. But an eerie thing happened as a result.

After transferring all of my CD’s, I put them in storage in my basement. I got rid of my CD tower. Now when guests come over, there are no CD’s to be seen. My music collection is invisible and it exists on a little box. But when a music collection becomes invisible, a certain panic sets in. Where is my music?

It takes courage to remember that it’s not gone — it’s just right in my pocket, where I want it.

Mikael Elsila is an improvisational pianist, a member of Local 802, and the editor of Allegro.