Lose The Disk

Long time readers of this site will remember (or not) that I’ve been slowly working my way through my CD collection and adding it all to iTunes. Over about the last three years, I’ve gone from having 140 albums filed to the current figure of around 375. The total number of disks is somewhat higher, because a lot of my collection is large boxed sets that I hardly listen to. Because I’m stupid. Anyway, at the current rate, I should be finished with this project in about 2017. A week or two ago I came to an interesting epiphany about the whole endeavour: what I should do is rip the disks and then throw them away. I’m just going to lose them anyway.

The event that brought about this conclusion was one that has happened two dozen times while I have been filing my CDs. Here is how it goes:

1. I see album A already ripped in iTunes, but at a hideously low bitrate.

2. I look for album A on my shelf.

3. Album A is gone, because there is nothing in my life easier to lose than a physical disk with digital data on it.

4. Go and buy another copy of the CD and rip that.

This finally came to a head when I temporarily lost two boxed sets which contained about 10 disks each. The boxes finally did turn up (they had been misplaced during some renovation on the house), but the fact that two large repositories of digital music could just disappear like that got me to thinking about my position on the purchase of downloads in general.

In the past I have had two main objections to music (or other) downloads:

1. I tend to believe that I will lose the data and have no recourse.

2. I have a fear of the “lower bit-rate” format. The files you download are more compressed than the music you buy on disk, so I’d like to have a copy of the “full bit-rate” recording around “just in case.”

I now realize that my first objection is complete bunk and my second objection is probably meaningless.

While ripping my music collection, I think that I have discovered one sobering fact: I have lost an order of magnitude more data on physical media than I have ever lost on a sealed disk drive in my various laptop and desktop computers. This is because I am very careful about preserving data on hard drives. That said, preserving data on hard drives is easy: you just make lots of copies.

In contrast, it seems to me that keeping track of physical disks is a lot more complicated. You need shelves. You need to make sure you put the disk back in the same place you found it every time you use it. This works OK for disks you never listen to (like my boxed sets) or large disks that you would step on if you were not careful (like my LPs). But, CDs and DVDs just get lost. It is apparent to me that I don’t have the space in either my physical or mental life to actually keep track of them. Therefore, they get lost. And when they get lost, I replace them and then lose the replacement. I bet I have six copies of Kind of Blue lying around the house in various places. This is stupid.

As for bit rate, I made a discovery there too. I ripped a couple of my out of print CDs in Apple Lossless in a fit of misplaced paranoia. What I discovered was that Apple Lossless averages at about 500Kbps. Songs from the iTunes store (and the stuff I rip myself) comes in at 256Kbps (in AAC format). It is my solemn belief that doubling the number of bits will not make a material difference for me and my sound reproduction equipment. I have made an executive decision to throw half the bits on the floor because I don’t care anymore.

These two conclusions have a large impact on how I view my little CD ripping project. In the past, I had viewed it as a way to convert “my collection” into a more convenient form for listening, while preserving the “base data” somewhere else so I would not lose it. Now, I think, I have tipped over and realize that the iTunes database is the entire point and the truth is that I don’t want the disks at all (except for the liner notes, dammit!).

This means that increasingly often, my workflow in the project has become:

1. Find a disk or disks I need to rip.

2. Realize that I will spend 15 minutes per disk getting the data into iTunes, editing meta-data, and filing things.

3. Notice that the album is at the iTunes or Amazon store.

4. Just buy it and download it.

Incredibly, this flow is even possible for a large percentage of the more obscure classical titles that I own.

My final conclusion is this: forget about the disk. It just doesn’t matter. In fact, I’ll go further and say that all of this holds, only doubly so, for disk based movie formats. The only thing allowing Blu-Ray and DVD to tread water against the inevitable is that the movie companies have done a better job at locking the rights down and making it hard to find movies for download. But these days, given the choice between buying/renting a movie on disk or just downloading the thing I will just download the thing 99.99% of the time.

I’ll only buy Blu-Rays if they come with the digital file as well. That way I have something to watch when I lose the disk.

P.S.: None of this applies to LPs, because LPs rule! I just like staring at them in all of their oversized plastic glory. So there.