Being a collector in the digital era
by David Barker
This is an account of my journey as a classical music collector from the safe world of the CD into the new one of digital music. It’s not intended to be a comprehensive coverage of all aspects of digital music, but rather a commentary on the issues that I encountered and how I dealt with them. I don't claim for a moment that my “answers” are the best ones, but they work for me. Perhaps if you are setting out on this road, they might help you get to the end more quickly than me.
A CD collection that has long since gone beyond orderly and ordered storage; a problem that only becomes worse each month as various enterprising labels continue to mine the archive of little-known composers and music - I daresay that this predicament strikes a chord with many of you reading this.
In my case, the tipping point was reached when the purpose-built cabinet reached capacity, at least as far as the neat and ordered arrangement of discs stacked vertically was concerned. The immediate solution was to implement a “horizontal piles in front of the vertical lines” strategy, at which point any semblance of order went out the window.
Given that there was limited space for the horizontal stacks, this solution was a very short term one. So, the next approach was to identify the “less essential” discs, remove them from their cases and store them in good quality sleeves. A true collector would suggest that there is no such thing as a less essential item in a collection, but that wasn't the most significant problem with this method of storage.
Where do I store the sleeves? The sleeves that I could readily purchase came in boxes akin to miniature filing cabinets. These were good for keeping the sleeves under control, but where could I put the boxes? I don't have an attic or cellar, and the garage reaches 40 degree Celsius in summer.
Where do the booklets go? In many cases, this meant the back covers as well, because many booklets don't contain the tracklist. The filing boxes had no space for the booklets.
Why can't I even buy the sleeves anymore? They and the accompanying boxes seemed to disappear from the market here in Australia not long after I began buying them.
So, these unsatisfactory “solutions” led me to grasp the nettle of digital music. I found, and will describe below (at length) that this raised as many issues as it solved.
The first tentative steps
These actually happened a few years earlier, when the belt on my turntable perished and stretched to the point where it was useless, and was not able to be replaced. This necessitated the purchase of a cheap player which plugged into the sound card of my PC. My LP collection of mainly modern (rock) music was culled, with the best material converted to mp3, and the discs sold (or thrown out).
The crisis point in the classical CD collection described above fortuitously happened to coincide with the introduction of the Naxos Music Library (NML), which even in those early days was remarkable value at not much more than the price of one Naxos CD per month. Given that I frequently purchased more than one Naxos disc each month, it seemed, and remains, a very good answer.
In those early days, the NML was essentially limited to the Naxos stable, so I looked around at what else was available. Rhapsody was not available outside the US, while iTunes seemed to have limited classical content or perhaps it was simply difficult to find (not to mention that I had taken a dislike to it which has mostly, but not entirely, faded).
For a year or so, I subscribed to emusic, a download service with a set number of tracks per month, which allowed access to some extra labels, such as Lyrita. What was very good about it was that a 30 minute movement from a Mahler symphony and a 3 minute pop song each counted as one track! Unfortunately, emusic changed its rules, introducing album-only tracks, and increased prices, so I dropped out. As it stands at the current time, I couldn't re-join even if I wanted to, because it is no longer available to Australia.
A long and winding road
From those early steps into the digital music world to the present day has been a slow process. Some of you reading this, who have reached the promised land much more quickly without the side roads, U-turns and meandering, may wonder why I took so long.
Early on, I made the decision not to purchase anything that I could access through my subscription to the NML. This seemed an eminently sensible idea at the time, and I daresay still does. There was one exception to this: I continued to purchase the Bach cantata series from BIS (initially on CD and now as download) to demonstrate my support for such a wonderful project.
My purchase of CDs did not entirely cease, as a few labels have not made their recordings available online - MDG comes to mind as the most obvious example. Nevertheless, the flow has rather dried to a trickle, to the point where a forty year tradition of receiving recorded music for my birthday was broken this year.
My CD storage problems thus addressed (though the untidy horizontal piles remain), I found myself confronted by new questions, posed by this new era. No longer is it just a matter of “I have to buy a new piece of kit to play this new media”. The range of options is so much more than “how much money do I want to spend”.
To download or to stream
The NML is, of course, a streaming service, and while the 64 Kb/s rate standard quality level at which I subscribe is perfectly adequate, it is hardly hi-fi. It is possible to pay more to get a “premium” quality service, though this seems to be only 128 Kb/s, which is decidedly still not CD quality.
It is, however, not the issue of audio quality that has led me to change my mind about streaming versus downloading. As I mentioned above, my decision not to purchase what I could stream seemed a sensible one, but as time went on, I found myself not listening to new recordings properly. I tended to “channel surf”, listening to a track (or part of one) and then move on to another recording. The realisation dawned on me that while I would listen to a CD off the shelf or a downloaded work in full, it was rare that I would do so for a streamed one.
I have given a deal of thought as to why this should be the case. While I would like to think that it might be that the huge number of recordings means that I am always on the look for something even more interesting, I have come to the conclusion that it is “collectoritis”. In the same way that I prefer to buy books, rather than borrow them from the local council library, the NML became a browsing service, because the recordings weren't really mine.
As a consequence, I resumed purchasing recordings in download format. Basically, it boils down to anything that I would have bought in the past as a CD is a candidate for being bought as a download. Now of course, I get a chance to thoroughly road test them first, so the chance of a dud should be somewhere between very little and none at all.
Lo and behold, I listen to the new purchases in full - not necessarily straight away - but I do listen. Yes, I know this says more about me than it does about the merits or otherwise of streaming, but I did warn you that this was a personal account.
Does this reversal mean I have allowed my subscription to the NML to lapse? Absolutely not. It is a wonderful resource for exploring the highways and byways of music. How else could I access 85000+ recordings for such a reasonable price?
There are a few other matters which are probably self-evident, but I will mention them anyway:
• even in this 3G/wifi-intensive era, we aren't always connected. I'm writing this particular sentence whilst on a flight from Paris to Singapore, returning from an overseas holiday, and listening to a downloaded album. Not much chance of streaming at 36,000 feet! Likewise, a number of the places we stayed in had very dodgy wifi, which didn't allow for streaming
• if you intend to listen to a lot of streamed music, especially in good quality, then you need to make sure that your download quota is up to it (especially on mobile devices through 3G)
• if your circumstances change, and subscribing to a streaming service becomes a problem, then it is all gone, as though it never existed
Where to buy the downloads
Having made the decision to buy downloads of recordings I wanted to own, I looked at the various options. The evolution of the digital media industry has meant that many more providers are available. The all-genre ones, such as iTunes, aren't really set up to cater for the classical genre because of the complexity of multiple versions of the same work and similar naming of different works. Try finding a particular version of Beethoven 5 on iTunes! I don't blame them for this - the revenue stream from the classical area must be trivial compared to pop music, TV and movies.
The label-owned specialist providers, particularly Naxos's ClassicsOnline (the download version of the NML), Chandos's Classical Shop and BIS's eclassical, understand the genre and are where 95% of my purchases are made. I am an inveterate checker of The Classical Shop's hourly and now daily discounts; ditto for eclassical. I should also mention Linn, Hyperion and Dacapo as excellent sources, though principally offering their own labels.
I have had mixed success with the Universal online store, principally because of seemingly inconsistent rules about which countries can be sold to. Eugen Jochum's classic recording of Carmina Burana on DG - not a problem, Mr Barker, your download has commenced. Herbert Blomstedt's San Francisco recordings of the Nielsen symphonies on Decca - we are very sorry, Mr Barker, but we are unable to fulfil your request as you are in Australia. Go figure!
I do use iTunes - the store that is, not the music manager - but only as a last resort, because the Australian store, which I am limited to, is very expensive (generally more than 50% above other providers), and as I have already said, not necessarily the easiest to find recordings in. It’s the only place you can buy Sony/RCA recordings, as the Ariama store has closed.
And then there is Amazon! In principle, it should be the ideal supplier, having access to basically every label, but for me, it is not an option at all, because I am in Australia. If someone can provide me with an explanation of why Amazon US & UK can sell me CDs, posted to an Australian address, but not downloads of the same music because my credit card has that same Australian address, I would most interested to hear it.
Which file format?
In the early days when bandwidth and download quotas were rather limited, there was very little choice and it was compressed and lossy (a horrid word, meaning the sound quality is compromised): the Apple format if you bought from iTunes, and mp3 from anywhere else.
With improvements in internet capacity and the low cost of hard drive storage have come lossless downloads, in a variety of formats, but each offering substantially better sound quality than mp3.
The other advantage of lossless is that the transition between tracks is seamless - there have been issues with mp3 and some media players causing discernible clicks between tracks, and the inability to play tracks continuously (rather important for operas, you would agree).
If you choose either the FLAC or WMA format, you get full CD quality and a file size less than the uncompressed WAV. I have opted for the FLAC file format, simply because I didn't want the Windows format. I doubt there is much difference; it's just my antipathy to massive corporations coming to the surface (again).
The label-run sites all offer lossless downloads, though ClassicsOnline is only just starting to do so on a limited basis, having only offered 320 kb/s mp3 until fairly recently. This leads me to a gripe about the FLAC format offered by ClassicsOnline: why is the entire “album” provided as a single file? No other provider finds it necessary to do this, and it makes listening to a particular track annoying inconvenient. Of course, it can be got round by cutting the file in an audio editor into individual tracks, but why should I have to do this in the first place?
iTunes still sells its music in its own compressed format, though there are signs that the giant is stirring with a very small number of lossless downloads able to be purchased.
The decision to download means that it becomes your responsibility to work out how and where to store the files, rather than the streaming service provider.
The simple answer is “on a hard drive” but where that hard drive is or what it is connected to, presents a range of options:
• dedicated media server computer
• hifi component media server
• internal HD in desktop computer
• external HD connected to desktop computer
Media servers are becoming relatively common these days, and are either dedicated PCs or hifi components. They provide a single box solution, which will appeal to many. In either case, you need to have a mechanism by which the downloaded files end up on the server, either directly because the device is connected to the internet, or from your desktop computer. In each case, you need to have some knowledge about networks, or pay someone who does.
The PC ones seem to be more aimed at the video end of the market (i.e. home theatre) and audio is rather secondary. The supplied control software won’t be up to the task of managing a large classical collection. If you can override that software, and install your own (see below) then it becomes a possibility.
The hifi components, such as those made by Naim, Brennan and Linn, are another matter, being aimed squarely at the serious music collector, but you will need deep pockets. I looked at one in a specialist hifi store recently that cost $A15000 (more than £9000).
When it comes down to it, any computer, including your desktop one, that stores and distributes music to other devices is a media server. I decided that because I spend a lot of time at my desk, that was the best place for my music library. It seemed rather a waste of effort to transport the music files downloaded to my desktop computer to some other device in another room, and then “beam” them back into my study.
If you have a relatively new computer, then the internal hard drive is probably at least one terabyte, which does allow a quite decent amount of space for your music. A typical album of sixty minutes duration in lossless format comes in at about 250 Mb, so that makes about four to a Gb, and three to four thousand to a terabyte.
However, your music collection is a permanent and ongoing “object” unlike your computer. Having to transfer your music collection every time you buy a new computer doesn't bear thinking about, assuming that it is even possible - hard drives do fail, after all.
A far better option is an external drive, since it can be simply transferred to your new computer, carrying your music with it. There are two distinct types of hard drives that live outside your system box, both connecting via USB (usually), which are generally referred to as external and portable. It is the former that you are after. They are intended to sit on your desk top, stay connected to your computer permanently and provide extra storage. They have their own power supply (and power lead) as well as a fan and ventilation holes. The portable drives aren’t intended for continuous usage as they have no cooling.
These do fail as well - two of my Musicweb International colleagues have reported a disaster of this type with their music collection drive, but in each case, that was a few years ago, which raises the issue of backup. At least with CDs, barring fires, floods or thieves, you could be fairly confident that having bought the album, you would have it always. Not so with a download (or any file, of course). Accidental deletion or hardware failure can mean that it is gone.
Some providers allow you to download your purchases again and again - The Classical Shop and eclassical, for example. When you think about it, allowing you to go back and re-download something bought a considerable time before and then lost by some misadventure, is rather generous on the part of the companies that do allow it. If you bought the same music on a CD and then lost it, you wouldn't expect to be able to get a replacement for free.
One thing - if you decide to get a PC-based server, either a commercial one or one based on a normal desktop computer, make sure that it is as quiet as possible. The last thing you want is a box in the room that is doing an impression of a vacuum cleaner as you try to listen.
Thus far, things have been fairly straightforward, the options available well defined. That is all about to change, and what remains is much more problematic. Unfortunately, it is the part where you actually have the music and want to listen to it!
Organising your downloads
This starts with the actual step of where on your chosen storage device to save the downloaded files. If you are a committed music lover (and let's face it, you wouldn't have got this far in this article if you weren't) the number of files will be considerable, and the potential for filename overlap considerable. One way or another, you need to organise your files.
A folder structure system is absolutely essential, and it is worthwhile spending some time on deciding exactly what suits you best before you get too far down the line. Rearranging the structure once you have a hundred albums or more is not a pleasure. There speaks the voice of experience.
At the start, I decided to store the files by composer, so had a folder structure that started with the letters of the alphabet and branched from there by name, for example, B → Beethoven. Where there were multiple albums of the one composer, I put them in individual sub-folders.
When a multi-composer album presented itself, the files were divided accordingly, leading to tracks form a single album being spread across possibly ten or more sub-folders, and almost impossible to put back together. You can see where this is going, can’t you? I can only assume that I made this choice because the majority of the albums at that point were single composer.
When I made the decision to download, not stream, and the number of files began to increase rapidly, I quickly realised that this system was not a good one. I made the tough decision to do a full rearrange, this time by label and then album, for example Chandos/8507 Hummel PCs. Recombining the multi-composer albums was somewhat of a chore, but worth it in the end.
So this method of organisation works for me. A friend stores his by composer and then by composition. It obviously works for him. You need to find something that works for you.
This is the second stage of organisation and refers to the information that is stored with the audio file, beyond the basic filename. This can be as minimal or extensive as you like. It is essentially a database, with fields such as title, composer, performers, genre and label.
How much time you want to spend on the tags depends on how you intend playing the music. If you simply want to play an album and know where to find, tags are of limited value. However, what if you want to play a particular work and you can’t remember which album it was on, or you want to compare a number of different performances of the same work? Tags will make your life easier, since music library software is set up to work best with tags, allowing you to filter your collection down by whichever tag you care to choose.
Most downloads come with the provider's collection of tags, and unfortunately, they vary from one provider to another, and even from one album to another. Thus, under the key tag of composer, you might get albums showing:
• Beethoven, Ludwig van
• BEETHOVEN, Ludwig (1770-1827)
• Ludwig van Beethoven
• Ludwig van Beethven
• Microsoft.VisualBasic.Collection (yes, really)
Your music library software will unfortunately recognise these as being from different composers, and separate them accordingly.
The only way to deal with this is to decide on the tags that are important to you and your software. The question you need to ask is “how do I choose a piece of music?” Those which you might want to consider are (I’ve marked the ones I consider “essential”, with an asterisk):
• album *
• composer *
• genre * (because I also access my modern music, jazz, world and spoken word files through the same management software)
• sub-genre * (one I created for classical only: orchestral, chamber etc)
Many of you will be thinking that this is “over the top” and far too much effort, but it does allow very efficient access to a particular piece of music; more about this in the next section.
Playing the music
This is the most important part, of course. Getting everything else right and this wrong would be like spending all your time cataloguing your book collection and never reading anything.
The internet is awash with software that plays your digital music, much of it free or inexpensive. If you have a Windows machine, you will have Windows Media Player, if you have a Mac, then you will have iTunes.
Getting music to happen is simple enough: go to Windows Explorer (or equivalent), find the required file, double-click on it and music will happen. At the end of the track, music will stop happening. It's clearly not satisfactory if you want to listen to a multi-movement work (Götterdämmerung, anyone).
All media players, simple or sophisticated, will allow you to select multiple files through the Open Files dialog box, but that’s a pain, because you have to wade through the folder structure every time. They may not even play in the right order because of some strange aspect of the player, or because the filenames start with the track numbers, and 11 comes before 2!
What you want from your software is not just a player, but far more importantly, a library manager that already knows where all your music is, and can display it or a chosen subset, e.g. concertos by Beethoven, a particular album. That allows you with a few clicks to select what you want, and then sit back and enjoy.
This means that you need to “import” your collection into the software: it stores the location of the files; it doesn’t involve creation of an extra copy or moving the file. It is an absolute necessity of the software that it can be set up to automatically import new files - if you are using one that can’t, look elsewhere.
Let's start with the programs that you get with your operating system. I can’t remember the last time I used Windows Media Player for anything, because I find it so unintuitive, slow and clumsy (and it doesn’t recognise the flac format). Nor could I make iTunes (for Windows) work for me as a music management program. If you only have popular music, where the only important criteria (tags) are performer and album, I'm sure it is fine, but not for the more complex area of classical. It may be that my reservations are less valid on a Mac, or that I didn’t try hard to enough to work it out.
Musicweb International reviewer and expert on all things Apple, Kirk McElhearn, has written a number of articles about using iTunes for classical music on his blog Kirkville. I do think that it is significant that in a post from last year on the newly released iTunes version 11, he lamented about how it had become much less useable for classical music collections.
My first trial run was Winamp, probably the longest-lived of the non-OS media players, but I very quickly discarded it as being totally unsuited to classical music (see Footnote). After that, I decided to be a bit more scientific and do some forum reading.
This led me to MediaMonkey, which seemed promising enough from the trial version to pay the relatively small sum for a full license, and begin importing my music. Unfortunately, my trialling of it can’t have been sufficiently thorough as I encountered a problem, the specifics of which I now can’t remember, but serious enough to make me give up on it.
Back to the forums, and the next trial was the program I have settled on, and am extremely satisfied with: JRiver Media Centre. I was able to see enough in its user forum to know that it was so thoroughly customisable that I could make it do what I wanted.
“What I wanted” is hardly unique to me - find a particular piece of music/album as quickly as possible. For me, this means mouse clicks, not typing in search terms, hence the need for filters based on key tags. The tags I chose, which in the Pane view I use for classical, JRiver displays as columns across the screen, were:
This system will allow me to find a particular work or album with two clicks in most cases, and a third to start playing it. You might be surprised by the absence of performer or composition from this list. This is because my collection doesn’t involve significant numbers of different recordings of the same work. If I had fifty versions of Beethoven 5, then they would become important.
What impressed me even more with JRiver was its ability to incorporate my other audio collections - modern, jazz, world, spoken word - in the same window as classical, but with the versatility to allow totally individual viewing/filtering for each genre. You can see them listed it in the top left corner. It will also manage your video and photo collections if you allow it - I don’t.
You do have to invest a significant chunk of time and patience into any of these programs to become familiar with how they work, but with JRiver, I found that I was making continual progress, and after more than 12 months of use, I have found nothing that I really want it to do that it is unable to.
Transferring your CDs
If you are like me, you'll want your music library not just to include what you've downloaded, but all your CDs as well. Assuming you've answered the matters above, all you need is time, and a good quality ripping program.
While JRiver includes a ripping function, I don’t use it. My research indicates that Exact Audio Copy (freeware with no limitations or ads) is the one that produces the best quality output. Like most ripping programs, it accesses a free online database which in most cases recognises the CD and fills in at least some of the tags.
Getting the music away from the computer
I spend a lot of time at my desk in my study, for Musicweb International as well as my day job. As a consequence, I listen to music more there than through the hifi in the loungeroom. Therefore, the first step was improve the speakers connected to my computer. I did find some quite decent Logitech speakers which sit on my desk, and do a perfectly reasonable job for what they are.
I already had a good quality sound card in the computer - something that if you are going to take digital music seriously, and sound quality is important to you, you need to look at (especially if you only have the one built into the motherboard of your computer).
However, it is a bit anti-social to have all this music and hide myself and it away in my study, so I needed to find a way to get the music from the computer to the hifi in the lounge room. This means dealing with the analog-digital divide somewhere in the chain. If sound quality is important to you, don’t leave it to the computer to do the conversion. Buy a DAC (digital to analog converter) and connect it to your amplifier.
It then becomes a matter of how you get the data to it: hard-wired or wifi. I chose the latter to avoid yet more cables, and bought a NAD USB DAC1, which brought back pleasant memories of the first quality amplifier I bought as a teenager - the NAD 3020. The sound quality provided by the DAC1 may not be the ultimate in hifi, but is more than good enough for my less than perfect hearing these days.
In effect, the stereo becomes an alternative set of speakers for the computer. To swap between desktop and stereo meant going to the Control Panel and switching from one to the other - not especially convenient, but hardly a chore. As it happened, I found a very simple program called Sound Shortcut, which is included in the startup of the computer, and allows me to switch output with a keystroke.
The final matter to consider was the selection of a piece of music to play through the stereo. As it stood, that had to be done from my desk because that is where the media server and software are located. In my house, that wasn’t really a problem because the my lounge room is next to my office. It wouldn’t be so good if it had been downstairs. However, even that wrinkle sorted itself out: a JRiver remote control app for my iPad, which works via the wifi network. Its interface isn’t as good or as flexible as the PC one, but still does the job well enough.
A pet peeve: booklets - the lack thereof
What is it about downloads that makes certain labels and providers think that it is not necessary to include the booklet? I daresay many of you will say “it’s all out there if you Google it” but it isn’t, or “I don’t need the booklet for this new Beethoven 5” and you’d be right, but most of my purchases are not the standard repertoire.
Is it because the download costs less? No, the download is cheaper because the label hasn’t been required to physically produce the disc and case and print the booklet and covers, transport it across the world and have it sit in a record shop. At least it should be cheaper, but I’ve seen a number of recordings on the Australian iTunes store which were more expensive than the physical CD in the shops here.
Is it because the booklet is hard to produce in electronic form? Surely not - the pdf format is hardly an esoteric one, difficult to create. Naxos, Chandos, Hyperion and BIS have managed to produce pdf booklets of even their oldest releases from the very start.
Yet, for labels such as EMI, Decca and DG, it is only very recently that their newest releases, but not re-issues, have been made available for download with a booklet. For some labels - are you listening, Dutton, Warner and ECM? - the penny still hasn’t dropped.
From one provider to another, there is inconsistency. Emusic and Classical Archives don’t seem to provide booklets for any label, while the few EMI recordings that do come with booklets through iTunes aren’t supplied if you buy the same recording from Classicsonline.
For some labels, the provision of booklets is seemingly random: some releases have the booklets, others don’t. I’m thinking here particularly of CPO. Here is a label that specialises in the most obscure composers, and yet until the last month or so, about half of their new releases were missing booklets, and remain so.
I contacted a number of providers about this. Their explanation: we are limited by what the labels supply. My take on this - would a shop-based music retailer accept CDs from the label that didn’t provide the booklet?
It has been a slow process getting my system to the point where it is now a matter of putting the effort in to digitise my CD collection and organise the new purchases. Slow it may have been, but ultimately rewarding. I like pottering around on the computer, so the simple approaches of one-box music servers and the generalist software never appealed.
There is no doubt that the time between the decision to purchase and listening to that purchase, which used to be weeks when ordering a CD and is now minutes, is a wonderful advance. Mind you, that near-instant availability could lead to over-purchasing, but being able to listen to samples (or more) before making a decision tends to cancel that out.
Some of you reading this have probably lived through the change to LPs and stereo, and then to CDs. The move to digital is simply the next transition in the way we listen to music. Some predicted the end of the world with CDs - last time I checked, the availability of music has never been greater.
Go on, jump in - you won’t regret it.
1. It has been pointed out to me, by someone whose opinion I trust, that Winamp is not "totally unsuitable" for classical music, as he has been using it for just that purpose for a few years. Undoubtedly, if I went back to it now with twelve month's extra experience in using music library software, I would have a different opinion. Possibly, the same might apply to the problem that I encountered with Media Monkey (return to text).