Invisible Music Still Leaves an Impression

Justin Lamont loves music. The 25-year-old New Yorker has more 12,000 MP3s in his collection, enough music to play back to back for 34 days.

“Sometimes I’ll look at my library and think ‘this is absolutely absurd,’” he says, adding that he listens to only around 4 percent of his collection regularly basis.

With small digital devices capable of holding tens of thousands of songs, many of us are carrying virtual music libraries in our pockets and bags. Entire back catalogs by various artists sit beside one-off downloads, all ready to leap to life at the click of a button. But with so many songs and so little time, how much of our collections do we actually listen to? And does this affect our relationship with music?

Lamont will often play his collection on “random” so he can hear songs he’s forgotten about. Storing his full library on his computer and frequently changing the songs he transfers to his iPhone, he has songs he has only listened to once, but will nevertheless keep. But these songs silently nag at him. “I feel there’s a certain obligation to listen to these,” he admits. This guilt will at times stop him from downloading more, as he thinks he should give a chance to what he already has.

While the stacks of vinyl and CDs kept in collections can be easily seen, the invisible nature of MP3 collections makes fans less aware of the sheer volume of material in their possession. And unlike physical records, which take up space and sit around, taunting the owner about their neglect, MP3s are out of sight, and excess ones certainly out of mind. “I could definitely purge a lot of stuff,” 33-year-old Joey Bouchard says, “but it’s intangible and hard drive space is so cheap.” The magazine art director owns a staggering 50,000 tracks, but says he doesn’t feel stressed about listening to his entire collection as life simply isn’t long enough to listen to everything anyway.This guilt is not confined to Lamont. Montreal native Jesse Staniforth notices a changed relationship with music since he started his MP3 library six years ago, and doesn’t like it. “I feel sad because the type of relationship I had with music has changed due to the MP3, and not in a way that I like,” he says. Staniforth downloads around 10 to 12 new albums per month, adding to his collection of 30,000 tracks, about 68 days of music played back to back. He says, “It’s very hard to give enough attention to 12 albums a month, to understand them on a deeper level.”

Others believe that MP3s have actually strengthened their appreciation of music. While many mourn the loss of album artwork, with lyrics and production notes to pour over, Londoner Laughton Sebastian Melmoth is not nostalgic. “There was a ritual when you first bought vinyl, you’d play it and at the same time you’d examine the art, the lyrics and the production notes,” the 49-year-old voice artist explains. “That distracted from listening to the music.” Melmoth credits MP3s with allowing him access to a greater variety of music, and at a smaller cost. As a result his collection has expanded across new genres, and he can pass on a new find to a friend in under a minute.

However, the ease with which music can now be distributed and stored, and also greater access to recording facilities, can be a frustration to others. The Library of Congress holds an estimated 3 million sound recordings, from items held on wax cylinders to magnetic tapes to 78 rpm vinyl to digital files. A growing proportion of these are held as wav files – the higher quality non-compressed cousin to the MP3 – and the library is aiming to convert all its holdings to this format for preservation.

The ease of recording and storage means that people now expect almost anything to be available, according to reference librarian Brian Cornell. There is less understanding that in the pre-digital age there were higher recording costs, limited access to equipment and confined space on physical formats. Cornell links this to the disappearance of a tangible product.

“With younger tutor groups, they really don’t know that sound used to come on these black discs,” Cornell explains when talking about the visitors to the library. “When kids from elementary schools visit, they are mystified when we pull out a 78 disk.”

However, Cornell believes that the availability of so much material online has made people more curious. “People who are only used to MP3s are suddenly listening to Hawaiian music from 1915,” he says.

For some, this growing detachment to where music comes from may be a detriment to creativity and the music’s significant role in bonding people, particularly youth. Subcultures are at risk, according to entrepreneur Jonathan Block. Having spent the past 30 years managing bands, including G Love and Special Sauce and the Fun Lovin Criminals , Block has seen the imprint of the invisible format on the genesis of songs.

Now musicians create records in a different way. “When we were selling vinyl, artists thought more about a body of work,” Block says, explaining how now there is more pressure to create hit songs as music held in MP3 collections do not need to be listened to within the context of a full length record. Block says the loss of album artwork has also had a negative influence on the creators of songs, creating laziness in certain areas. “Lyrics are pretty much a forgotten art,” he says.

“Music is less important to kids today than it was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago,” Block believes. The loss of the physical format, with the accompanying album artwork and liner notes, is pushing artists and fans away from each other. “We’d venture into our own world with that band,” explains Block. “With the MP3, that emotional connection has lessened greatly.”

“We’re a culture now that’s desensitized from music, art and culture. It’s all about the single,” Block says. “Everything’s a single really.”