Digital Music Files Suck

Yes, I know, all you young folks swear by them, but digital music files just drive me up the wall. They suck. On the list of things that make my life miserable, digital music files, whichever format they happen to be in, are in the top ten, slowly creeping towards the number one spot.

Let’s just assume that you rip lots of CDs to your hard drive(s), either because you also want them on your PC or because you simply want to make a backup copy for safety’s sake. After all, if you were dense enough to invest 500 Bucks into a limited Mosaic box which has been out of print for ages, you also want to make sure it survives at least the next century.

Just for arguments’ sake, let’s also assume that it took a whole load of time to do all that ripping, tagging and filing away. On top of that, let’s add the assumption that you paid for and downloaded a plethora of tunes that you wanted to have without having to shell out the dough to get the full album. Finally, let’s just assume that all of the work and all of the downloads add up to about a terabyte of music, perhaps a bit more – after all, you do have about 55 to 62 meters of music, depending on how many of the clunkers you are willing to put on that list, a lot of which have ended up on your hard drives.

And what then?
What do you do with them to make sure they don’t enter digital nirvana at some point?
Right, you back the files up.

So, where’s the point, I ask you? If you do follow a somewhat logical backup strategy, you should have at least three copies of the files you’re backing up, just in case backup one or backup two fails – which they usually do when you need them most.

So, you buy yourself enough hard drives to hold three terabyte of music? Do you really? Have you ever calculated how many CDs you can buy for that amount of money, especially if the drives fail every now and then?

Well, I didn’t buy as many drives as I might have needed … and was faced with two external drives, the ones with the best possible test results, bought after weeks of reading to make sure I got the best, failing shortly after each other. Mind you, they were used two or three times to get the files on there and stored according to all the best advice around on the Net.

Still, kabloom.
Third time after I switched them on.
Digital nirvana, and all of that.

You’ve got to be kidding me. I can’t back the stuff up to CDs or DVDs because they don’t last longer than a fruit fly in biology class, I can’t keep them online anywhere because they would need a year and three to be downloaded again, not to speak of the space I’d need to keep them on whichever account that lets you store a terabyte and more online, and I need a whole array of hard drives to keep them alive for a few years. My desk already looks like a hard disk museum and to be quite honest, even the prettiest hard drives are not that aesthetically pleasing that I want six or more floating around my workspace.

So, what choice do I really have? Yep, I buy the CDs. Ever since I started, I have not had a single one go bad on me (not one, although stories about CD rot and whatnot have been around the Internet for eons) … and we’re talking 22 darn years!

So, are you telling me that I should go digital? I’ve tried, and I’ve had to renew the files and invest endless hours every three to four years to resurrect a part of my digital collection. In short: I’ve had it. I’d rather golf, to be perfectly honest.

All of this does make me think about what other people do and the summary of how I assume other people handle the above-mentioned problems is downright scary: What I’ve gathered from various music boards around is that most people simply shrug that kind of disaster off, maybe whine a bit and then get on with life. If that isn’t the epitome of turning music into a plain commodity, I don’t know what is.

Lost it?
Who the hell cares?
Get it again or, better, get new stuff … and out with the old.

This might be acceptable to the casual listener, but for collectors, going digital is equivalent to turning masochistic and ramming a rusty nail into both eyes before they go to sleep every night.

Notice that I haven’t said anything about that scarecrow called “Digital Rights Management” which at some point is sure to effectively shut you out from the files you thought you owned or, even better, prevents you from playing them on anything but a fifteen year old proprietary hardware solution .

I also haven’t mentioned the art of tagging that, when taken seriously and done right, can ruin an entire summer, even if you use one of those nifty tagging solutions available today. Don’t even mention that I used to tag files with the family or band name first, throwing a comma in there to separate said name from the first name or article which came second. It didn’t take me long to figure out that for example HATES that kind of tagging and basically excludes you from participating in the online community. The same goes for about anyone and everything else. You’re shut out for good.

How about spending a week, month or year to figure out the right audio format and quality setting to rip your files to your drive? How about spending four weeks of tweaking EAC to rip a perfect bit copy, only to lose the profile at some point? Try remembering what you did a year ago, separating the inane jargon from normal speak, attempting to tweak the damn thing into submission once again. Good bloody luck.

What about if the one audio format you chose can neither be played on any of your portable devices nor transcoded without turning the music into audio soup? Even better: What if the one format you chose turns out to be one of those fringe things, with three greasy-haired computer freaks tweaking it to perfection … and then abandoning it?

Man, I got with the CD program early on because it looked like it was reasonably well thought-through, was supported by just about everyone and looked like it was here to stay. No matter that some bigwigs at some global labels have soured the standard and stuffed each and every CD with annoying copy-protection that only manages to make you scream (and is automatically removed by just about any decent ripping software or by hitting the shift key). They still work if you don’t buy one of those hardliner players that insists on a standard that never really existed longer than it took any user to say “Boo!” Never mind that the Internet has been ripe with horror stories about the imminent death of the CD (isn’t there any site out there that agrees that this is about as much BS as the repetitive insistence that the LP is dead, which it isn’t?).

To make a long rant short, screw digital files and up with the CD, I say.

You guys can worry about the intricacies of formats, keeping a larger collection alive and beating DRM into submission. I’m just going to mosey on over to my CD shelf, grab that lavish special edition, leaf through it while listening to some glorious music and have a drink on all you digital apostles that one day are going to be stuck with music that is going to self-destruct two days after you downloaded it.


Update [Saturday, February 10th]:
Tunequest, another 9rules member and someone who has embraced digital music and built an extensive library using iTunes, has published a lengthy friendly rebuttal entitled “In Defense of Digital Music Files”. Go check it out, it’s excellent.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. I’m with you on this.  Well, I never made the jump to digital, since after a couple of days trying it I could tell it would be more hassle than convenience.  With digital it seemed more time was spent archiving than paying attention to the music itself, at least to me it did.  CD archiving is so easy and far less time consuming.  Say I get a new disc whose artist starts with a T, well I just put it in between the S and the U and it’s cataloged just like that and if I want to do a tag search on that artist, I can look one spot over!  Not to mention it’s rare to get decent sounding cymbals on 128 when buying digital files.

    I’ve never had a CD get corrupted.


  2. Yep, but I do have to admit that once I split my rather large collection into pop, (late 70s, 80s and on) fusion, “pure” jazz, Danish pop and classical, filing away that new CD under “T” became somewhat more complicated.

    On the other hand, keeping several thousand CDs in alphabetical order is not very efficient, especially since I can’t always remember what I have. Therefore it is easier to scan a somewhat shorter Jazz section (shorter? lol) to find what I’m looking for.

    Glad to hear that you also never had a CD turn funny.

    Thanks for visiting.


  3. quit moaning and start getting drunk already will you!

    and should you need the assurance: yes, everyone with a collection of over 1500 CDs agrees with you wholeheartedly—except those living in very small apartments.

    Me, I’ll be moving to a real HOUSE soon. heheheh.


  4. True collectors stay in apartments and attempt to cram their stuff in there, trying to come up with ingenious space-saving solutions.

    Collectors who move into houses have a tendency to get sloppy. 😉

    P.S.: Congrats!


  5. Damn. That was quite a post. I worked in radio for a number of years and have built up a large audio collection, and due to space and moving around, most of my collection is on my HD. I back up to DVD but after reading this…I wonder if my stuff is safe. What to do? I have been reluctant about external drives – they just don’t seem trustworthy to me.  Ah! What to do? Sorry to hear about your frustrations.


  6. Marc,

    things don’t have to turn bad for you but my advice would be to check your backups often and move as soon as you notice any deficient backups. It’s always a good idea to have at least two backups of important material, most experts suggest three.

    In my experience, backing up to DVD burnables is only a short-term solution (you might be luckier than me) and if you have a larger collection which you’d like to store on your HD, in my opinion a RAID system is a must that keeps at least two independent copies of what you have.

    Besides that, I have no advice but to just be careful. Check and check again. 🙂


  7. I’m curious, what’s the trouble w/DVD backup? Are they unreliable?


  8. Marc,

    I can tell you about my own experience only, but I’m sure a Google search might turn up some reliable other sources. I started making backups of both data files and music files to DVD pretty much as soon as that became possible. In short: With the many DVDs that turned out to be busted after a relatively short time, I think it is about the most unreliable medium available.

    Again, your mileage may vary, but I’ve also heard from other sources (forums) that they’ve had similar problems. I did buy the best burner available at the time and only media that apparently stood the test of time in various magazine reviews and still, some of my most prized possessions were simply not readable anymore after a mere two or three years. Maybe I started too early?

    I might be wrong on this and I might be one of the very few, but do read around the Net before you commit said prized possessions to that medium.

    In short, I’ve become suspicious of a medium that cannot keep the promise made when I bought into it. I recall Taiyo Yuden stating a life expectancy of their DVD-R discs of 100 years. 100 years? I imported some from a reliable dealer and the very few I used did not last longer than a few years. Hell, it could be my burner, the way I store them, etc., but what I’m trying to say is that I shouldn’t have to worry about stuff like that all the bloody time.

    So, I opted out. Maybe I’m just too yellow? I don’t know.


  9. for some reason my and many other DVD burners stop reading what they wrote after a while. The disks can still be read on dedicated DVD drives, but it’s rather unsettling to have your back-up sort of die on the back-up writer. Not consoling in the least—whereas solace is what back-up is all about.


  10. Yep.


    Haven’t had much of that with DVD-Rs or their siblings, the CD-R, the latter being more reliable in my little world. I still have CD-Rs from day one, but inbetween, I don’t know how many died on me (one brand which was recommended years ago started bronzing after a mere 12 months and I threw out around 50 of them which had gone south).

    Again, if it’s something worth anything to you and you’re backing it up to CD or DVD, check regularly if stuff is going down that might make them unusable in the near future.

    That’s my motto.


  11. I added a link to tunequest’s excellent friendly rebuttal to the end of my post above. Check it out.


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