TITLE: Days of Future Passed: Standards of Comparison and The Value of Limits AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 22, 2010 4:19 PM DESC: ----- BODY: This morning, a buddy of mine said something like this as part of a group e-mail discussion:
For me, the Moody Blues are a perfect artist for iTunes. Obviously, "Days of Future Passed" is a classic, but everything else is pretty much in the "one good song on an album" category.
This struck as a reflection of an interesting way in which iTunes has re-defined how we think about music. There are a lot of great albums that everyone should own, but even for fans most artists produce only a song or two worth keeping over the long haul. iTunes makes it possible to cherry-pick individual songs in a way that relegates albums to second thought. A singer or band have achieved something notable if people want to buy the whole album. That's not the only standard measure I encountered in that discussion. After the same guy said, "The perfect Moody Blues disc collection is a 2-CD collection with the entirety of 'Days of Future Passed' and whatever else you can fit", another buddy agreed and went further (again paraphrased):
"Days of Future Passed" is just over half an 80-minute CD, and then I grabbed another 8 or 9 songs. That worked out right for me. Even though CDs are semi-obsolete in this context, they still serve a purpose, as a sort of threshold for asking the question "How much music from this band do I really want to rip?"
When I was growing up, the standard was the 90-minute cassette tape. Whenever I created a collection for a band from a set of albums I did not want to own, I faced two limits: forty-five minutes on a side, and ninety minutes total. Those constraints caused me many moments of uncertainty as I tried to cull my list of songs into two lists that fit. Those moments were fun, though, too, because I spent a lot of time thinking about the songs on the bubble, listening and re-listening until I could make a comfortable choice. Some kids love that kind of thing. Then, for a couple of decades the standard was the compact disc. CDs offered better quality with no halfway cut, but only about eighty minutes of space. I had to make choices. When digital music leapt from the CD to the hard drive, something strange happened. Suddenly we were talking about gigabytes. And small numbers of gigabytes didn't last long. From 4- and 8-gigabyte devices we quickly jumped to iPods with a standard capacity of 160GB. That's several tens of thousands of songs! People might fill their iPods with movies, but most people won't ever need to fill them with the music they listen to on any regular basis. If they do, they always have the hard drive on the computer they sync the iPod with. Can you say "one terabyte", boys and girls? The computer drives we use for music got so large so fast that they are no longer useful as the arbitrary limit on our collections. In the long run, that may well be a good thing, but as someone who has lived on both sides of the chasm, I feel a little sadness. The arbitrary limits imposed by LPs, cassettes, and CDs caused us to be selective and sometimes even creative. This is the same thing we hear from programmers who had to write code for machines with 128K of memory and 8 Mhz processors. Constraints are a source of creativity and freedom. It's funny how the move to digital music has created one new standard of comparison via the iTunes store and destroyed another via effectively infinite hard drives. We never know quite how we and our world will change in response to the things we build. That's part of the fun, I think. -----