My Troubles with MP3s

An archival conundrum

MP3s continue to be a source of confusion — consternation? apathy? entropy? all of the above? — for me. I should be clear that by “MP3s” I mean any fixed digital documents of audio. So, by “MP3s,” I also mean WAV files, and FLAC, and ALAC, etc. Actually, I specifically don’t mean WAV, because WAV files don’t play nicely with metadata, and files (at least cultural, third-party files) that don’t include self-explanatory contextual information seem inherently problematic. But in any case, I’m using “MP3” here as shorthand for fixed audio files that have contextual information (in this case, things like artist, title, album, year of release, etc.).

I struggle with MP3s to the extent that I have failed over the course of two and a half decades to actually employ them in the long term, to engage with them repeatedly, casually, in an active archival manner, as I have, by comparison, with CDs and vinyl. MP3s are fine to download, to preview music, to listen to for a while — but actually returning to them? Scanning through a collection of files as one might a wall full of alphabetized spines? That was barely a habit for me in the age before and of the iPod, and even considerably less so today.

Yes, physical formats involve their own shortcomings. I have tons of old CDs packed away I haven’t listened to in years. The organization of my LPs is sloppy at best. I recall one time, back in the late 1990s or early 2000s, when a friend mentioned how I hadn’t talked about a certain type of music in a while. Initially I was confused by the comment, but a week or so later I noticed I had, indeed, at some point put boxes of research materials directly in front of the lower wall racks where those particular CDs were stacked. I hadn’t listened to the music because it was out of sight and, thus, out of mind. With MP3s, which bear no physical form besides pixels on a screen, out of sight is an even bigger issue.

There are technical matters, as well. Time has not been kind to CDs. The media was plagued with rumors that they would decay when the years passed. The years have passed. As someone with thousands of them, I have never experienced a single one going bad; perhaps there is a ruined one buried deep in my collection, but I’ve yet to come across it. However, the things we play CDs on don’t work forever. The multi-CD changer in my living room died recently, after 30 years of service, and finding a good single-CD replacement has been tellingly difficult. It’s easier to locate a good turntable these days than it is a proper CD player. I bought a cheap DVD player to fill the void in my stereo system, but only temporarily: it doesn’t even have a readout of where you are in the disc. I have my eyes out for a used one.

Now, part of this MP3 issue is about my own listening habits. I’ve always been listening forward, listening ahead, dipping back on occasion, but doing so more instinctively and for research. I’ve always been focused on new releases, part by predilection, part because I’ve written professionally about music since 1989 and did so in college beginning in 1985, and for the high school newspaper before that. I listen back, yes, but what’s coming up is where my ears are directed. As a result, I am not naturally inclined to collate, to tend the garden. And MP3 collections require tending.

And I’m not alone. If there were more of a common habit of managing our MP3 (etc.) collections, there would be better tools to accomplish the task. There are tools, mind you. Apple Music does a fine job even if you don’t subscribe, and there are contenders like Vox (, but their usage pales to streaming. Streaming, in the modern sense of the word, on services like Spotify and YouTube Music, is more like how I imagine exploring my own hoard of digital music files, and yet a useful system to accomplish has never worked for me: RAID discs accessible like a private cloud, nested folders on Dropbox, sync’d across devices like Apple Music and Vox. All nice, or nice enough, in theory, and yet for all my listening, and I listen a lot, not one approach has stuck. And not for lack of trying.

When I purchase an album from Bandcamp, or receive one as a cloud-accessible Zip archive from a musician, or download a set of tracks from a blog, the online place where those files originated is part of the way I think about them henceforth. In the absence of a physical object, the connections between bits of information provides a semblance of an object. I have a few albums I associate with the places where I purchased them (a Laurie Anderson box set I got at a steal used when I could not have afforded it new, a few LPs still bearing the labels of the stores where I snagged them), but it’s different with MP3s. MP3s sort of scream out for context. These lighter than air files that contain music benefit from tethering; additional information — a cover image, a title, the musicians’ own comments — gives them something akin to weight. Best I can, I have tried to gather notes and documents, and set them alongside the tracks in a folder, much as I’ve occasionally slotted interviews, reviews, and other (flat!) artifacts inside album sleeves, not just LPs but CDs as well (folding one-sheets to fit inside a jewel box is a hard-earned skill). These additional files aren’t generally accessible from within whatever app I use (or, more accurately, try to use) to organize my MP3s, so it’s a bit of a fool’s errand — which may be the fact of MP3 collecting more broadly, as well.

So, another year ahead, and along with it more files. Will they linger on hard drives, or will they gather into something useful? I don’t know.

3 thoughts on “My Troubles with MP3s

  1. I find myself greatly agreeing with much of your above post. As a passionate listener and collector of music, and having left my LP and CD collections boxed after several moves, I still ‘struggle’ for a meaningful way to access my digital library. The ease and ubiquity of mp3 means that a library grows quickly – often surprisingly so.

    The best solution to date that works for me has been (as a Linux user) to install the excellent Cantata player. As an MPD client it means that a) I can configure MPD separately to do all the heavy lifting, such as keep itself updated, output to audio grade etc. then I use Cantata’s “cover art” display, choosing to keep the most recently added music foremost.

    There is also a very interesting “gmusicbrowser” which has many swappable skins/layouts, some of which by default have tabs for things like play counts, or ratings, or “last added” etc.

    Between these two players, both running as clients to the underlying MPD, I find that at least I can choose how to browse my collection in a variety of ways. I invest the time because, in keeping all my music files local, I don’t foresee mp3s becoming obsolete for personal use.

  2. Rekordbox along with Nextcloud to sync the database+content works well for me; regularly use it to sort/analyze my audio in essentially all codecs/formats, and locating/retrieving the content is trivial when your library is well organized.

  3. I’ve had a digital music library for about 20 years now. For the first ten, it was housed and metadataed by iTunes. Once I left the Apple ecosystem, I switched over to Plex. Minimal tending required, and it reads both local and third party (eg Gracenote) metadata brilliantly, although you do have to host it yourself. (Unlike much other self hosted software I use, I hardly ever find myself cursing Plex.)

    Or, you know, listen to CDs. 😁

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *