Unloading the overload.

About five-and-a-half years ago, when I'd been working at Seattle Weekly a while, I decided to try to go all-digital. I began ripping my CDs and selling them off, sometimes on Half.com, sometimes at local stores, and I made a fair amount of money doing it--to the degree that I stopped keeping track of my bank balance altogether and spending as I liked, a decision that would eventually prove hard to shake and led to more than one money scare. Over time, I got out of the habit of ripping everything, partly because as I acquired more digitally I didn't need to, partly because it was so time-consuming and enervating I couldn't handle doing it anymore. Also, after leaving the Weekly for eMusic, I stopped getting so many promo CDs. When you stop drowning, you feel you can swim. So I kept many of them around, or at least I put them in places where I'd forget about them until I came across them again, and usually just shifted them around some more, a practice I've kept up until a few hours ago, when, restless, I realized the time had come to purge everything again--something I've been planning for about a year now, but have never had the gumption to actually do, for some reason.

Well, sure there's a reason: guilt. It's not just a matter of wanting to try and hear as much music as I can, to have as broad a knowledge as I can stomach; it's a matter of not wanting to look back at the sheer amount of money I've spent (and in the case of some of the promos, the wheedling I've done) and feel like I've wasted it. I'm not sure I'd call it that, but that's probably some stage of denial at work. A lot of the dance music I'm interested in is typically sneered at by people who like music I find equally trivial. (I've always wanted to do a compare-contrast of "good" indie rock that was supposed to "stand the test of time" vs. "bad" dance or pop music that wasn't; in my head it's basically always been a contest between Britney, who's still around, like her or not, and, say, K. McCarty's Dead Dog's Eyeball and its like. But that's a bone for another day's picking.) So it's doubly embarrassing when the stuff I've held onto but never, or almost never, played is the very type of stuff I've been mocked for caring about. Uncomfortable as it is sometimes to admit, pride plays a big role in our tastes; it's why people who really ought to know better still believe in that chimera known as the guilty pleasure.

But that's only a small part of it, if an important one. The other part is that with promos down to a trickle I never really worried about the amount of stuff I was keeping, so over the years it's piled up something precarious--or at least, precarious enough to worry about now that I'm really starting to run out of space, both physically and, more and more, mentally. Several months ago I realized that what I really want from a CD collection are albums I want to play more or less from beginning to end--a shelf full of reliable pleasures. But inertia is a strong beast. It's easy to be overwhelmed by volume--I'd guess I have around 3,000 CDs total, including friends' mixes, MP3 discs, CD-Rs, unsaleable promos, and other assorted junk. Going through everything in my bedroom--where less than a third of this stuff was located--took about two hours, and that was a very light dusting.

Everything went into four piles: keepers (back on the shelf), unsaleables (an unkempt pile, now in a box), saleables (into a box), and the discs I want to rip before selling. Here's where the shame pops up again: the last bunch is bigger than the other three combined. Happy as I am to lighten my burden and make a little cash, I have been sitting here for ten hours now ripping disc after disc. (Disc two of the first Source Lab comp is going at 7.0x as I type.) I'm beginning to remember just how much of a slog this is to do, and why I eventually stopped--it became all I did, every day, for months. I stopped going out, seeing friends, attending concerts, in part because I thought if I kept at it diligently enough, I'd eventually see bottom. Back then it was even foolhardier than now, because the promos weren't about to let up anytime soon; now it's only somewhat less so, but I feel good about it anyway, because my goal is a lot less amorphous.

Of course, I'm kidding myself by saying that. There will always be another record or ten that I have to just give one more chance, and much as I might watch how much music I take in at any given time, once you get the bug it's not something that goes away entirely, or by itself. Today, for example, before I started the trimming process, I splurged on volume six of James Brown's The Singles: 1969-1970, two discs of original A- and B-side mixes of many songs I already own. How many times am I gonna play that one? It's the completist in me, of course: yet I already sold the third volume for reasons Douglas Wolk makes clear in his Pitchfork review. A matched set is one thing, but even I, collector guy, have my limits.

One reason the rip-then-sell pile is so big is that I gave myself a great deal of latitude for it. Specifically, while a lot of the CDs in it are ones I never quite got around to and want to have the chance to even after they're gone, a lot of them are albums I do like to varying degrees but realize I will likely never play again. That includes everything from Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury (I like the Neptunes a lot but some of those tracks are just annoying, however great the wordplay may be; I still prefer, and will always prefer, Lord Willin', by a mile) to Simian Mobile Disco's FabricLive.41 (speaking of matched sets), which I reviewed positively, with reservations, for Resident Advisor

Just as important, psychically anyhow, are the albums I've held onto for years for no especially good reason. Henry Cow's Western Culture is a great example: picked it up used at a record store I forget the name of, on 44th and Nicollet in Minneapolis, when I worked across the street at the Sebastian Joe's ice cream commissary, where I made waffle cones Tuesday through Friday and vanilla ice cream all day Saturday. (Best non-writing job I ever had: I listened to music all day long and got a ton of reading done while waiting for the waffle irons or, on Saturdays, the ice cream maker to do their work, not to mention a ton of great free ice cream, in dozens of flavors.) That was a dozen years ago; I think I've played Western Culture five times total. Same with Prince Jazzbo's Mr. Funny on Pressure Sounds: picked it up on a big buy (something like a dozen CDs at once, my lord), and have probably heard it less than a half-dozen times. Somehow I never got around to ripping them while going digital in '03-'04. Now's the time.

I said this at the outset of this blog, but it's worth repeating: the reason I started watching my consumption of music now, as opposed to, say, when I worked at the Weekly, is because my position as a hoarder is no longer a rarefied one. It used to be that a surfeit of free music was a luxury; now it's widespread, commonplace. Some people think criticism doesn't have the same value it used to because of this. I feel the opposite--good writing is becoming harder to come by since everyone who can type thinks of themselves as a writer because they can publish themselves. (I've pushed this fallacy myself in the past, and I'm sorry, especially after seeing some of what's resulted.) And I think that that width and depth are advantages in criticism and life both; I like the stuff I do even more as a result of sitting through so much of what I don't like, or don't quite connect with.

That hoarding aspect is still with me even as I try to be less frivolous a buyer and/or downloader. (Most of the CDs I'm ripping are from, or were purchased in, 2004 and 2005, the years I made--by a long shot--the most money I ever have in my life.) Still, in some ways I'm getting better. Remember the two email folders I've alluded to where I keep digital promos? I finally waded through them last week. Cutting them down from somewhere around 500 items to about 135 took less than 20 minutes. A couple days after that I cut some more; then I went through the account whose folder was smaller, about 55 items; I wound up with about 35 tracks and/or albums; 14 albums still reside in the "unheard" folder." A lot of really negligible crap--it's not a coincidence that even months after being sent some of this stuff, I'd barely or never heard of the vast majority of it. (That's heard OF, not heard.)

Right now I'm listening to Andrew Weatherall's Hypercity mix of the Force Tracks catalogue. In 2001, when I was enamored of that label, I played this mix a lot. Hearing it again now, it still sounds pretty good. It also sounds like something I'm not likely to ever pull out again except for research. As soon as it's finished, it's getting ripped and put into the sell box. Sentiment can be wonderful, but right now, like way too much of this stuff, even the stuff I know is good, it mostly just gets in the way.


  1. I'll buy the Weatherall disc, and interested in what else you've got. Trouble is, I'm in Melbourne. Let me know what you're looking at -


  2. I've ditched bits here and there over the years, but it's true the one major culling I did three years ago was liberating and lucrative. So congrats on the effort!

    If I ever make it "back home" to visit my parents, who are kindly storing every physical disc bought before I moved across the country, I plan to be viciously harsh in one last sell-down. Nostalgia was the only thing saving most of the 1990s/indie rock, and I've got no nostalgia left.

    My "slow listening" has evolved to limiting myself to $100/month, and only visiting my favorite local seller, Exiled Records. I still see things on Forced Exposure or Dusty Groove and kick myself when they quickly go out of print. . . but so far the plan is basically working.