Wallowing in My Music Library

I love to wallow in my music library. It is larger than some, smaller than others. It has provided demo material for my work as an audio-gear reviewer but also nourished my life as a listener. For me, movies come out of a faucet named Netflix, but music is something I like to have around in hard-copy form. Exactly how much of it I have around has always been a back-of-an-envelope calculation.

The latest back of the latest envelope says I have 77 feet of shelf space devoted to CDs (with a few other obscure disc formats mixed in). At 30 items per foot, that would amount to 2310 discs — but not all of my CDs are the width of a plastic jewelbox. Some are in slender envelopes packed into boxes. For instance, the Karajan Symphony Edition comes in a box 2.5 inches wide but holds 38 discs, and the long twilight of the CD era has brought a lot of those stuffed wallet boxes into my library. So the total of 2310 discs is on the low side. The truth is probably closer to 3000 discs, collected since I bought my first CD player in 1985.

Then there are the LPs, which I have been collecting since 1970, though more slowly since 1985. I have culled them a little more actively but estimate I still have 90 percent of everything I’ve bought. They take up 30 feet of shelf space. At 65 discs per foot, that amounts to 1950 discs. However, that is an even rougher calculation. LP jackets are not as uniform as CD jewelboxes. One of those skinny Deutsche Grammophon jackets takes up only half the space of a single-disc American gatefold. And again, there are the box sets. The total is probably around 2500 LPs.

So I have a music library of about 5500 albums. That’s not counting my modest collection of 45s, which take up a mere foot of shelf space; or the hundreds of concert cassettes I illicitly recorded in my passionate youth, filling 17 shoeboxes still tucked away in the bedroom; or my motley assortment of music files. The latter include MP3s downloaded from the original Napster (before my conscience kicked in), lossless files ripped from public library discs or my own disc collection, and a small but growing collection of high-resolution audio files. All of that would fit on a one-terabyte hard drive, though probably not for long. Factoring in the listening hours potentially afforded by Spotify and Tidal and the recently launched Qobuz would make my head explode.

Once in a while I wonder how long it would take to listen through my entire library of CDs and LPs. If I listened to one a day, 365 days a year, it would take about 15 years. I’m 61 years old, so I’d better get cracking. I’d finish at 76. Even if I omitted things I’ve listened to in the last few years, it would still take more than a decade. To hear to the whole collection in a year, I’d have to listen to 15 albums per day, not including work-related listening.

It is unlikely that I would ever try binging the whole thing. One of the joys of owning a large-ish music library is the freedom to dive into it serendipitously: rediscovering old friends, learning to appreciate neglected ones, and finding things I bought in an altered state of consciousness and forgot about. I have a long attention span — I binge entire musical careers and multi-season TV series — but it’s not long enough to binge-listen 5500 discs. Where listening is concerned, I prize quality over quantity. That’s why I never listen to music while writing. I care too much about music, and too much about writing.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that my approach to the library has to be purely passive. Having culled about 10 percent of the LPs over the years, I should probably do the same for the CDs. I’m mulling over the possibility of a database, though I’m not sure whether I should do it as a simple word-processing document, a spreadsheet, or use an online tool like Discogs. I probably owe it to my heirs to assess the fraction of the collection that might be worth something and sticker the good stuff with Post-It notes.

I’ve been a fool not to keep notes on the condition of my LPs. They have been kept clean and played carefully, so most are in the mint or near-mint condition prized by record collectors and dealers, especially those I bought new. I also owe it to posterity to replace several hundred yellowed, sliced-open, pulp-shedding LP innersleeves with the audiophile-approved rice paper sleeves that have been sitting in a fat box for half a decade.

My treasures are strewn around my one-bedroom apartment — in the livingroom, bedroom, and vestibule. One especially cherished ambition is to see all of them in one place, in a room I would of course call the library, arranged on custom-built shelves no taller than I can reach without a ladder. To acquire the necessary real estate in my current gentrified neighborhood, I would have to hit the lottery. But that is one of my fondest dreams. Of course there would also be separate rooms for my office, home theater system, a box room for audio-gear review samples, and bedrooms for myself and my long-suffering roommate. Plus a livingroom, a conservatory, and perhaps an aviary. I might even devote a separate listening room to the vintage two-channel gear that I hanker for but haven’t the space for on the current equipment rack.

As I find more time in my busy schedule for aging and death, I hope my music library will be with me every step of the way (if that’s possible). I can’t imagine life without it.