Music

How to organize your music collection

Our blogger debates the merits of four tried-and-tested solutions to that age-old problem.

In an alphabetized record collection, you'd see ABBA, then AC/DC, followed by the band Anthrax.In an alphabetized record collection, you'd see ABBA, then AC/DC, followed by the band Anthrax.In an alphabetized record collection, you'd see ABBA, then AC/DC, followed by the band Anthrax. (Photo: Radu Bercan / Shutterstock)

In this era of digital media, my music collection has ballooned exponentially. Looking at the MP3 library hooked up to this laptop alone, there are 60,000 tracks clocking in at 400 GB. Even that isn’t quite as impressive as some music collections.

By most accounts the world’s largest vinyl collection, owned by Zero Freitas, a 62-year-old Brazilian businessman, reportedly contains several million vinyl records. If the sheer quantity of music doesn’t overwhelm you, the challenge of organizing that collection into a context that makes it possible to locate a particular single or LP can feel, well, impossible.

Every collector has their own way of organizing their music – whether it’s an MP3 library, a vinyl collection, a now-rare cassette trove, or phonograph cylinders. (If your music collection contains exclusively phonograph cylinders, kudos to you, you win music nerd of the century.) But what does your organizational method say about you? Here are some of the more popular ways of sorting out your library along with their benefits and possible downsides.

Regional

The rock band REM, seen here performing on the 'Today' show, would be categorized under their hometown of Athens, Georgia.The rock band REM, seen here performing on the 'Today' show, would be categorized under their hometown of Athens, Georgia. (Photo: Scott Gries/Getty Images)

This is the way my collection has been moving over the last decade. As it became more international, it made more sense to start organizing my albums by where they were released. Sometimes this runs into some subdivision problems. Do I put all U.S. releases in the same category, or subdivide by city? That way REM can sit next to the B52s under Athens, Ga. The Roots and Kurt Vile under Philadelphia, Pa. Ofra Haza and Aviv Geffen go under Israel. Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé in Nigeria. The Beatles and Amy Winehouse in the U.K. This runs into its own sorts of inconsistencies – so many globetrotting artists, or bands with members from a variety of countries. One of my favorite releases from this year comes from the band Monoswezi – named after the four countries its members come from: Mozambique, Norway, Sweden and Zimbabwe. Good luck figuring out where to slot them.


Alphabetical

If you have an album from the Swedish band ABBA, we can assume it would be located near the beginning of your alphabetized collection.If you have an album from the Swedish band ABBA, we can assume it would be located near the beginning of your alphabetized collection. (Photo: Olle Lindeborg/AFP/Getty Images)

This is the most common, and straightforward, way of organizing your music library. Great for anyone who doesn’t have the time or inclination to do serious research into every album they own. All you have to do is sort the artists by alphabetical order, and then their specific albums within the same rubric. Pros: Easy to locate exactly what you’re looking for. Cons: Simple and offers no insight into how particular albums and artists relate to one another. Another con: For those of us with international music libraries, you have to determine how to sort Hebrew language albums and Turkish language albums alongside English language albums. Do you transliterate foreign languages to mesh easily, or keep them in the original language and determine which alphabet takes precedence? Okay, first world problems.


Genre

Formed in 1996, Nightwish features a lead singer who is a classically-trained opera singer.Finland's Nightwish is a symphonic metal band. How would you categorize that? (Photo: Spinefarm Records)

With a genre organization (what iTunes libraries often default to), you at least have some rhyme and reason to why certain albums are grouped with others. You’ll still use alphabetical organization within a particular genre, but at least now you don’t have Michael Jackson next to Megadeth. Instead, Michael Jackson can sit beside Mariah Carey under Pop, and Megadeth beside Metallica under Metal. Your specific challenges? Figuring out exactly how to divide up your collection by genre. Do you keep to broad, vague categories like Pop, Rock, Country, etc., or do you subdivide them into more specific subgenres like Teen Pop, Scandinavian Bubblegum Pop and Korean Pop? A broad category like rock could end up grouping together Turkish artist Selda, Malian outfit Tinariwen, the Rolling Stones and the Talking Heads. It’s just chaos. But too much subdivision and you’re looking at Anatolian Rock, Malian Desert Blues, American '60s Rock and Post-Punk. And that’s just rock alone. Good if you either love obsessively subdividing genres (and don’t care too much about what happens to fusion/crossover albums) or if you don’t mind sorting through a thousand different albums under one category.


Chronological

Have an album from hip-hop artist Jason Derulo? Since it's so new, it'll likely be at the front (or would it be back?) of your collection.Have an album from hip-hop artist Jason Derulo? Since it's so new, it'll likely be at the front (or would it be back?) of your collection. (Photo: Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images)

Super popular among music nerds, chronological listings can give you a big historical picture of how your music fits together. Vinyl at the beginning of your bookcase? 1920s, '30s, '40s, and '50s. Near the end? 2015. And in between, an entire history of recorded music that ducks and swerves through the trends of pop and rock history. There are a few wrinkles, though. Do you sort every album by its year of release? Do you generally try to put artists in a vague chronological order and then their individual albums in a tight order? You could have Bob Dylan sitting in the middle of your bookcase in the 1960s, but then his 2001 modern classic "Love and Theft" completely out of time. If you just fit albums by their year of release and ignore organization by artist, you can’t get that nice big picture of every Dylan album in order. Personally speaking, I think a rigorous chronological album organization would be dizzying. But if you’re a historian, or have a historic disposition, maybe this can work for you. Figure out what to do about original album issues and reissues, and you’re gold.

What creative methods do you use to organize your collection? By color tone of the album cover? By primary instrument? Classical music fans have a whole new set of problems – organize by composer? Conductor? Orchestra? Movement? No matter how different our categorization heuristics are, we all share that feeling of dissatisfaction when we realize that no single structure can adequately account for the wide, boundary-shaking paradigms of recorded sound.

If all else fails, you can use the tried-and-true method of tossing all your music into one place – either one music folder, or one pile of vinyl LPs under your bed – and not worrying anymore about what goes where. We all have too much music to listen to anyway. Embrace fatalism. Stop worrying about organizing everything. Life is too short.

Mordechai Shinefield has been writing about music for over a decade for a variety of periodicals including Rolling Stone, Spin Magazine and the Village Voice. His tastes in music run the gamut; Malian desert blues and palm wine music from Sierra Leone, leftfield electronica, Middle Eastern folk metal, sun-soaked psychedelic folk, avant garde free jazz, vaporwave, and even some top 40.

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