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Digital Blues: The Day-to Day Challenges of Music Sharing – Part III – Storage

Digital Blues: The Day-to Day Challenges of Music Sharing – Part III – Storage

Part III – Music Storage

“Five years ago, I was obsessed with changing metadata,” says Miles Anzaldo, the Music Director of Los Angeles radio station KROQ. Like most music professionals (and fans) with vivid memories of the pre-streaming era, he remembers the days when he actively tended to his digital music collection, but over the past few years, that interest has faded away. “If I find myself in a situation where I want to store something, I still use iTunes,” he says, “but I don’t even really use that much anymore.” At one point, his external hard drive with all of his music died, and while there was a time in his life when that would have been devastating, Anzaldo now says, “I didn’t find myself that heartbroken over it, because music is so accessible these days.”

It was back in 2003 that Apple first opened the iTunes store, but even before that, Napster and other file-sharing services had already revolutionized the dynamics of music collection. Within just a few short years, music fans everywhere had begun to assemble massive digital libraries, many of them containing months’ (and even years’) worth of music. This also converted many music professionals (and detail-oriented fans) into makeshift digital librarians, as maintaining a functional collection often required users to do all sorts of data entry and metadata cleanup. “Back in the day, I would even download the artwork,” says New York-based music journalist Isabela Raygoza, who also curates playlists for SoundCloud and other mainstream streaming platforms.

The rise of streaming, however, has torpedoed many people’s digital collections, even within the music industry. “I’ve pretty much stopped collecting music at this point,” says producer and Mixpak label founder Andrew Hershey (a.k.a. Dre Skull). “Spending so many hours a week making music, my relationship to it has been fundamentally altered. As a part of my creative process, I spend so much time listening to the things I’m working on, taking notes and trying to understand what’s working and what’s not working, so when I leave the music-making space, I generally want to listen to random music and to not be so controlled when it comes to the listening experience.”

That said, Hershey still has a need to store music. In fact, it’s something he takes very seriously. “I have several Drobo RAIDed drives stored in different locations for redundancy,” he explains, “and then I use Arq software to back up selected files to the cloud every few hours as well.” As a busy producer and songwriter—Hershey has worked with artists such as Snoop Dogg, Vybz Kartel, Popcaan and Wizkid—storage plays a huge role in his day-to-day routine, but it’s much more of a professional tool than a personal one.

Storing files and maintaining a library is also critical for Alison Moses, a music supervisor at Aperture Music in Los Angeles. At any given time, she’s usually simultaneously working on two to five television shows and one or two films, and although she’s still using iTunes (which has technically been rebranded as Apple’s Music app) as her primary storage depot, she’s gotten creative when it comes to keeping her files in order. “I do a separate iTunes library for each of my shows so I can build playlists,” she explains. “Somebody else recommended it to me and I was like, ‘You are crazy! How could that be an efficient system?’ But then I tried it and I was like, ‘This works for me.’ It does take up a lot of storage space though.”

Although the program itself doesn’t seem to have many vocal champions, iTunes still tends to be the default for many professionals, out of habit if nothing else. Most don’t go as far as Moses, but Philip Sherburne, a contributing editor at Pitchfork and the co-host of the Lapsus program on Spain’s Radio 3, says, “I create a monthly iTunes playlist of all my new promo material, just so I have a quick and easy way of referencing it.” And given the volume of new music that he receives—those monthly playlists often have four to six days’ worth of music on them—he’s run into another issue: there’s simply no way that all those files can fit on his laptop. It’s a problem commonly faced by active file downloaders, and dealing with it is often more complicated than just buying an external hard drive. “I have just under five TB of music,” says Sherburne, “and the largest portable hard drive is five TB, so I have to either delete music, which would take me forever, or I have to level up to a non-portable drive, which I don’t want to do because I do a lot of carrying my drive from my office to the living room and back.” His storage efforts don’t stop there, either; aside from periodically copying the contents of his primary external drive to a second five-TB drive, Sherburne also pays Google, Apple and Backblaze for cloud backup services.

Backing things up is also essential for Sam John, a cutting and mastering engineer who heads up Precise Mastering in London. As someone who works on approximately 60 to 70 tracks each week from a wide variety of clients, he keeps meticulous records of every step in the mastering process, from the original files he’s sent to the final approved masters. Although he uses Google for cloud storage—simply because he also has a G Suite (now known as Google Workspace) business account—Precise Mastering does have its own server, and it’s impeccably organized. “It’s all alphabetical,” he says. “Every customer is in there. Every job will be under that. It’s all there. I’m a librarian.”

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A dedicated server is probably more than most music professionals need, but cloud-based storage has become commonplace throughout the industry. There are countless platforms out there, including Apple iCloud, Google Drive and Box, although it’s Dropbox that seems to be the most popular in music circles. London-based producer and DJ Dwayne Parris-Robinson started using Dropbox Pro after a series of external hard drives died on him, and relies on its sync function to connect his laptop and studio computer. Organization isn’t his strong suit, but he maintains some semblance of order via a series of folders in his Dropbox account. “Inside each folder will be chaos, but it’s organized to a folder, so it’s fine,” he says with a laugh.

The ubiquity of Dropbox is difficult to ignore. Moses says that Aperture Music uses it as a central database, and Hershey uses it to send files to colleagues when he’s in the middle of the music-making process. Nina Agzarian, an Australian DJ, producer and radio presenter, exclusively uses Dropbox links in promo mailouts for her NLV Records label and absolutely prefers the platform to Google Drive. “I find Google Drive so clunky to download things,” she says. “I hate how long it takes to create a ZIP. I’m always wondering, ‘Is it doing anything?’” However, when asked why she started using Dropbox in the first place, she admits, “I kind of inherited it from my old label and management team.”

Agzarian isn’t alone in this. Although all of the people contacted for this piece had their own storage routines and preferred platforms, few had extensively researched their options. As it turns out, storage platforms aren’t all that different from other consumer goods, in the sense that people tend to gravitate towards what they’ve been shown or what it seems like everyone else is using. KROQ’s Anzaldo uses Box to send and store files, simply because that’s the platform he was shown at a prior job at a different radio station. “It’s the platform I’ve always used,” he says. “Sometimes in this job, you have a routine, and it’s just easier to do that than to learn a new thing, even though that new thing may be more efficient in the long run.”

Digital Blues Part I (metadata) is available to read here.

Digital Blues Part II (sending) is available to read here.