June 8, 2019

Measuring music by time

With the discontinuation of iTunes this past week, I’m reminded of the time when, years ago, we measured music collections in units of time.

Way at the bottom of your music collection in iTunes, there would be a small indicator that not only listed the number of songs you had in your library, but the amount of time it would take to play the entire list. Small collections would be measured in hours of listening time; larger ones went into months and years.

Among my friends, it wasn’t unusual to be asked not how many songs you had in your iTunes library, but instead how much listening time was listed on the indicator. After a particularly good week of downloading music, I would hear stories of music libraries growing from three weeks to three months.

Personally, my library was fairly small. Even at its largest, it never surpassed a month or two of listening. I had a few albums that I loved and listened to over and over; other stuff I’d listen to at friends’ houses, or through the mix CDs we’d often all make for each other.

These days, with millions of songs all available on streaming services, we don’t use units of time to indicate how much music we own. Having instant access to everything has made us forget that, for a very long time, measuring our lives in song-length units was not just normal, but joyful.

RIP, iTunes. I may not have used you much recently, but you were so central to my life, for a time.