How Much is Enough?

too_manyLong before it took on a prurient overtone the word fetish had a useful role in the English language. Because what it really means is to take on too much importance.

How that came to be limited to pain, impractical underwear and the boudoir is anyone’s guess. But what brought me back to the earlier meaning was a simple question: can you own too much music?

The question may not even make sense to people younger than 30. The ones I know all stream their music from services like Pandora and Spotify and don’t feel the compulsion to amass large numbers of MP3s. (They also view CDs as quaint artifacts. I’ve stayed away from the whole subject of LPs.) I’m a prisoner of my generation; I’ve been spending roughly the same amount of money on music every year for about 35 years. That’s a lot of tunes.

How much is a lot? The hard drive has just under 20,000 songs on it. More than half come from the 600 to 800 CDs stored in my hideaway library. The similar number of LPs remains unripped and must be played on that other quaint artifact, a turntable. The nifty counter on the main iTunes window tells me it’s 54.2 days worth of music. That’s about 15% of a year, just shy of two months. Like I said, a lot of tunes.

Music is my obsession and plays constantly: in my home, during my 4 hours of daily commuting, in the office. I listen to active playlists with a built-in resting period. So I probably rotate through 10% or so of the library every week. Still, a song can fall out of rotation for more than a year. So if one objective in buying was to hear something again and not have to wait for the radio it’s not really being met.

I always like a bit of context so I thought I’d look at what radio stations do. A post from RadioInfo in February 2013 by Jim Jones provides a glimpse. For most genres, the annual playlist is around 2000 songs. For the ones I’d be most likely to listen to–Triple A, Jazz and College–the size grows to somewhere between 6 and 10 thousand. A lot of tunes to be sure, but not 20K. So something else must be going on. But what?

Well here’s a clue:

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.
Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Section 4

MarxThe quote above  is from the social scientist Americans seem trained to hate: Karl Marx. The section of Capital this comes from is entitled ‘The Fetisihism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof.’ And it’s an apt, if typically Germanic, description of the undue importance commodities assume. And he was writing before consumer society erupted.

Am I fetishizing music? Probably, although there are worse vices. Developing an obsesion for some manufactured good seems to be a pretty universal tendency from Imelda Marcos‘ shoes to a friend’s handbag collection to my music. But don’t take it from me, take it from George Carlin who really nailed our obsession with amassing things.

As for me, I fear I’ll continue to buy music. Because for me, music continues to abound in…what was that phrase again?…ah, yes, metaphysical properties and theological niceties.

Here’s the master, riffing on the modern need to accumulate.


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