Sunday, February 10, 2013

Death to shuffle!

I have been relying on Plex for my media playing needs for a couple of weeks now (as I mentioned previously) and it has lead to an interesting revelation. I hate the shuffle button. Let me explain.

I most often use Plex via the web app and its interface is a bit simplistic for music streaming. There are no playlists, queues, repeat or shuffle options. You select an album that you want to listen to (or an individual track if you want) and press play. It plays through the album, in order, and that's it. If you want to skip around, you have to do it manually. Ditto if you want to put another album on. At first, I was looking for more options and functionality thinking that it had to be there. Surely I was just missing something. But I wasn't. It just doesn't have the familiar functionality of other music players. But I soon came to realize that this is exactly what I want from a music player.

Previously, my music listening experience usually included listening to a random selection of songs from my entire collection. Sometimes I would play through the tracks from all albums of a single artist, again usually at random. If I ever listened to an album through front to back, which didn't happen often, I would have several albums queued up and there would be no clear distinction between them. I even have key bindings to "next track", "previous track", and "play/pause," so with a twitch of my wrist I could skip tracks. As such, I let my music collection get into horrible disarray. I had singles lying around, parts of albums, mislabeled tracks that would show up under several different artist listings. Finding and playing a single album was often difficult anyway.

So after switching to Plex and being "forced" into respecting the Album again thanks to its limited interface, I have since re-connected with my music in a way that I have been missing for so long, but didn't know what to do about it. I'm going to go into a "back in my day" spiel here, forgive me:

When I was younger I spent much of my spare cash on CDs. I had hundreds of them, and cherished my monster Case Logic folders full of discs. I loved spending time in record shops, fingering through racks of plastic cases, searching for something new to listen to. I had made a ritual of opening a newly purchased CD, always just after leaving the store, peeling the plastic shrink wrap away just so, popping the cover off at the hinge to make removing the sticker across the top easier. The art, the liner notes, the disc itself were all part of the experience and made the whole thing tangible.

Playing music in a single disc CD player added to the interactivity. You had to make a deliberate choice, flipping past other options. While it's not a monumental effort to change discs, doing so is enough of a hindrance that I didn't do it often. Once an album was on, I left it on and let it play through.

MP3s, as much as I love them, have taken this experience from me. After some reflection, I'm now realizing that this is not OK. Music used to be hugely important to me, and since making the switch to 100% digital music, I've lost most of my passion. This isn't entirely the fault of the MP3. I'm older and busier and don't have as much time to search for new bands or learn more about my favorite artists. I don't have a car any longer, and I always found the car to be a great place to enjoy music. On top of that, I've lived in a rather transient state for the last 10 years, and always in apartments, so I haven't collected any stereo equipment to speak of. I listen to music on my laptop almost all of the time. This isn't an environment that is conducive to sitting back and taking an album in.

Anyway, my stripped down media player is letting me get back some of the "old school" experience that I'm now realizing that I've been missing, especially when playing something on the iPad. The album art displays across the full screen, which I hold in my hands. This feels kind of like sitting next to my stereo listening to something while holding the disc, admiring the artwork. I only wish that I could get a full liner notes experience, and flip through a set of artwork, lyrics, and whatever other treasures the artists chose to leave me. Now that so many people consume their music using devices with big, beautiful touch screens on them, it's time that some kind of MP3 linear note system becomes standard. I want to dig deeper into my music, and interact with it again.

I can live without CDs, without a physical product in hand. I can get used to shopping for music on Amazon or iTunes rather than in a (preferably musty) record shop. But I argue that the Album, as a concept, still has tremendous value and should be given respect again. This guy knows what I'm talking about. Plex, with its lack of a shuffle button, has helped me do just that. And the Album should still be, as it always was, more than just an auditory experience. Just like a movie is more than just something to look at, an Album is more than just something to listen to.


Mike Bell said...

Here is an interesting article about the decline of liner notes:

"Our music has become much more a part of our multitasking lifestyle, only rarely indulged in as the sole focus of our attention; more the "furniture music" envisioned by the French modernist composer Erik Satie — meant to be in the background rather than listened to — than the object of my teenage study and obsession."

I totally agree.

"Dissatisfied with the thin descriptions available for music obtained from iTunes, subscribers have pushed for digital liner notes, in PDF format, that can be downloaded along with album tracks, and something of a grass-roots movement to bring back liner notes is afoot. These notes aren't yet viewable on iPods and other portable music players, but plans are in development; the splash page at reads: "Bringing yesterday's analog experience into today's digital world. Coming soon.""

PDF liner notes wont cut it for me. I can Google info about an album if I want it that bad. I want the liner notes need to be integrated in the experience, likely embedded in the file itself and viewable in the media player. I had some hopes that "" would lead to something, but it appears that the site has gone under. Booo.

James Mackay said...

Thank you very much for this article. I just stumbled across it looking how to re-add a shuffle button to my plex media server. I've now decided to give that goal a rest and actually listen to a few albums from start to finish. I, as you, use to just click shuffle and be done with it. Which often lead the music just becoming background noise and I never properly took the time to enjoy it. Thank you, again... for the different perspective!

James Mackay said...
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