Get Minimal With Your Digital Music Collection!


Apply some minimalist principles to your music collection and become a better DJ because of it.
Pic: x_spirit

Spring brings thoughts of clearing the decks for a new season (with apologies to our southern hemisphere readers). Minimalists love this time of year as it's the time when everyone tries to cut some clutter from their lives, not just them! As I was sorting through the stacks of gear, boxes, leads, product CDs, batteries, instruction manuals, paperwork and so on that have piled up in the Digital DJ Tips office over the past 12 months as part of our own spring clean, it occurred to me that as digital DJs, we could benefit from applying a bit of minimalism to our digital music collections.

I'm pretty brutal with my DJ music anyway, but spring cleaning has given me the impetus to step it up a gear and get to grips with the flab in my iTunes DJ music. Here's why I think it's a good idea, and how to go about it if you'd like to have a go:

What is minimalism?

Minimalism doesn't mean living in a room with one chair and a daffodil in it! It just means only having what you need and no more. The idea is that we don't particularly like too many choices; that too much stuff weighs us down, giving us a sense of unease; that we can't welcome new stuff into our lives with open arms if we feel burdened by the old; and that if the stuff we do own isn't properly organised, we can't effectively assess it or use it properly. Substitute the word "stuff" for "music" in the above paragraph, and you can see why there might be a case for applying the minimalist perspective to our music collections. Obviously as digital DJs our music is "virtual" anyway so it doesn't take up any physical space, but that doesn't change the fact that if it's in a mess, most of the disadvantages of having too much stuff that minimalism seeks to address are just as real.

Indeed, precisely because our music is digital, we need to get a really firm grip of it to feel comfortable with it. One of the biggest problems vinyl or CD DJs have when they switch to digital is having to organise and think about their music in files and folders. And one thing's for certain: It is easier to get your head around a digital music collection of 1,000 tunes than 100,000...

I have seen people boasting that they have "15GB of music", "end to end for eight months", "everything by X, Y or Z", and in all honestly it exasperates me; apart from the fact that it's obviously 99% P2P downloaded stuff, what possible use can having that amount of music be? I bet such people have only listened to about 1% of it all!

Three principles of minimalism...

Here are three core principles of minimalism as I see it, and how they might apply to music:

1. Keep close to hand what you need the most

Minimalists say you should have an inner zone, an outer zone, and a deep storage zone for your stuff. The inner zone is for things you use daily or weekly. The outer zone is for stuff you use less - say, up to yearly. The deep storage is for stuff you are keeping for whatever reason but use even less, if at all.

Joy Division

Joy Division‘s iconic minimal album cover for "Unknown Pleasures".

Let's apply this to your music collection. You might choose to keep three folders or playlists - an inner zone which would be your "every week" folder, where you keep the music you pretty much always play when you DJ; an "outer zone" which is the stuff you want close by but dip into less frequently; and a deep storage zone for the rest. A true minimalist perspective would be to look very carefully at everything in the deep storage zone and be honest about whether you want it at all. Now as MP3s don't take up any space (and you have bought them, after all), the temptation may be to keep everything you ever bought - after all it's called a "music collection" for a reason, right?

But nowadays, with more and more online services that can give you music on demand, or stream exactly what you're wanting to hear for you without you actually owning the music, maybe there is a case for being brutal, and only keeping the music you actually use, or have used in the last year, to DJ with.

A mid-way position may be to have a separate backup hard drive that you farm off unplayed old music onto in order to keep your music library nice and lean while having all that old music there just in case you want it again in the future.

2. One in, one out

As DJs, our brains have a finite ability to mentally juggle tunes. Our DJ sets don't get longer and longer over time. So why when we add new music to our collections don't we get rid of something old? After all, we're adding new music to put fresh sounds into ours and our audience's ears. That must mean that there are stale tunes in there that aren't doing it for us any more. If something gets added, something should also get taken away - deleted or put into deep storage, as per the discussion above. This principle also forces you to think about what you're adding to your collection.

If you can't find something worse to take out when you are adding something new, should you be adding that new thing in the first place? It forces you to value what you've got, and assess the value of what's new more carefully before letting that new thing into your life. And anything that makes you think about your music in any way at all is good news.

3. Keep similar things together

Grouping stuff by purpose helps us to easily get to what we want when we want it, and also to identify how much of any particular thing we have, so we can decide if we have too much (or, indeed, if we need some more). So for instance, in an office, if you have one pen drawer, and upon spring cleaning you find you have 500 pens, maybe you should get rid of a few! In music, this means categorising your tunes. You need to decide the best way to do this to suit your DJing; you may categorise them into genres if you play different types of gig, or into energy levels ("one" being warm-up, "five" being "peak time banger"), into popularity buckets (a category for very new or experimental, a category for tunes that are bubbling under, one for quite popular, and one for out-and-out floorfillers, for example).

The point is that you should tightly organise your music. This will show you where you have gaps in your collection or where you have too much (do you really need eight hours'-worth of Christmas music? No? Trash some then!), and also help you to lay your hands on a group of records you're likely to want at once, quickly.

(Need to get the parents dancing at a wedding? Great, there's a section of 70s disco & pop floorfillers...)

How to get started...

You might read the above and get a feeling of "yeah, that makes sense", followed quickly by the panic of "how the hell do I get started?" The first thing is give yourself time - it may take a day or it may take a month! Guess how long you may need depending on the size and level of organisation of your music at present, and try and do this bit in one go, or every night till you're finished.

Once you've worked out when you're going to do it, the main principle is to throw everything out and then allow things back in again. Start with an empty library. Don't look through your current tunes deciding what you don't want to keep - you'll just tinker around the edges. No, the way to do it is to clear your library completely, then go through your music track by track. Have a conversation with each track as it goes back in to your library. Say: "What are you? Why do I want you in my collection?"

If the answers are "I don't know" or "I haven't played you in years" or "I never liked you" or "I kept you because I thought you were cool and may become popular one day" or "You remind me of when I was at college" or "I like the original but I don't like this mix" or "I thought I'd play you one day but I never have" - well, I think you know what to do. Deep storage or better still, bin. Remember, we're trying to re-admit music that's useful. Your enemies here will be nostalgia and sentiment ("I have to keep that, it reminds me of...") or what-if ("What if I ever get asked to play an acid techno party? I'll need this stuff!").

But you can get your nostalgia fix from streaming via a subscription service, and if the old tunes are that good, they'll still be at least in your outer circle of tunes you play between weekly and yearly, so they'll get let back in. If not? Consider clear your hard drive and thus your mind. And as for the hoarding of records you may need "one day" - if you get asked to play that acid techno party (unlikely) what's the first thing you'll do? Have a blast buying a whole new set for it anyway!

Beatunes review - correcting tag inconsistencies

Correcting tag inconsistencies, removing duplicates, fixing spelling mistakes and generally tidying up a music collection using Beatunes....

As you re-admit (hopefully) drastically less stuff than you had in there in the first place, make sure to label and organise it meticulously according to your plan. Cover art, genre, grouping, all titles, artists and remix information correct (Discogs is a great place to check, and Beatunes has lots of tools to help you organise iTunes collections). You may be surprised to find how many duplicates of a single track you had. It can take a long time, but I guarantee you that the collection you end up with will be living and breathing, a collection that reflects where you're at as a DJ right now, and one that you'll be more comfortable browsing, choosing sets from, and playing out with.

It's not for everyone, but I find applying minimalist principles to both my music and the rest of my stuff keep me focused on the present, ready and willing to enjoy more what's going on right now in my life, without the burden of the past or the "what if" of the future. Maybe it could work for you too. If so, spring is the best time to get started with decluttering!

How big is your collection? Do you prune it all the time, or has it grown and grown over the years? Are you happy with the size of it or do you think it vould benefit from some spring cleaning? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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  1. Great article at the right time! Just realized all of this yesterday when a friend and I were playing music.. he was spinning vinyl and I was using my laptop. He had a crate of 50 records and I had a playlist of 300 tracks.. easy to say that he had an easier time picking music.

  2. Another winning topic. I do get that "panic" feeling sometimes when staring at a list of hundreds of tunes. Way too much choice now, that's probably the only thing I miss about my record boxes.

    I agree with the "chuck everything out principle", if you dont, you will just end up mincing about the edges.

    I might have a go at clearing out, but time is my enemy...

  3. My cleaning is really going through folders and dumping what I know I'll never play again.

    One big thing I like to do is when I see several remixes of a tune, I only keep one or two of them. I never like packing it all up in a big box because you just make life harder when you play.

  4. Today I decided to limit my track pool to 100.

    I had 8 new tracks I wanted to include,so I had to carefully go through and reject 8 others. It's interesting how often I have tracks I'll never play, but can't bear to get rid of.

  5. I'm one of those with a big collection. Most of which ends up being for casual listening or for guest that come by the house. Is fun to throw in my 90's music folder to play random and see my guest's reaction when different songs come on.
    But aside from that, the upkeep of my library is an ever going process which I find fun. The main thing I have learned is to be really exclusive as to what I add and to totally clean-up (file name, location, ID3 tags etc) anything new that goes in.


    • Phil Morse says:

      Have you considered looking at subscription/streaming music services to do this type of thing so you don't need copies of the music at home at all?

      • "Have you considered looking at subscription/streaming music services to do this type of thing so you don’t need copies of the music at home at all?"

        This sounds interesting. How is this done. Who provides this service?

      • Sameoldsong says:

        Phil, I thought the streaming services thing was one of the weaker ideas in the article.

        I guess if you're a mobile DJ, the idea might have some virtue. But if you're a club or bar or even a radio DJ, you wanna have tunes in your collection which are unique. Tunes that rock but only YOU have a copy of. Differentiation is important--I think that's a point which has been made on this blog, too.

        I think the motivation of this article is a very valid one. As a DJ, you get promos, links to tracks on Soundcloud, occasionally you buy stuff that's plainly bad, etc. Sorting and rejecting sound carriers has been part of DJs' job for a long time.

        But, we also need to acknowledge that times have changed. Sure, I am exposed to way too much music and I need to discard much of it right away. But once I have gone through the troubles of perfectly tagging a track, adding cover art, comments, key, and other meta-information, gridded it, created hotcues and loops, sorted it into relevant playlists, why ever throw it away? The cost of storage is negligible enough. Search functions are very powerful. Removing tracks from important playlists, OK. But I don't buy the argument that I should remove some tracks from my library entirely.

        The off-chance that I'll re-discover the track or that some friend or fan asks me about the track years later is reason enough to keep it. And it does happen. Just last week, a friend who had digitized a mixtape from 2002 asked me about some obscure track. I still had the record, it wasn't particularly special. But hey, I could make my friend happy by providing him with a quality copy of the track (well, better quality than the old compact cassette for sure).

        Also, it's important to remember your roots. It's more than nostalgia. You need the past to understand the present and the future.

        • Phil Morse says:

          AH yes, but the point is that once as track is no longer USEFUL to you, ie you're not playing it weekly, monthly or even annually, why have you got it? Even if it once was unique to you, and you once hammered it... not any more!

          Put it in "deep storage" and stop wasting time scrolling past it in your A or B list. and if it's no longer unique (ie it was released, any you don't see yourself EVER DJing with it again), get rid. But I take your point - if you've cuepointed it etc, then deep storage is best.

      • No i cant say i ever considered that. I am very illogical when it comes to music. I love an opportunity to show off the prowess of my collection at any given time, streaming (although probably very funtional) would take that away.
        I probably sound like im the antogonist of this article but I think that readers should understand that for some of us there are 2 music entities. A personal collection and a performance collection. My constant battle of course is making these two live toguether as one.

  6. The simple answer to this one is to be more careful with what music u add to your collection in the first place. Actually buying it helps! Just the fact that your spending your hard ear earned money on music makes you think twice about how much you really need it in your collection. Also think about how music will work in the context of a dj set and in relation to the rest of your collection. Building a good collection and knowing your music inside out are still the essential skills of djing. You can't programme a good spontaneous set without them. I listen to so much music and only ever buy a tiny amount of it. I'll put stuff in my beatport hold bin and go back to it later to see if I still like it. Good music is timeless!

  7. Good article I have around 50 gig of music on my dj laptop I ended up making about 6 or 7 playlists that I use alot, these playlists would probably total about 5 gig of music, barring the odd occasion I more or less play exclusivly from these playlists, with traktor I can export the playlists as music folders, I might do this and dump the other 45 gig on an external hdd and file it away.

  8. My issue is that I like too many genres of music, so i end up collecting a lot. I started with rows and rows of cd's (got rid of the records a few years back, wish i had kept them!). So i end up with hundereds of old 80's and 90's commercial stuff (Rock), heaps of mainstream House, Deep House, Electro House, Progressive House, Tech House, Trance and Ambient Electronic....this stacks up to Gigs and Gigs. I like the idea of a total clean out. I'm assuming though that you would (im talking about Traktor Pro here btw) choose "Delete from Collection" and not "Additionally remove Traktor Tags" - so when you re-load the track, it should have its tags yes??

  9. This is a brilliant article. I do the same thing with my computers, getting rid of any files or software that I don't need. It feels good to be minimalist and organized.

  10. This is definatly something I have been struggling with since moving over to mp3. When I was using vinyl firstly I was buying 3-4 vinyls a week not 12-14 mp3, so I think buying a larger quantity of tunes makes it harder to get to know your new stuff. The other thing being whilst moving over from vinyl I unwittingly left behind a system similar to the one mentioned in the vinyl. Tunes that would always get played would go in my bag (the bag fit 50 vinyls), less frequently played stuff would go in the box, seens as these were the tunes i would play out with and evrything else on the bookshelf to be picked as and when.
    This is something I will definatly have to get back to.....

  11. Yet another awesome article.
    your absolutely spot on!!
    i like to be minimalist with all my equipment too as well as my music.whats the point in having over 100gb of music to dj with, this obviously means you dont have a clue what your doing.
    Its all about being organised. my playlists are as follows..
    80 grooves,90s rnb,uk funky,commercial rnb,commercial hip hop,neo soul,lo fi rap,reggae,my top 50,michael jackson,new jack swing,fresh rnb, fresh house. and a couiple other with bangers in. i use itunes via traktor s4 and when im in a playlist i then go and organise that playlist im djing with by BPM.

    Anyone organise their playlist in a different/better way? let me know.Share it with us.....

  12. Top article!

    Well I am doing exactly the same at the moment...
    I have it set up like this :

    Record Collection Folders - Split into genres.... in them I add every track I like, this can in effect give me 1000+ tracks in every genre
    On the Spin folders - again split into genres.... in these I add what I am currently spinning.... New tracks mixed with some classics, these are set up by Month... curently April 2011.
    Every month I then change the on the spin folders... removing any tracks I am bored of or just don't work, leaving space for fresh tracks to come through....

    My final Playlist is one for the event I am playing, of which I use to pick from my 'On The Spin' folders to build my night..

    I like to frequently listen to my Record Collection genre folders so I can fall in love with older tracks or hear some that may well fit lovely with a new fresh track...

    In short I break my collection down but never get rid completely!
    Why would I want to ? I purcahsed the tracks in the first place because I liked them, so they sit pretty in my 250gb collection (all purchased I might add, either from the current download sites or from my 12 month ripping of my CD Collection !!!)

  13. I might add that all these playlists are also fully tagged with artwork, BPM, genre, Key, Record label, release date and even Catalogue Number! I am an anal Music nerd! lol.... I admit it!


  14. Sounds bang on mate.

    I have roughly 2500 tracks on my laptop to dj with and the rest i have on an external hard drive 500gb.

    i also back my itunes up twice a week on two different external hard drives, u never know lol.

  15. Hey Phil,

    This is a great article and I'm really excited to explore more and different ways to organize my music and my laptop better.
    I DJ 100% digitally and use a macbook and a midi controller. But I have to say that my Mac resembles my room at times, it's a bit of an orchestrated chaos. Everything is all over the place, though I know exactly where to find what. I can't say I'm happy with it but every time I try to organize it and make it neat, a couple of weeks later as new music comes in, its all scattered again.

    I play house music for the most part and I have somewhat of a distinguished style. Lately I have started creating folders onto my external HDD (where I store my music) and calling them March, April, May, etc.. and as I get my music (from beatport for ex) in that particular month I just stick it in there and I know where to find it if I need to. It also helps when I'm recoding my monthly podcast making sure that I use the tracks for the particular month and there's no overlapping or confusion.
    What I did before was creating playlists onto traktor calling them Progressive, Tech, Techno, Deep, etc.. but that got way too confusing and I couldn't dedicate enough time or will to grouping every single track that I downloaded, especially when they pile up.

    Before the Summer season starts, I'm commited to going through the places where I have music scattered on my laptop (desktop, downloads folder, etc) and bring everything onto the appropriate folders.
    A good advice I took from your article is to kind of bring forward the stuff I'd see myself using more often as opposed to things I use rarely or on specific occasions. I think it`ll help me keep everything organized much better and I won't have to dig through stupid amounts of music when putting together a playlist for a gig.

    Thank you for a great article once again.

  16. What a great topic to cover. Over at Beezo Blog, I am getting over 100 new submissions a day. Trust me, I am playing a game of chess with my "music collection" and organization on a daily basis. My strategy for organization is simple. 3 groups:

    1 - Music I play at gigs
    2 - Music I love but can't play at gigs
    3 - Everything else

    For me, It's easier to manage. Keep the music I do play at gigs and radio mixshows on the laptop, The music I really love in another sector and everything else on an external.

    One thing that happens a lot and a few other people here have mentioned is the clutter of remixes and different versions of the same song. I remember one time I was cleaning up my Classic West Coast Rap folder, Somehow I ended up with 20 versions of 2Pac "California Love". Do I really need 20 versions? Nope.

    I always tell my friends to take that sort of approach. With so much music coming out these days, Our hard drives fill up with useless music. I guarantee 50 remixes of Lady Gaga "Judas" by next week. You will only need the original and possibly a DJ Kue remix. Chuck the rest!

  17. dennis parrott says:

    I've been thinking about this topic for a while. I have a really huge itunes library (yes, HUMONGOUS and growing like an out of control foot fungus. i could be in a 12 stepper for music addiction!)

    There are times where that huge catalog has paid off. As in a tip from someone who really wanted to hear an old song I'd forgotten about. Or just making somebody happy to hear a song they liked.

    But that huge list can be oppressive when trying to work in Traktor. It sometimes gets hard to find stuff on demand... like when my pal Jason and I are doing the song slam thing -- he plays a song and I respond with a song, repeat until someone goes "AHHHH" and has a brain freeze and can't respond.

    I like the idea of culling the (un)he(a)rd into some playlists. Put the best tracks into the lists. Play from the lists.

    Easy to say. Not so easy to implement.

    With the streaming services, I have a general wariness toward them. I like to own my music and I worry that the streamed tracks will not meet my bitrate requirements as I really can hear a difference between the lower bitrate and higher bitrate MP3s...

  18. Love the article, love all the comments, please explain streaming sites? Give some names and locations.

  19. grifffff says:

    I use the comment section of iTunes for organising all of my tracks. I'll listen to a track and make notes about it, which I then write down. For example, just looking at itunes now I have labelled a song as "slow/dark/heavy/industrial" that way whenever I want to carry on with a theme, say dark techno I just have to search 'dark' in the search bar.

    Or I'd write "instrument: trumpet" in the comment section of a track that predominantly features a trumpet solo or background. That way if I want to add an instrumental side to a mix all I have to do is type "instrument" into the itunes search bar and it comes up with a list of songs that have a predominant instrument in them

  20. Very good article, I'm all for the general rule to keep only the essential stuff. Quality vs quantity, living present vs dead past.

    In real life though, for me at least, Serato Smartcartes have once and for all solved all my issues and allow me to cope effortlessly with a semi-large library of ~3500 songs (which I need, since I'm a mobile DJ and I may well play 60's or 70's music all night long if the public calls for it!)

    IMO what's paramount with building a large library is:

    - BUYING the stuff as others have mentioned. Not only for legal reasons, but to avoid stuffing your library with hundreds of TOTALLY USELESS songs. When you buy the stuff, you're at least putting some rational thought in the process of adding songs to your library... because you think twice! 😉

    - A well thought-out tagging system and a very disciplined tagging routine. Without excellent and consistent tagging, a library exceeding 500 songs gets overwhelming, totally intimidating and almost impossible to manage during a gig!

    I'm really thankful for Smartcrates... I couldn't live without them anymore.

    • > [to avoid stuffing your library with hundreds of TOTALLY USELESS songs]

      Actually for many out there, it's rather "thousands" (of useless songs) than "hundreds".

      In forums you see these guys bragging that they have between 30'000 to 50'000 songs in their library. Kinda ludicrous if you ask me. And that's probably 99% P2P anyway.

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