Today’s post is inspired by Digital DJ Tips member Jason Nappier, who writes: “I’d like more insight about programming and organisation. I have a ton of music, but it is all dumped on my hard drive. When I used CDs and even back in my vinyl days, I knew where everything was, so if I needed an idea, I would just flip through and something would jump out at me quickly. Without that organisation, I find myself blanking and scrolling through mountains of junk before seeing a song that fits with where I’m going, which causes a lot of stress and a disjointed performance. Can you help?”
It’s an extremely common problem, and one I battled with personally for many years as I converted to digital. Especially for DJs used to vinyl and CDs, coming to digital – where there’s just a whole list of files in a browser – can take the soul out of owning music. It can lead, as he says, to “blanking and scrolling”, when you should be intimately interacting with your beloved music, tunes just jumping out at you as you play.
I have tried all types of music organisation techniques over the years, and realised that there are some principles that – however you decide to do it – can make the daunting task seem less so, and ultimately move you beyond vinyl and CD systems into having a digital music organisation system that works great. So here are some time-trusted techniques for taming a digital music collection, with special emphasis on helping DJs coming from a vinyl or CD background.
My 7 killer tips
- Use a separate program to organise your music – Your DJ program is simply your “DJ booth”. It’s where you perform from. When it comes to organising your music, use something else. For most people it is iTunes, because the work you do in there shows in your DJ software seamlessly. iTunes is your shelves of vinyl or your racks of CDs, organised how you choose
- Pack a “crate” for every gig – CD and vinyl DJs never take their whole collection to a gig with them. You shouldn’t either. Instead, “pack” a playlist full of about twice the number of tunes you think you’ll need for any given event. Put your soul into choosing those tunes. Spend hours doing it, and be strict and only play from that playlist or folder within your DJ software at your event (whether that event is a new mixtape, a web radio show, or a “real” gig). This will force you to think harder about your music choices ahead of time, and stop the blanking and scrolling syndrome you speak of
- Have less music – Your collection is almost definitely too big. What happens with vinyl is you have a go-to “area” of your collection and whole “no go” zones of stuff you rarely look at. With digital, everything tends to get lumped together. Worse, you tend to collect much more as digital files are cheaper and take up less (no) room. But it’s a trap. A lean, mean music collection keeps you focused on quality, so regularly prune stuff out. If you haven’t played it for a year, or ever (there’s a column to show you that), strongly consider deleting it or moving it to a “never played” folder or backup hard drive, and out of your main searchable library completely. Oh, and keep all non-DJing music out of iTunes entirely. Figure out another place for that stuff
- Add cover art to your tunes – Especially for tunes you used to own on vinyl or CD, adding the correct cover art (and by correct, I mean the art you remember from your old physical copies) can give you a great visual aid and let you “flick through” your music in the same way you were used to back in the day. It’s easy to use Google Images to find the cover art you’re used to, and takes seconds in iTunes to then add or replace the picture associated with each music file to make it the one you want
- Use digital’s sort features to your advantage – With physical vinyl or CDs, you used to have to have a sorting system and stick with it (alphabetical, by genre, by date purchased etc.) With digital, you can use all of these and more. You can sort by genre, BPM, date of release, date added, alphabetically by artist, alphabetically by title, even by key. So do it! As you’re planning your sets and packing your crates for gigs, use all the sort tools to slice and dice your music and reduce it to more meaningful “chunks” than one big collection. By using smart playlists in iTunes, you can get even more granular (“everything from 1988 to 1992 marked house and techno”). Oh, speaking of genres…
- Be bold with genre names – It’s tempting to leave the “genre” name as it was when you bought a music file, but that’s nonsense. If you play house and house only, having every track marked “house” is not going to help you sort your music. But if you’re a mobile DJ who plays everything from country to EDM to rock, having big categories such as, well, “country’, “EDM” and “rock” may be far more useful than “deep house”, “UK garage”, etc. Point is, you need to choose the six to 10 categories that make sense to you and replace the “genre” information in your files with one of those, for every song. When you sort or filter by genre, the tracks you’ve associated with each other should “feel” like a coherent set of music to you, something you could make a strong mixtape or DJ set from
- Use the comments field to your advantage – DJs used to put stickers on their tunes “back in the day” with info like key, BPM etc. Of course, that info can now be displayed digitally for you, but you can use the “comments” field in iTunes and your DJ software to add other useful info for memory association among songs and to make tunes more searchable. I like to use “MWW” followed by the name of another tune in a tune’s comments field to mean “mixes well with”: It jogs my memory for a great next tune when I am playing a tune I’ve tagged this way, and you can add such tags while you’re out DJing so you don’t forget a great mix
When you start thinking about your files, folders and playlists the same way vinyl and CD DJs think about their physical collections, you reap the benefits of digital and negate the drawbacks. Soon you move way past what vinyl and CD DJs can do, realising that things like the history features in your DJ software (that show you what you’ve played at your gigs), and the awesome sorting, filtering and smart play listing functions in iTunes, move how you can interact with your music way beyond physical media.
My final tip is simply to ensure that when you’re in iTunes sorting your music, improving your tagging, adding artwork etc, make sure you always have something playing! Above all of this, just listening to your music is the most important thing of all. Don’t sit in a silent room re-tagging all your music for hours on end – it kind of defeats the object of this, which is of course to get to know your music better so you can play better DJ sets with it.
Did you struggle with digital music in your move from digital to vinyl? How did you get around the issues? Please share your thoughts in the comments.