Get Minimal With Your Digital Music Collection!

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
Read time: 7 mins
Last updated 28 November, 2017


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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