Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Managing your Music Library - Part Two

In part one I outlined how you basically have four options when it comes to managing music coming in to your college radio station:

  1. Do nothing and just keep finding new ways to store the music.
  2. Change your programming format so you only need to store less music.
  3. Figure out a system for regularly purging music...whether new or old...to keep the total number of CD's to a stable level.
  4. Figure out a way to store music in a different format (i.e. computer-based) that requires less physical space.
So here in part two, we'll discuss the pluses and minuses of each approach.

1. Do nothing and just keep finding new ways to store the music. This is one of the more common approaches, as it the "easiest" and it avoids offending music aficionados on your staff. It's also got the most drawbacks, in that it doesn't really address the problem of more physical objects filling a finite physical space. The most common method is to purchase additional music shelving, usually nice but relatively inexpensive wooden shelves (a few hundred to a few thousand bucks) that extend at least six feet tall (if not to the ceiling) and eventually fill every square inch of available wall space in your station. When that's not enough, a large CD drawer/bureau system is more expensive (usually $5k to $10k) but can store even more CD's. And finally, the ultimate step is a "rolling shelves / accordian shelves" system that typically runs for $30k and up. That last one is more a cry for help than it is a solution, because it means you're spending a lot of money to avoid dealing with a problem.

As you've probably guessed, I don't care for this method. Mostly because it's highly illogical; no matter what you do to cram more CD's in there...sooner or later you will run out of room. Plus trying to fit more objects into a space than "you should" tends to encourage clutter. And there is a universal truth that clutter attracts more clutter. More clutter eventually leads to flat-out "mess", and a "mess" means a workplace your staff doesn't give a damn about. That can contribute significantly to decreased staff morale, poor on-air performance, caring less about equipment (and therefore more broken equipment), and...worst of all...having a station that your college's administrators come to visit and walk away holding their noses. That's the fast track to getting your budget slashed, or worse. Sounds extreme, but it's true...little things build on each other to become big things. Successful operations know that if you have a professional work environment, and thus treat your staff like professionals, you get - amazingly enough - professional results from your staff! But I'm digressing.

I suppose if this isn't a problem yet for your station, you can put it on the back burner. But this is a problem best dealt with looong before it becomes an issue. By the time it's an issue, inevitably several members of your staff will have emotional investment in your overflowing music library...and that means someone will go away unhappy.

2. Change your programming format so you only need to store less music. This is something of an adjunct of the first approach. Instead of only finding new ways to cram more music into a limited space, you also attempt to cut off the problem at the source: the incoming CD's. If you limit yourself to one or two formats, you can simply throw away (or donate, trade, sell, etc) incoming CD's from any other genre. Just remember that legally CD's sent to you by a label are the label's property; you're supposed to return unwanted CD's to them. Most don't care, though...ask your labels to be sure.

There's various advantages to narrowing your format scope. It tends to reduce your volunteer headcount but it usually means those who stay are more dedicated and professional. If done right (no easy task for your PD) it can mean more listeners. Of course, at the same time you might alienate some of your more loyal listeners. You might also alienate some of your DJ's...some of whom might be really good DJ's. In the end, I wouldn't make format decisions based on how much music storage you've got. But, it can be a handy side benefit.

3. Figure out a system for regularly purging music...whether new or old...to keep the total number of CD's to a stable level. This is my suggested method for most stations. The key here is to find a very objective method of determining which CD's get the heave-ho and which don't. Don't throw out something because "everyone thinks it sucks". That's subjective and it's based on emotion. Inevitably, you will think something sucks that someone else really loves. You throwing it away becomes a personal attack on that someone else, and it's all downhill from there.

Instead, determine a set of criteria. The obvious one is age...everything over 10 years old is tossed. This can run into problems with certain genres, like classic rock. But as long as you're reasonably good about assigning CD's to realistic genre categories, you can adjust the age limit as needed.

It's worth including a clause in your policy that states that damaged media is discarded as well. This seems obvious, but it encourages the concept that you're basing this process on an objective system; helps reduce emotion.

If you're good about tracking how often something is played, you may want to add a clause that states that if something isn't played for X weeks/months/years then it's tossed. Actually, it's probably better to turn that around...anything that's been played within X weeks/months/years is not allowed to be thrown away. This helps avoid the argument that good stuff can potentially sit unplayed for months or years even though most people would still say it's pretty good. The counter-argument is that, of course, good stuff will get thrown out. That's what's going to happen! The bright side is that new good stuff will always be coming in the door, too.

Speaking of tracking what you play...if possible, have your DJ's log whether they're playing stuff from their own collections they bring into the station or whether it's from the station library. This can also help you determine what's "safer" to dump. Some stations don't allow DJ's to bring in music...I don't think I really agree with that philosophy, but I suppose it does mean DJ's will use your library more. That helps indicate which CD's are safe to dump since ignored CD's are even less likely to be "hidden treasures".

Again, no matter what system you agree to follow, make sure it's as objective as possible. It will make an already-emotional situation that much easier to get through.

4. Figure out a way to store music in a different format (i.e. computer-based) that requires less physical space. This doesn't quite mean you can completely avoid having to purge your CD's...but it does make it a lot easier to deal with since you're never really getting rid of the music, just the old CD it used to be on.

The upshot here is that you rip your CD's onto a hard disk in some audio file format. I used to recommend a high-quality MP3 (256kbps stereo / 44.1kHz) but these days hard drives are so cheap I'd just go with uncompressed WAV's at 16 bits and 44.1kHz. The one thing to watch out for is that you have to build in a lot of redundancy to the system. RAID (redundant array of independent disks) hard drive systems are a must, plus having a few spare drives on-hand. Also a must are regular backups (weekly or monthly) to another medium such as tape drives or DVD-ROM's. This means the costs are about 2.5 to 3 times what you might expect. But it's still pretty cheap overall with quality 1 Terabyte RAID arrays costing only $1300. The real expense tends to be in the HVAC (heating, ventilation & air conditioning). You simply cannot leave your computer gear in non-climate-controlled space and expect it to last more than a few months before you risk total failure. If you already have HVAC designed for a "computer server room", you're all set. If not, you'll have to drop the several thousand (or tens of thousands) dollars to get it installed. Window units don't cut it, either...they're not designed to run constantly and will "ice up" after a few dozen hours.

Of course, there's lots of benefits to having all your music on computer. With a little more investment in computer hardware & automation software you can set up automation that sounds nearly as good as your live DJ's. You can also set up "live-assist" software that lets your DJ's quickly search your entire library on computer and manually play tracks from it.

With a system like this, there's an argument to be made for outsourcing your music ripping to a third party service. Many are very cost-effective (70 cents per disc, including all shipping) and will use quality algorithms (not all MP3 algorithms are the same!) and provide you an inherent backup by shipping you the ripped tracks back to you on DVD-ROM. Also helps a lot in keeping your system consistent; trust me, it can get completely out of control very quickly if you depend on a lot of internal volunteers to do your ripping. If you insist on keeping it in-house, find one or two people and get them to do all the ripping. Pay 'em if you have to...it's WORTH it.

Okay, back to the CD's themselves...what do you do with ripped CD's? Well, there's an argument for saving them in an archived manner. Something like floor-to-ceiling stacks in an off-site facility. That's very efficient storage (albeit you can't easily get to any one of them) but it ultimately will fill up. I figure, if it's unaccessible at an off-site facility, and you've got your tape or DVD backups, there's really no need to save the CD. Maybe hang onto them for one month and no longer, just to give DJ's time to play it a few times and make sure you've got a good rip. Even this is risky; you have to be disciplined to toss those CD's after the month is up.

Some DJ's will no doubt complain that you lose the liner notes and pictures when you do this method. You can forestall that argument by installing a "general use" computer with an internet connection in your air studio. Pretty much anything on audio CD probably has a website associated with it somehow these days. One catch - make sure this is a dedicated computer for this purpose. Do not set up your automation/live-assist computer for general web surfing, too. Mission-critical hardware is too risky to have viruses, trojans and adware/spyware installed on it...and any general-use computer with web access will get those things eventually.

This concludes this post on the pluses and minuses of music/media management at your college radio station. There's a lot more that I suspect could be said on the topic (and I'd encourage any comments to that effect) but this should be enough to help you get started. Good luck!

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