Play ’em All

Christmas Eve was an especially historic day this year.  It ended up being the conclusion of my yearlong project to listen to all 13,747 songs in my iTunes library at least once in 2012.  Started with “A Commotion” by Feist and ended with “I Wrote A Book About Rock and Roll” by Dr. Frank (of MTX fame).

The exact origins of “Play ‘Em All 2012” elude me since it’s been nearly a year, but I recall the motivations included:

  • Based on our stats, we listened to a lot of the same things over and over
  • I often claim that I like all of the music I own, and wanted to see how true that really was
  • I was starting to worry that at some point it may no longer be mathematically possible to take on this project, so why not now?

Rigged up a Smart Playlist in iTunes and just let it count down all year.

Last Played is Before 1/1/12; Media Kind is Music
That “Media Kind = Music” bit is important, or you’ll end up including Podcasts, videos, and voice memos.

The goal was to listen to what we felt like as always, but knowing the playlist was counting down would drive us to mix things up and dive into the archives more frequently.

There were only a couple of ground rules:

  • Certain albums were off limits, ensuring some gems would be saved for later.  (The whole Beatles catalog fell into this category, under the reasoning that the joy of being surprised by the Beatles on shuffle outweighed the joy of intentionally satisfying a periodic craving for Rubber Soul.)
  • Myself or my wife had to be present and at least passively listening when something was on.  No “cheating” by leaving something on while we went out, or leaving iTunes on all night while we slept.

At first it was pretty much business as usual.  We blazed through those well worn albums like nothing was different.  I’d alternate between Podcasts and throwing my iPod on shuffle while commuting, diligently synching each night to watch the countdown progress.

I had signed up for iTunes Match in an effort to have remote access to the “Play ‘Em All” playlist from anywhere, letting me easily sneak some extra tunes when running errands, walking the dog, etc.  Good idea in theory, but it was almost my undoing.  Turns out iTunes Match does a rather poor job of keeping play counts and last played data in sync, which led to a lot of “I swear I’ve already heard this song…” thoughts before I figured out what was going on.  iTunes Match was turned off for good after about a month.

Event based listening took on new extremes.  I always try to work through the Nirvana catalog on April 8 or the 311 catalog on March 11, plus have a nice playlist on standby for whenever it rains.  This year saw new custom playlists themed for an Eclipse, Judgment Day, 4th of July, and Thanksgiving.  Any excuse to thematically (and creatively) group bunches of unplayed songs was a welcome challenge.

Around early September I realized the math wasn’t working and we were in danger of not achieving the goal.  This resulted in a ban on podcasts while commuting (at least in a car; the poor showing of iTunes Match opened the door to Podcasts when commuting by foot) and perpetual shuffle play most waking hours.

It’s interesting the fun facts you learn about your music library in an exercise like this.  For example, your wife used to like the Grateful Dead way more than you imagined.  #1 artist by song count in our library, though the bulk of the tracks had a play count of zero prior to the big Play ‘Em All experiment.  Ripped from CD years ago and forgotten on the hard drive.  To be fair, I did develop a new appreciation tolerance for the Dead after working through 500 tracks this year.  (Sorry, Jerry Garcia!)

500 Grateful Dead songs is neither an exaggeration nor a rounded off number.  I’m surprised iTunes doesn’t natively handle this better, but exporting my library and manipulating it a bit in Excel yields this top 15 list by song count:

Artist Song Count
Grateful Dead 500
Mike Doughty 291
Wilco 288
Pavement 233
Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine 228
Mason Jennings 200
Bright Eyes 197
Jack Johnson 185
Nirvana 183
Jeff Tweedy 179
The Felice Brothers 172
The Beatles 166
M. Ward 162
Beck 161
Jim Bob 142

Even rolling solo Tweedy with Wilco and solo Jim Bob with Carter, the Grateful Dead still rule the roost!

Grateful Dead jokes aside, it was pretty impressive how true the “I dig everything I own” theory proved to be.  I wish I had a better way to track this accurately, but I’d venture that less than 25 total tracks got banished to the trash via mutual veto as a result of this ongoing review.  Most were one off tracks picked up as part of free sampler downloads.  Only one full album ended up being a casualty.  (Sorry, John Mayer!)

Now that it’s done, it’s both strange and refreshing to be back in “album mode” for the first time in what seems like ages.  Plus having the freedom to listen to anything at any time again.  Really curious to see how this impacts our stats in 2013…

Only downside is that I’m way behind on my Podcast listening and have 20+ episodes of Coverville to catch up on.  (Sorry, Brian Ibbott!)

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