Collections: Playlists on steroids

A couple of posts ago I suggested that the agglomeration of audio tracks known as “The Album” is an anachronism in a world where individual tracks can be downloaded at the click of a button. Not wanting to be all cloud and no silver lining, I followed that up with a suggestion that an artists corpus can be sliced and diced in more ways than just the thin sliver of time that usually dictates the content of an album. For convenience I spoke of “collections” of tracks that spanned years or shared a common theme.

So far I’ve talked about collections as though each consists of a bundle of audio tracks – but that’s just the effect that the user sees. Really a collection is nothing more than a list of tracks. The observant amongst you will quickly realise that there’s not much difference between a “collection” and what most audio software refers to as a “playlist”. You’re right, there’s not much difference. But what difference there is, is one of location.

Playlists tend to be local things. You create a playlist of your favourite tracks, or a themed playlist of some sort. Perhaps you share playlists with friends, but ultimately it has to live on your music player to be of any use to you. No matter where it comes from, it ends up being local to your music (which doesn’t necessarily make it local to you – think of playlists on a streaming music site, for example).

A collection, on the other hand, would be a more global thing. It would be understood by your music player – in which case it acts like a playlist (though possibly with extra artwork, links or other media embedded into it). But it would also be understood by iTunes and Amazon – in which case it acts like a suggestion list for your shopping basket. Clicking to buy a particular collection would actually have the effect of buying all the individual tracks – or at least queuing them up to be bought.

We’ve all got tracks which repeat across our music collection. There’s the single version that you bought when it first came out. Then there’s the same track on the album that you bought a little later. Then it cropped up on some compilation album you bought. And the “Best Of…” album. Four copies of the same track, when really you only want one. How about if your music playing software could talk to the MP3 vendor when you try to buy a collection? If you already own some of the tracks in it, you wouldn’t get a second copy of them (and might even get a discount!) – but when using the collection as a playlist the audio software would be sensible enough to insert your original tracks at the right places.

This would only be possible if there was a way to uniquely identify every track, so that your music player knows that you’ve asked for a collection containing “The Power Of Love“, rather than “The Power Of Love” or even “The Power Of Love“. Luckily there’s already such a collection of unique identifiers in existence.

Great! So now we’ve uniquely tagged every song in Amazon and Apple’s catalogue (or any other download vendor of your choice). We can click on a collection and opt to buy it – in which case only the tracks we don’t own already will be downloaded and we’ll be charged for either the tracks we buy or the price that the whole collection has been set at, whichever is the cheaper. Collections could contain extra material for those artists that want to give something extra to their fans – or who just want to include some “sleeve art” with the collection that is their latest album. Is there anything else we can do with a concept of collections?

How about allowing collections to “contain” references to other collections alongside individual track references. A “Complete Collection” purchase could then actually contain not only all the artists tracks, but would automatically download the collections for the individual albums, singles and EPs. Having bought the “Complete Collection” the user already has all the individual tracks, so the extra collections come at no extra cost.

How about letting customers create their own collections? It’s just a playlist of sorts, after all, so why not? Send a collection to your friend, and when they start to play it they’ll be prompted to buy any missing tracks (or substitute them with alternatives – in case they own the radio edit of the album track you included). So while the record companies will be missing out on the opportunity to sell us the same track four times, they’ll be gaining from people broadening their musical horizons as they actively seek out collections that closely – but not exactly – mirror the tracks they own.

How about collections that can be updated in future? These types of collections would be something you subscribe to, rather than download once and never modify again. It would be ideal for those “Complete Collection” downloads – when the artist releases a new track you would automatically be given the chance to download it. Did you buy a collection of love songs? There are a couple of new love songs on the latest album, so you would be prompted to download them if you want to.

Finally, although I’ve mostly talked about collections with reference to individual artists, it should be obvious that a list of unique identifiers doesn’t preclude that list containing tracks from other artists. Cross genre, label and artist collections could be the most interesting of all – and makes a lot more sense of being able to create your own collections or share them with friends. Did you enjoy the mix of music at a party you went to recently? Get the host to send you their collection, tweak it a little, click a button to buy any missing tracks, and you’re all set for your own party.

There’s nothing tricky about the technology needed to do this. MusicBrainz’s identifiers have already dealt with the hard part – the rest is just a case of finding a format that Amazon, Apple, the music companies and everyone else is happy with. Collections offer huge benefits for consumers, vendors, publishers and artists alike. All that’s needed is a little collaboration and cooperation… which means it will probably never happen.

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