Now that it's no longer the exclusive domain of Mac users, it's time for a few words on the glory of iTunes. To say that iTunes has changed the way I listen to music would be to overstate things, at least right now. But it has altered what I listen to and how I sort through it.
More music is being released and re-released now than ever before. Records are also longer now, thanks to 80-minute CDs. Except in the rarest of instances, though, that extended length hasn't translated into increased value. Even on the best records, good songs are inevitably swamped by filler.
Filtering through the stacks of CDs on your shelf, trying to remember what the four decent tunes on the new Strokes record are, can be infuriating and time-consuming. You could burn mixed CDs with your favourite tracks on them, but that would take ages and create as many problems as it solves.
At the most basic level, what iTunes allows me to do is separate good from bad. It's simple but revolutionary.
Gradually but steadily, I've been dumping in songs I like from the CDs that surround me. Three or four tracks here, an entire album there, one solitary cut from the latest Erick Sermon disc. I'm gradually building a library of music on my hard drive, physically sorting the wheat from the chaff. Three hundred songs and counting, in every possible style.
I have no intention of ditching all the hard copies of my beloved CDs (I'm a tactile kind of guy, and I also like the thump my stereo offers), but the ability to look back and realize that you only really liked four songs on the last Radiohead record, and the freedom to actually do something about it, is exhilarating. It also dovetails nicely with the popularity of file sharing and music downloading, both legal and illegal.
As CDs become more packed and the concept of a record as one organic piece of music becomes more remote, our listening habits have changed.
Downloading lets you listen, and purchase, song by song. iTunes isn't the first program that lets you dump music into your computer and use it as a stereo, but it certainly is the easiest and most useful. With its Windows launch a few weeks back, it's also destined to be the most popular.
It comes with the distinctive stamp of a music fan. You can sort your library by artist, genre, style or the rating you give the music. Load in a disc and the program will also search the online archive to provide you with the artist, title, album and track names. In the mood for some instrumental music while you work, or some funky Cuban or Afro beats while you slack? iTunes will line it up for you. Even better, it lets you scramble up your listening habits and go free-form.
Where changing artists or styles would previously have required hustling back and forth from the CD stacks or investing in one of those ghastly carousel CD players, random listening is now an expected part of the iTunes experience. Country bleeds into soul, pop bashes into raí, and the mix is in your hands.
If listeners can get past the stumbling block of hearing tunes on their computer (a $50 set of speakers with a subwoofer should do), iTunes' filtering effect and the copies that will inevitably follow could be the biggest shake-up to the way we listen to music since the CD burner.
The real question is what you'll do with all that shelf space once your CDs are gone.