Since the beginning of time music collections have been subject to all manner of catastrophes. In earlier centuries the risk was to the music itself. The singer might die, or worse, someone might sit on the lute. In more recent times we’ve been faced with the prospect of warped records, snapped cassette tape, and scratched CDs. While the risks have changed as media has evolved, one thing remains constant — true music geeks live in fear of a nightmarish event that could wipe out their entire music collection in one broad stroke.
You might think that digital music would eliminate most of the physical risk to a music collection, but that’s not the case. In fact, music collections are arguably at more risk now than ever before. While the traditional risks of theft, fire, flood, and sunlight still exist, they’ve been augmented by new risks including power surges, faulty backup media, and unstable operating systems. Not only are these new risks more likely to actually occur, when they do they’re likely to wipe out more music.
We’ve heard a lot about how media companies are trying to protect their digital assets, but we rarely hear anything about what consumers should do to protect theirs. That’s not surprising considering that major computer failures and broken iPods could ultimately lead to increased music sales.
By this point it should be clear that it’s up to you to protect your own digital music collection. You’ll need some sort of backup strategy to ensure that your music doesn’t vanish when you least expect it. As a general rule you will benefit from maintaining a mindset of complete and total paranoia. Always have redundant backups on multiple types of media. If you’re really serious about protecting your music collection you will always have at least one off-site backup.
Here are four basic approaches you can take to protecting your digital music collection:
- Backup to Optical Media: Recordable CDs and DVDs are cheap and widely compatible with optical drives on most computers. For anything but the smallest music collection you’ll probably need to backup to multiple disks, although higher capacity DVD formats such as Blue-Ray could significantly streamline the process in the future.
The main problem with this approach is that optical disks are incredibly unreliable. It’s not uncommon for a home-burned CD or DVD to fail after just a few years. You can decrease the risk of bad disks by avoiding super-cheap off-brand disks. You’ll also want to burn redundant backups on a regular basis.
- Portable Hard Drive: External hard drives are cheap and come in very large capacities. Additionally, high speed USB makes the transfer time relatively quick. Unfortunately, hard drives are still known to fail. A truly paranoid music geek would have multiple high capacity portable drives. Keep one on-site for your next backup and rotate one off-site for maximum security. For extra security store your off-site disk in a safe deposit box or fireproof vault.
- Network Attached Storage with RAID: This approach is ideal for everyday media storage. It combines high capacity with enhanced data security. RAID stands for “Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives”. Without getting too technical, RAID is a system that mirrors your data in real-time across multiple hard drives. If a drive fails, a mirrored drive with an identical copy of your data takes over. While this is not truly a backup solution, it does minimize the risk that a failed hard drive will wipe out your entire music collection.
The down-side of this approach is that these types of devices are relatively expensive and not very portable. You’ll still want to maintain regular backups in addition to your RAID setup.
- Online Music Locker: Oboe Music Locker is an interesting service created by Michael Robertson of mp3.com fame. The service allows you to upload an unlimited amount of music for a flat annual fee of $40 per year. There are no bandwidth limitations and you can listen to your music from any internet connected computer. Oboe also offers plug-ins for iTunes and WinAmp. In iTunes, for example, you can see the songs in your Oboe locker as if they were a shared library on your network. In addition to securing your music files, the service is great for those who travel and would like access to their complete music collection while on the road.
I’ve been experimenting with Oboe for about a month now, and while I find the service to be reasonably priced, I do have a few minor complaints. Large music collections take forever to upload. Over the past 30 days I’ve uploaded 13,000 songs, but I still have over 5,000 to go. If I were ever in a position where I needed to restore my entire collection from Oboe it would probably take months. I’ve also noticed that the service doesn’t seem to recognize the genre field in my ID3 tags.
There are also a few risks that are worth noting. There’s no guarantee that Oboe will be around forever. If the business fails it will take my backup with it.
Then there’s always the RIAA. Robertson offered a similar service as part of mp3.com several years ago. The RIAA sued that service out of existence.
Having said all of this, I should note that there are some risks that none of the above strategies can protect you from. If your music is encoded with DRM there’s always the chance that it could become unplayable at some point in the future, regardless of how many backup copies you have.
Consider Rhapsody or other subscription music services, for example: You’re probably aware that your music will stop playing if you fail to pay your monthly subscription fee. But what happens if the major labels decide that they no longer want to license their music on a subscription basis? If that were to happen you’re basically out of luck.