I might be particularly neurotic about the future of my music library because I already lost it once before. About 10 years ago, some 5,000 audio files I had amassed in iTunes disappeared after a hard-drive backup gone wrong—my own personal version of when MySpace acknowledged in 2019 that millions of tracks uploaded during the site’s prime years had been lost after a “server migration project.”
Even aside from data mishaps like these, Dave Holmes, an editor at large at Esquire, has called the period from the early 2000s to the early 2010s the “Deleted Years,” because of how many mp3s from that era didn’t survive the shift to streaming. He mourned oft-forgotten artists who peaked in the aughts such as Chingy, Corinne Bailey Rae, Kaiser Chiefs, and the Click Five.
But music libraries have been characterized by impermanence since the rise of on-demand listening some 120 years ago, when people were using phonographs. “If you look at the history of recorded music, the format switches every 25 to 50 years,” says Jonathan Sterne, a communication-studies professor at Montreal’s McGill University, and “the time horizon has gotten shorter” in the digital age.
Sterne, the author of The Audible Past, notes that in the early 20th century, most listeners treated a record the way they might have treated a print magazine. “You just listened to it for a while” and then threw it out, he told me. Even when people hold on to vinyl (or a tape, or a CD), it can get lost or physically degrade. It can also get destroyed in a fire, which is what happened at a Universal Music Group archive in 2008 to thousands of original master recordings, most likely including some from musical titans such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bing Crosby.
That said, something seems especially ephemeral about the personal music libraries housed on today’s streaming services. On Spotify, songs in my listening rotation seem to come and go more quickly than they did when my collection was in iTunes—a new release or curated playlist is constantly being recommended to me. My experience on the app feels tilted toward newness, popularity, and recent listens, rather than browsing beloved tracks buried in my older playlists. Sometimes, songs even vanish from Spotify’s catalog unannounced.