I admit it. I’m the guy at the table next to you with his eyes planted on his cross-table partner whose attention is wholly taken up by your conversation. I’ve done my best to break the habit, but it’s time to come clean—I’m a hopeless eavesdropper.
And because I am, I would like to thank Apple for implementing music sharing in iTunes—the process by which you can listen to someone else’s iTunes music library if that person has switched iTunes’ music sharing feature on and the two of you are on the same network subnet. Oh sure, this is a handy enough feature around the house when I want to listen to music stored on one of my computers without actually having to sit down at that particular machine. But here at the South By Southwest conference, this feature has opened up a whole new world of eavesdropping—or eavessharing , if you will. It’s like this:
I’m sitting in my hotel room, whiling away the hours before this afternoon’s panel with Elvis Costello. I’m jacked into the hotel’s broadband system in order to get my work done. I launch iTunes to find some appropriate music to accompany my keyboard tapping and lo, a couple of shared music libraries appear in the Source list. Just for fun, I select one to see what my neighbors are listening to.
The next time I check the clock, an hour has gone by.
During that hour I learned a lot. One neighbor’s iTunes library exceeded 21,000 tracks—most of which were in AAC and Apple Lossless formats, indicating that he or she had ripped much of their music library from CD (the size of the collection—over 200GB—hinted that this person had stored their music library on an external hard drive). Another sharer’s library was full of nothing but MP3 files ripped at varying bit-rates, which hinted to me that the original source of the music was something other than CD or the iTunes Music Store.
Beyond the joy that comes from snooping, these explorations were actually helpful. For example, by sorting the sharers’ libraries by ratings I could see what music they valued. If I found that some of their tastes were akin to mine, I gave an unknown track a click to see if I might enjoy what they were listening to. In a couple of cases I heard music I am now committed to buying (the first sharer’s collection contains multiple albums by a quartet of women called
Anonymous 4, who beautifully sing music from the Middle Ages). The Top 25 Most Played, Recently Played, Purchased Music, and On-The-Go playlists from these shared music libraries were just as enlightening. Each of these playlists helped separate the music these folks most treasured from the rest of their collection.
One person was even so kind as to use his real name as the Shared Name for his library. I liked what was in his library and, as a lark, googled his name. Turns out that he’s a Celtic harpist who has a track sold on the iTunes Music Store. As way of thanks for letting me listen in, I bought the track.
And wouldn’t you know it, when I tried to quit iTunes, I was told that another listener was logged into my library. In the spirit of neighborliness, I’ve left it running.
In a time when the influence of radio and Big Music is having less influence on our music consuming habits, people are increasingly looking for ways to be exposed to new music. I’m not sure that eavessharing is the most practical (or ethical) way to go about it, but it may help expand your musical horizons when other means fail. If you’d like to do your part, leave iTunes running and its sharing switched on when you’re connected to the Web in a public place. If others follow suit, you may be amazed at what you hear.