How I organize my music library

Ian Dixon asks an excellent question: How do you organize your music library?

I’ve been meaning to write this down for a while, especially now that I have my hardware and Media Center setup quite nicely tweaked and tuned.

My Media Center music collection consists of 18,625 songs in 1479 albums from 529 artists. That “album” count is an interesting one. It encompasses mostly traditional albums – i.e., ripped CDs as well as entire CDs I’ve purchased (DRM-free only) from online music sources or downloaded through a subscription service (more on buying versus subscribing later in this post). The second biggest category of entries on the album list are live shows from sources like, and I have a smattering of single tracks that were part of online collections or were downloaded individually that are nonetheless assigned to the album they appear on.

I went completely digital in late 2004, ripping my entire CD collection over the space of a couple of weeks in 2004. I used Windows Media 10 for the job, and as I noted at the time, tagging was a bigger hassles than ripping:

The more tedious part came later, when I went in to review tags. There were a fair number of errors and omissions that I wanted to fix. I found the eMusic Tag Editor indispensable for this task.

These days, I find that Windows Media Player 11 does a more than adequate job of tagging as you rip. The Windows Media database has improved dramatically in the past three years. The first thing I do when I get a new CD is to rip it, either to Windows Media Lossless Audio format or to 320KB MP3. I rarely have to change any tags when I do that, and the editing tools in the Media Library are fine for the job.

Tip: Don’t bother with the Advanced Tag Editor. Instead, from the Library window, right-click the column headings and click Choose Columns. That displays this dialog box here. Add the column that contains the tag you want to edit, and you can do so directly from the library.


I remove the Parental Rating column (no kids here) and add Bit Rate and Media Info, which lets me see which albums haven’t been successfully updated from the online database. Most commercial albums have online album art that gets added by Windows Media. It displays everywhere I’m likely to play those tunes and I backup the entire collection, including album art. I don’t bother embedding album art in the files. For live shows and albums where the album art doesn’t get downloaded automatically, I’ll find the actual album cover online and paste it into the library listing.

The two tags that are mostly useless are Genre, which seems to be filled out more or less at random and with zero consistency between online sources, and Release Year, which typically (and wrongly, in my opinion) lists the year the current edition of the CD was released by the record company rather than listing when the recorded song was first released to the public, regardless of how often it has been re-released.

For the most part, I try to get the tagging right as soon as I add songs or albums to the library. I have a couple of Auto Playlists that I use to identify music I’ve recently added that I can use to occasionally check the newest stuff and fix anything that doesn’t look right.

These days, I get most new music from eMusic and Amazon MP3, which do a generally good job of tagging. I also listen to music via my Yahoo! Music subscription (which will become a Rhapsody subscription after Yahoo! completes the sale to Real).

The master copy of all these tunes is on my main Media Center machine. When I rip, I allow Windows Media Player to organize the ripped tracks into folders by Artist and then by album. On the Media Center PC, I have separate folders for MP3 and WMA formats. These days, I prefer MP3 because it’s universal. I also have a separate Live Music subfolder for concert recordings. All three folders are shared across the network. (I keep a separate Yahoo! Music folder on the Media Center PC so that DRM-protected subscription tracks don’t get mixed with the ones I own.)

I often download an album or rip a CD on my desktop PC or my notebook, but I transfer the ripped files to the Media Center collection as soon as possible. I have a complete backup of all this music on an external hard drive and on Windows Home Server. The collection plays back directly from the Media Center PC in my office, and in the living room and bedroom through Linksys Media Center Extenders.

That collection is the source of the Media Center library for all the other PCs on my network. On my desktop PC, for instance, I have added the shared music folders on the Media Center PC (HTPC-410 is its name) to the list of folders to watch:


Note that the Yahoo! Music collection for my desktop PC is in a local drive. The Media Center PC has its own unshared collection, stored in a local drive. Both libraries sync with the Yahoo! Music servers, so if I add an album or song in one place it quickly shows up in the other. The best part is that all music from all sources appears on the Media Center PC, and it can all be played back (even the DRM’ed subscription tracks) through any extender.

This system has evolved over a long, long time. It works for me (and, just as importantly, for my wife), and I think most of the principles I follow would be useful for anyone who has a Media Center PC at the heart of their home network. But I can certainly imagine how others might make different choices.

Questions? Comments? Fire away in the comments below, and also go over to Ian’s forum and add your own 2 cents.

9 thoughts on “How I organize my music library

  1. I also use Vista Media Center for my library and I have a question I can’t get answered…or I don’t know where to look.
    When I want to listen to Abba’s Greatest Hits from the Artist/Album view I click on the album but how can I keep Media Center from cueing up every album called Greatest Hits?

  2. FWG, does this also happen in Windows Media Center? If you open the album in either place, you should see only its tracks. Do you see more than that in either view?

  3. Sorry about the delay…
    Yes, in Media Center is where it happens.

    In view Artist/Album I find George Strait Greatest Hits (10 tracks)
    Select it, and it shows 444 tracks and is labeled Bob Seger GREATEST HITS

    In view Album I can’t find George Strait Greatest Hits at all, however Barry Manilow Greatest Hits now shows that it has 444 tracks.

    I clearly have database issues, but when I wipe out the DB and let Media Player rebuild it from scratch, I have ths same problem. And not all the “Greatest Hits” albums do this. Cat Stevens Greatest Hits works as expected in both Artist/Album and Album views.

    My head hurts.

  4. FWG, that’s a stumper. I have five albums in my collection with the title “Greatest Hits.” Tom Petty, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mason Proffitt, Billy Joe Shaver, and Eurythmics. They all display the track contents properly in Media Center. This is in Vista Media Center or in XP MCE 2005?

  5. Hello Ed, Readers.
    Forgive me If I come across as ignorant. Advice needed. I have a 2 laptop. household, both new dell xp pro sp2 and WMP9, with my wife and I running separate business from different rooms. I wanted to reduce the clutter in our living room and hence put our 500 CD / 80 DVD collection on to a shared network drive in a lossless format: (for max future flexibility) so leaving out local laptop drives free for other purposes. My wife uses an ipod, also has Itunes on her pc and I am yet to purchase a portable player.
    Q1: Is this simple to do.
    Q2: Are we both able to access/rip music/movies to the network at will.
    Q3: Do we both need to use the same player to avoid compatibility issues. ie: can we both transpose from the network to different formats if we wanted to. i.e.>
    Q4: eg: hers to pc to ipod or to my laptop still in lossless staright through to a dedicated stereo / dvds straight to TV:
    Q5: Shouls I just get an ipod to make the whole managment easier.
    Q6: any issues with doing this all wirelessly.

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