Carefully planned randomness

There was a time when, with rare exception, I only listened to Elvis music. My faulty logic was why listen to anyone else when you can just listen to the best all the time? While I still think Elvis is the greatest, I finally came to realize that variety is the spice of life.

I often refer back to a quote from Harve Bennett (producer of Star Treks II through V) in which he said, if you eat turkey every day, Thanksgiving doesn’t seem so special anymore. Bennett was referring to the effect of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series on the success of the Star Trek films, but I find this actually applies to many situations in life. With music, I have found that I appreciate Elvis even more by also listening to the work of others.

In anticipation of an iPod I am hoping to get for Christmas, I have lately been organizing my music on iTunes. I am not transferring my entire collection over, by any means, but as it stands, I have 908 songs loaded, 365 of which are Elvis. (Hey, that’s one Elvis song for every day of the year.) Elvis released something like 750 different songs in his lifetime, and I have at least one version of all of them. Once you include multiple live versions, alternate takes, and rehearsals, you are talking about thousands of Elvis tracks.

I have found over the years that I most enjoy my music played in a random fashion, especially when mixing artists and genres. Almost like owning your own personal radio station that plays only music you like, but at the whim of an unseen DJ. I just think it is more fun that way than playing straight through on every album.

If I just play those 908 songs on random, then, this means Elvis still comes up more than 40% of the time (and that is going with the very big and wrong assumption that iTunes shuffles them in some kind of even fashion). I wanted to cut Elvis back from 40% to about 15 to 20% without having to delete Elvis songs (or having to add tons more non-Elvis songs).

I started researching playlists and found an incredible, if complicated, solution by someone called “Code Monkey.” In a nutshell, it involves nested smart playlists. It took me a couple of tries to get it to work right (at least on iTunes, I may have to tweak more once I get the smartlists over to an actual iPod), but it was definitely worth the effort.

I have now “programmed” a much better random experience (and no, the irony of that is not lost on me).

Right now, I have iTunes set to play 20% Elvis music, 16% Blues music (excluding Elvis), 30% Country music (again, excluding Elvis), and 24% for all other non-Elvis and non-Christmas music, which includes Rock, Standards, and Oldies. The remaining 10% is for whatever specific songs I definitely want to hear in the rotation, currently Christmas music. To do all of this, I created a total of 23 smartlists.

Do not get me wrong here, though. I play Elvis music far more than 20% of the time. The “20%” is just for use when I’m shuffling other artists into the mix as well. I also have Elvis-only playlists for use when I only want to hear the greatest.

Since it is my job to point out cool stuff to you, here is a link to Code Monkey’s documentation (PDF format) on how to create a similar kind of smartlist system:

Managing Your iPod With Smartlists

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As long as I am pointing out random cool stuff to you, be sure to check out this music video of Elvis singing “Blue Christmas” in duet with Martina McBride, which promotes the new album Elvis Presley Christmas Duets. Find out more information here.