A few months back, I decided that I should join the modern world and start using a music streaming service, instead of (largely) only listening to music from albums that I’ve bought. Not that I have anything against buying albums, and in fact, I planned to keep on buying albums (both for archival reasons and because royalty rates for streaming services are awful); but switching to a “try before you buy” approach to buying albums seemed like a good idea, I wanted a wider range of mechanisms for music discovery, and of course having trivial access to a huge catalog of music is a good thing. Also, streaming is clearly the way of the future (heck, it’s clearly the way of the present); I might as well go with it unless I can see concrete reasons not to.
Apple Music and Spotify seemed like the obvious choices; for no particularly good reason (I’m sure Spotify is an excellent service as well), I went with the former. And, so far, it’s been great! Great mostly in the ways that I expected, but there have been a few surprises.
The first surprise was how I had to think about the hierarchy of music in my collection. Previously, I’d had most of my music stored in my iTunes library on my computer (though there’s still a significant amount that’s on CDs that I haven’t ripped); I don’t want all of that on my phone, though, partly because it won’t actually all fit on my phone and partly because there’s a decent amount of music that I have that I want to keep a copy of but that I don’t want to come up when I hit shuffle play. So I tell iTunes to only sync checked music.
Shortly after switching to Apple Music, my phone got full (I really need a 128GB phone…), so I went to clear stuff off; I unchecked a dozen albums in iTunes, and went to sync again. The unchecked albums stayed on my phone, though: now that I’ve enabled Apple Music on my phone, it has decided that it’s capable of making decisions itself as to what is in my library.
Once I got past my surprise, I decided that that was fine, and in fact useful and necessary: the whole point of this exercise is that I want to have access to more stuff on my phone, which means that I have to be able to manage music from my phone. (I think Apple actually wants me to drive my collection from either place; I haven’t enabled Apple Music in iTunes, though, and I’ll have to think about the consequences of doing that.)
So, concretely, what this means is that I used to have “music I own” with a subset of “music that I want on my phone”. Now, though, I have a few more options: “music that I have added to my library but don’t own”, and within that there’s “music that I’ve downloaded to my phone” versus “music that is flagged as in my library but will be streamed”. (And there’s the broader category of “music that isn’t in my library but is available to listen to if I search for it”.) And it turns out that these are all very useful categories!
Fleshing out those categories, my music exploration workflow is now:
- I run across a song that I’m curious about.
- I add the album that that song is from to my library, telling my phone to download it. (I still like album’s, I haven’t embraced the new song-centric world.)
- I listen to the album a few times over the next few weeks.
- Depending on how that listening goes, I might decide to remove the album from my library, I might decide to leave it in there but not downloaded, or I might decide to buy it. (Or I might decide to leave it downloaded but not buy it, but so far I’ve been generally buying albums that I like.)
- Repeat, with other songs, or with other albums by artists that survived step 4.
This works very well: I’m buying about the same amount of music that I was buying before signing up for Apple Music, but I like the music that I’m buying significantly more.
So Apple Music is working well as a “try before you buy” mechanism, but that process still depends on step 1: discovering music to try. Part of the way that Apple Music has been effective is simply in making it easier for me to follow ambient music recommendations: e.g. if I see a recommendation in Twitter, I can go and add it to my library instead of either listening to it right then (which breaks my Twitter experience) or saving it in Instapaper. But Apple Music has its own discovery tools: curated playlists, Beats One (which I’d been enjoying before but am actually listening to less now), and a weekly algorithmically generated playlist of music it recommends for me.
And that algorithmic New Music Mix has been extremely useful. A lot of its recommendations are off (I should spend some time training it by flagging songs it recommends as liked/disliked), but there’s been quite a bit of music in there that I really liked, much of which I would not have discovered any other way.
At first, it was just funny to see how much K-Pop the mix recommends to me: maybe a quarter of the songs each week are K-Pop, but for whatever reason it generally puts those near or at the top of the list, so I start my weekly listening with a bunch of K-Pop. Which is totally fine! And then I saw a song by Ga-In that I wasn’t familiar with, and learned that she’d released a new album; I would have discovered that myself soon enough, but still, happy to have it pointed out to me.
But then I came across the song New York by Mamamoo. I’d never heard of the group before, but I really like that song; and, as it turns out, they are a quite solid group. (The rest of that album is admittedly not as good as that song, but the album is decent, and I rather like their earlier albums.) Or, on a non-K-Pop note, I can’t remember which Karmin song the mix pointed out to me (Dance with You, maybe?), but Leo Rising is a fine album indeed, and I have no idea how I would have discovered it otherwise.
Having access to a larger music library has also been helping my guitar learning. I have a set of five songs that I practice every time I play Rocksmith; at some point, I realized I could just throw them into a playlist. (And also use them as an input to my music discovery workflow; Going to Hell is a good album!)
So now, those songs are in my ears in a way that they weren’t before. Ironically, the problem with playing them in Rocksmith is that I don’t hear the guitar part so well: I know how the songs go, of course, but when it comes to the details of the guitar parts, my playing drowns out the actual playing on the record.
And that makes a big difference. The guitar parts just get stuck in my head more, of course; but I also notice details that I didn’t before, and I find a few places where my rhythm was a bit off.
More subtly, though: the songs become less mysterious. There are parts in some of these songs that I can’t play crisply on the guitar, which gives me a feeling that they’re some sort of impossible challenge. But when I hear, say, Rush playing YYZ or Chicago playing 25 or 6 to 4, I can hear the structure of the solos or fast riffs, and the way they’re played cleanly; and that cleanness, in turn, helps me internalize the idea that these pieces aren’t some huge mountaintops to scale, that the performers aren’t superhuman: I just have to get better, and I can actually visualize what it would be like to be play those songs better. And that, in turn, motivates me to practice the tricky bits more in Riff Repeater or outside of the game, and I do in fact get better. (Though, don’t get me wrong, I still can’t play 25 or 6 to 4 crisply.)
I said above that I’m still buying music. Part of the reason why I’m doing that is to support artists; part is so I can share music with Miranda. (It’s nice having a daughter with similar tastes in art!) But I’m ultimately also not sure how much I should trust music that’s currently available on streaming services to continue to be available on streaming services, or even to continue to be available at all.
That last bit sounds a little paranoid. But I also remember buying the first two seasons of Legend of Korra on iTunes, and then when the third season came around, not only was the third season not available on iTunes, but I couldn’t stream / re-download the first two seasons. Fortunately, Nickelodeon and Apple came to terms a few weeks later, so that situation got fixed; but there are lots of movies that aren’t available via streaming services, or that become available and then get pulled off later. And, worse, that even happens with movies on DVD: it boggles my mind that A Taxing Woman is currently out of print in the US, but it apparently is.
Music is in a (much!) better situation in that regard than movies are, but still: I’m very fond of Zhao Rongchun’s CD Master of the Erhu, and good luck finding a new copy of that. (I assume it was self-published?) Also, from an archival point of view: while I intentionally waited on signing up for Apple Music until they got their matching algorithm correct, I nonetheless see CDs that I’ve ripped and imported as a single album being matched from multiple albums. I haven’t seriously looked at how it matches classical music recordings, but I would be surprised if it got all of those right, too.
So: ultimately, I just do not trust this service as a mechanism to represent my music library in a way that matches my archival standards. Which is fine, that’s not where its strength is, but it also means that I should have a story for how I will have an archival representation that I’ll trust if Apple Music goes away five years from now. And, for now, I’m satisfying that by buying copies of music that I care about and by not turning on Apple Music on iTunes on my desktop computer.
Of course, I already don’t have a good archival story for my music. CDs degrade, and this isn’t an abstract consideration: I know from experience that some of my CDs no longer play. I took a stab at copying them all up a few years back, but those copies aren’t currently well-backed-up.
Storage is significantly cheaper now than when I did that experiment, though; 500-ish CDs was once a large amount of data, but these days I could just rip them all, buy a 1TB drive and plug it into my computer, and have Backblaze back them up for me. Or I could back them up to Glacier, and spend approximately 3 cents / year / CD (if I back them up losslessly, less if backed up as MP3); $15 a year seems like a price worth paying to back up my entire CD collection, or around $20 if I throw in the music that I’ve bought online?
Though, of course, I shouldn’t limit those backups to CDs: given the above discussion, backing up my DVDs is arguably a higher priority, but a single DVD is more like 20 cents / year, which is slightly less trivial. (Still probably worth starting now; and five years from now it will be back to being trivial.) And I should back up electronic copies of books (there’s a reason why I buy books through Amazon: the encryption is breakable); fortunately, that goes back to being cheap enough to pay for with pocket change.
Or maybe I should accept that a) possessions are transient, and b) money can solve problems, even for out-of-print items. I dunno. For now, certainly, it’s great having access to most of the music that I can think of: Apple Music has really made a difference in my life, I’m listening to more music and more new music than I had been doing for years.
This post has not been revised since publication.