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As I mentioned a couple of months ago, iTunes lost track of most of my music in the transition to Catalina, so it was time for me to find some other way to store my music. (With the criteria being that I wanted archival storage on my Mac and an easy way to keep copies of everything on my phone.) Unfortunately, the presence of iTunes has destroyed most of the other competitors in that space, but there has to be something, right?

I’d been hearing people talk about Plex for a while; mostly in the context of organizing and streaming video content, but presumably it works for music, too. And, indeed, it does, so that’s one possibility. For a while, it was the only serious possibility on my list, but then I ran across Vox: if I want to go music-only, then it seems like a possibility?

Both of those offer iPhone clients, but unfortunately they’re kind of expensive to do what I want. The Plex client won’t let you copy stuff to your phone unless you get a “Plex Pass”: $40/year, or $120 lifetime. And Vox makes you sign up for “Vox Premium” for that functionality, which is $50/year. I’m all for supporting good software, and actually those prices felt reasonable to me if I wanted to enable the full functionality that those premium plans enabled (basically, increased cloud streaming options); but it felt a little expensive to me if the only feature that I wanted was to copy music from my Mac to my iPhone while on my own WiFi.

For a while, I was wondering if I’d end up using VLC on my phone; I had a hard time believing that was a good idea, but it might be a reasonable initial step while I’m experimenting? And actually using Plex on the Mac and Vox on the phone seemed like it might be possible, too. But then I found Prism: an iPhone music client that includes Plex as one of the music sources, and that enables downloads for a one-time $5 fee. So that’s perfect: I can use Plex as an archive store for all of my media, and pair that with a music-focused client on the device that I actually use to listen to music, all at an extremely reasonable price.


Next step: create a clean copy of my music. It’s all there in the iTunes folder, but there are duplicate copies of purchased stuff there, because I redownloaded purchased music after iTunes lost track of most of it. So I copied my iTunes music library to a Music/Archive folder, looked for duplicates, and deleted them.

The criterion that I started with was: which directories contain a file whose name ends in “ 1.mp4”? That algorithm has both false positives and false negatives: some track names legitimately end in 1 (e.g. Art of the Fugue recordings typically contain a track “Contrapunctus 1”), and some of the duplicates were mp3s or were copy 2 instead of copy 1. So that involved manual work; tedious, and it’s certainly possible that I made mistakes, so I’m not going to delete the original files from my iTunes library. But it was a limited amount of work, just one and a half evenings.

The one annoyance there is that the names of some of the tracks had changed between the original and subsequent times I’d downloaded them from the iTunes store: Korean tracks in particular sometimes went from having English titles to Korean ones. (Or maybe vice-versa?) So for albums like that, I had to do a bit more manual work.


Once I was done with that, I copied the Music/Archive directory to Music/Plex. I wasn’t going to point Plex at the Archive directory: if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s that I shouldn’t trust music software to not mess with my music files. Also, for all I knew, I’d want to run a similar experiment with Vox; I didn’t want to point both of them at the same directory. And music just isn’t that big: I have a decent-sized collection, but even so tripling the size of my music collection still leaves me with lots of space.

Then I downloaded Plex and pointed it at that directory. It thought for a while, but then everything showed up, and it looked nice! There were, unfortunately, still duplicates; when I poked into those, I realized that I’d missed the case where the album name changed between the first and second times that I’d downloaded the album. (Korean albums, again.) So I went through and removed the duplicates in both the Archive and Plex directory. Which, actually, pointed at one issue with Plex: it doesn’t have a native Mac client, it’s implemented as a web app, and navigating back from the single-album view to the all-albums view was quite a bit slower than I would have liked. And, after doing that a few times, Safari started giving me warnings about the amount of memory the page was using; looking in Activity Monitor, that page was using over a gig, I think I saw it go up to two gigs?

So that also made me happy with my choice to go with a third-party iOS client; probably the official iOS Plex client is better than how it works on the Mac, but that wasn’t a great first impression. Though actually other aspects of the transition gave me an actively good impression of Plex: in particular, I appreciated how it sorted the names of Japanese and Korean artists into the letter that corresponds to their name in the romanization of their name, instead of sticking all off them into a single “numbers and weird stuff” list at the end.


And then I launched Prism, pointed it at my collection, purchased the ability to download files, poked through the UI until I found an option to download everything (it wasn’t hard to find), and waited. Took a while, and I kept on waking up my phone to make sure it was making progress; which I think it really wasn’t doing while it was asleep, because it still had a lot of work to do when I woke up the next morning. But I don’t blame Prism for that, I bet iOS doesn’t even provide a mechanism that allows apps to download thousands of files in the background. A handful of them (I think 5?) didn’t download right the first time, presumably because of the app going to sleep at the wrong time, but I told it to download everything again, it grabbed those last files, and I was all set.


So: yay, I’ve ended up basically exactly where I wanted to be. And I also have an archive system set up, so that if I want to transition how I do this in five or ten years, I’ll be able to do that. And it means that I’m no longer tied to Spotify: if I decide that I want to switch back to Apple Music at some point in the future, I can do that without worrying that it’s going to mess up my music collection. (Which it did in multiple ways: not just the file modification stuff I linked to above, Apple Music also broke albums into multiple parts and removed the ability to fix metadata.)

The one gap in my flow is newly purchased music: it was kind of convenient to buy music on my phone and have it just show up everywhere? But I can deal with that, I just set up a once-a-month reminder to copy new music over to the new system. A small price to pay to get an archive system that I trust; and, if I want to stop paying that price, I can just stop buying music…

Though of course the new archive system isn’t complete: I probably have hundreds of albums only on CD. I know for a fact that some of those CDs are no longer readable, but presumably most of them still are; and it’s probably high time for me to digitize all of the ones that I can. So maybe I’ll start chipping away at that? But that’s a later thing, for now I’m going to enjoy the current state of affairs.

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