Choosing a Music Streaming Service

It seems like it wasn’t that long ago that the music industry was still resisting any attempt at allowing consumers to access music in any way other that buying CDs. So many other industries have been disrupted by digital technology, and while a few notable ones stuck doggedly to their “principles” until they literally vanished (I’m looking at you Kodak and Blockbuster), most industries either embraced the disruption or eventually waved the white flag and gave in.

One of the industries that probably should have most logically embraced the opportunities of being digital was the music business. After all, with a product that is essentially just a collection of digital bits, the decision to move those bits directly to consumers via the Internet should have been a no brainer. Yet the record company cartels fought the inevitable digital transition for years.  Rarely have I seen such a group of people with so little vision for the future be so obstinate about protecting their incumbency.

Thanks in large part the disruption of Apple and the iTunes Store in popularising the idea of moving music off plastic disks and making it into downloadable files, the door was opened to companies like Spotify to avoid all that messy iTunes syncing nonsense and just let you listen to music directly on your device as a stream of bits.  And of course, without the pirate attitude of early filesharing services like Napster, it may have taken a lot longer to get to that point.

So here we are in 2018, and we are now almost spoilt for choice when it comes to streaming music services. Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play Music and Amazon Music seem to be the popular choices, but there are plenty of others to explore like Deezer, Pandora, IHeartRadio, and more.

I’ve been using Google Play Music for a while now, and I quite like it. While it was a bit rough when it started, it has definitely improved it’s recommendation algorithms over the past year or so (although sometime the stuff it serves up based on my apparent listening tastes still seem quite bizarre).  As a paid subscriber I also get access to YouTube Red, which apart from access to special YouTube Red limited content (which I don’t really watch anyway) it’s nice to not have ads appearing in YouTube.

My biggest gripe with Google Play Music is that it’s tied to a single Google account (my Gmail account), so it’s a nuisance when I’m logged in to another account, like my work account.  Yes I know can have multiple windows open, I understand that, but I think this idea that my content (files, music, photos, etc) is tied to an account and not an identity is ridiculous and a major problem with the way Google handles these things.  I am still me, and my content is still mine, regardless of which account I am logged into.

Like many people, I also have a free Spotify account.  Because it’s free I have to put up with ads, so I’ve tended not to use it as much as Play Music. But the predictions and recommendations of Spotify seemed to be quite good, and it’s a great way to discover new music or hear old favourites. However, what I really like with Spotify, is that I’m allowed to be just me. I can log into Spotify completely independently of any other accounts I may or may not be logged into. I like that a lot.

That independence carries across to devices as well, with Spotify also playing nicely with most major hardware platforms.  It plays nicely with Chromecast, which is important to me, but also with many other services and devices. And of course, because it’s so widely used by so many people, it’s pretty easy to share and access playlists with friends. I signed up for the three month trial and am digging it so far.

That said, it’s not perfect. For example, there is no option to upload your own music. I have a number of files that are simply not available online because they are not commercially available.  Old singles, obscure bands, recording of my kids when they were little, songs recorded by my musically talented daughter, and so on.  None of these are available online. Spotify has a Local Files option, so I could theoretically access these things from my local drive, but the files don’t sync across devices, so I’d have to copy them to every device I own, which not an ideal solution.  With Google Play I can simply upload these tracks to the service and access them via Play, so that’s a definite benefit.

I’m trying to decide which of these pros and cons are most important to me as I think about which streaming music service I want to continue using going forward.

I also need to factor in that Google Play Music is going away soon and is being replaced with a new service called YouTube Music.  I have been given an early look at YouTube Music and I’m not sure it’s grabbing me yet. The new pricing model removes the Ad-free YouTube option unless I pay more. I also don’t have the option to upload my own tracks (although I hear that feature may be coming). And while it can be used just an audio playing service, there’s also a focus on music videos which I don’t particularly care about. The interface also seems a little unintuitive (although maybe I just need to get used to it). Overall I haven’t warmed to YouTube Music yet.  It’s possibly another case of Google being too late to the music party – a party that is well and truly being led by Spotify at this point in time – with yet another confused strategy of multiple semi-great apps all competing for our attention.

There are other services I could consider, like Apple Music, but to be honest I am actively avoiding getting sucked into any ecosystem that Apple runs simply because of their proprietary approach to most things.  Deezer has the biggest library of music, and works on my Fitbit Ionic (if you consider the way Fitbit expects you to get music on the device to be “working”). And Amazon?  Meh. Probably not.

Right now, given that Google Play Music is going away, I’m leaning towards a switch to Spotify. Although if the New YouTube Music service adds the ability to upload my own files, then I could be swayed to stay in Google land, even if they do want an extra $2 a month to remove the ads from YouTube.

Wikipedia has a good comparison table of all the streaming music services if you’re interested.

Decisions, decisions!  So tell me… what do you use? And what advice do you have for me?  I’d love you to take the poll about your choice and leave me your thoughts in the Comments!

Which streaming music service do you prefer?

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Header Image CC BY-SA:  Ian Hunter Rant Band on Flickr by bobistravelling

Happy Humans

There is a backstory on this video, but to be honest, it probably doesn’t really matter all that much.  It was made by Matt Harding, the famous “wherethehellismatt” guy from YouTube. The real point for me is that life is for living and that people all over the world want basically the same things – to be loved, to feel happy and to enjoy life.

Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

I look at that video and love seeing the sheer joy on people’s faces that comes from just being happy.

Enjoy.  I’m off to dance!

Equity, Dignity, Respect.

I once worked with a very nice Vice Principal. He was a charming fellow and I enjoyed working with him. In his role as VP however, he was required to be pretty strict with the kids… and he did a great job of it. His role was to uphold the rules and policies of the school and he did it with a certain authoritarian gruffness and bulldog-like tenacity. He seemed to work on the idea that if you repeated the rules often enough then the kids would eventually do the right thing (or at least have no excuse for not knowing what the right thing was!)

Every morning, he would get on the school’s PA system and reiterate the rules to the kids. And he would always, always, always finish his PA address with the phrase “Have a great day and remember to treat everyone with equity, dignity and respect”. It was something of a catchphrase for him.

The thing about this approach to repeating the rules so often is that the kids start to just tune out. I asked them one morning in homeroom whether they actually listened to what the VP was saying and they said they didn’t, they just sort of tuned out and didn’t really listen at all. We discussed this for a couple of minutes and I jokingly said that perhaps if he did it as a rap instead they might take more notice. Well, I should know better than to joke about things like that… the next morning I decided to hold my Mac up in front of the PA speaker and record the announcement, which just happened to be a real beauty outlining the sort of clothing the kids were allowed to wear on their civvies (mufti) day the next day.

I dragging the audio file into GarageBand and had a play with it for a few hours. The resulting tune became somewhat of a classic around the school, with many teachers and kids asking for a copy of it. I never did release the actual digital file of it though, because I was a bit concerned with it getting out “in the wild”, so to speak. However, since that was over a year ago and in a completely different country, I figure I may as well put it out there now.

So, for your listening and dancing pleasure, here is Equity, Dignity, Respect.

Equity, Dignity, Respect.

Just click the Audio MP3 button above to listen, or grab your own copy from my widget. Enjoy.

YouTube gets Barenaked

This is too funny…

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably noticed that YouTube has become quite the phenomenon over the last year. If you’ve spent anytime at all browsing YouTube, you’ve probably seen some of the more popular videos stored there… It’s amazing the way they tend to bubble up to the top in popularity.

It seems that the Barenaked Ladies have been watching YouTube too. Barenaked Ladies are a Canadian band based in Toronto and I must confess to have become particularly fond of their music when I lived there. I think they are very clever, both lyrically and conceptually, and I really enjoy their insightful wit.

BNL’s latest video clip is a real testament to this cleverness. They contacted many of the “stars” of YouTube – the Evolution of Dance guy, the two guys from Diet Coke and Mentos experiment, Where the Hell is Matt, and even Geriatric1927 among others. They managed to get these people to lip-sync to their latest single “Sound of your Voice” and then edited the clips together into a single video. Amazingly clever stuff!

Of course, the finished clip has been posted on YouTube and is spreading virally, which is exactly the way YouTube works best. I’m really impressed with the way BNL have been able to tap into such a social phenomenon and turn it around into something so clever. Well done guys!

And of course, here is the clip…

Talent Night?

Yes, the school I teach at has a talent night each semester, and somehow or other a group of teachers at school put a little group together to play a couple of songs.  While I can’t truly claim to have any great musical talent, I can wield a bass guitar well enough to hold the rhythm section together, especially with a great drummer like Charlie.  The rest of the band was Rob, Darrell, Alanna and Kevin, all wonderfully dedicated and talented teachers who don’t mind getting up and showing their wild side in front of the kids.  The kids seem to really enjoy seeing their teachers get up and “give it a go”, and it’s that spirit that make schools such wonderfully human  places…

So for anyone brave enough to take a peek, here is a YouTube video of two songs we performed on the night… the sound quality isn’t great and the camera work is a bit shaky, but it just goes to show what can be done when a kid in the crowd just happens to capture something like this on his cellphone, and then it’s up on YouTube within a few hours.

It was, I must admit, a lot of fun.  🙂

Bypassing DRM

There’s a lot of talk in the music industry about how to protect music from copyright infringement and illegal use. Record companies as a whole were fairly slow to give in to the whole music download idea because they see it as a threat to their empires… for years the record companies had an exclusive stronghold on the production and distribution of music. As the world has gotten flatter and the gap between an idea in a musician’s head and the release of that musical idea to a waiting public has gotten smaller, cheaper and easier, the role of the record company has shrunk in importance.

So as we’ve witnessed the rise of digital music across the Internet, we’ve also seen the record companies fight tooth and nail to hang on their ivory towers. They’ve used their legal muscle to crush filesharing services like Napster and Morpheus, while others such as Limewire have so far somehow managed to avoid being taken down. The reasoning goes that if people are allowed to share music files with each other then they won’t buy CDs and the artists can’t get paid. (Perhaps more importantly, the record company execs won’t be able to afford a new Lexus.) Truth be told, if anything, people seem to be listening to more music than ever, and across a much wider range of musical styles and tastes. In that sense, there are plenty of bands and musicians for whom the ability to distribute their music digitally without the interference of the big record companies has meant they actually get their music out to more people, not less. And not just for free either… for many musicians that extra exposure means they end up selling more of their music as well.

So a couple of years ago Apple comes along with iTunes and says, “Hey, let’s do this right… let’s create a huge online collection of music, let’s charge people a fair price for each song (US99 cents), and let’s put a DRM in place that is actually fair and reasonable.” DRM, or Digital Rights Management, means that each song file has metadata embedded into it that makes the file self-aware – it knows what devices it lives on, knows how many times it has been burnt to CD, and keeps track of its own usage. The Apple DRM, called Fairplay, was quite a coup and I’m sure that getting the record companies to agree with it was somewhat due to the infamous Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field – a name given to the way that Jobs always seems to be able to convince people to believe things and do things that they would never have imagined they’d agree to.

Apple’s lead with iTunes was followed (as usual) by others, such as Rhapsody, The Zune Marketplace, Amazon, and a host of other operations that now sell music legally. By and large these online music stores are profitable and seem to sell a lot of music. If you walk into any classroom though, and ask the kids how many of the songs they have on their MP3 players have been bought, it is a tiny percentage. Mostly they just look at you with a confused expression and say “How many have I bought? Why would want to do that when I can just download them off the Net for free?”

DRM prevents music files from being endlessly shared. After a certain number of sharings, or a certain number of plays, or after being placed on a certain number of devices, the files just stop working. That won’t make the kids happy but it should keep the record companies happy, and more importantly the artists get paid and so keep making music.

However, the songs that are floating around the Net’s many filesharing services at the moment are generally devoid of any DRM. They CAN be copied and shared an infinite number of times, if not legally then at least without any real technical barriers to doing so. So if the songs “out there” in cyberspace are not DRMed, and are open to illegal sharing, then where do they come from?

And then tonight, as I was ripping one of my CDs into iTunes so I could listen to it on my iPod, it struck me that the source of all these illegal files is probably the very same place that the record companies are desperately trying to hang onto… CDs.

The irony is that if record companies would drop the whole CD distribution model and just accept – no, embrace – the digital downloading of music then all the music files in cyberspace would eventually be DRMed, since the source for non-DRM files would basically dry up. Would you share your DRMed music? I’m not sure I would want to share my legal music collection over a filesharing network if I knew that I would be giving away the rights to listen to it myself. As long as the record companies insist on hanging onto the control of their market and insist on selling musical bytes encoded onto plastic disks which they seem to feel are more real and therefore easier to control, but much easier to rip as non-DRMed files for sharing online, then we should continue to have an ongoing source for non-DRMed music.

Let’s hope they never wake up to this.

This product will be great… one day

Just as a follow on to that last post, it’s interesting to compare the marketing strategies of Microsoft and Apple, especially when it comes to the release of new products.

Microsoft takes the hype-it-up-early approach – witness such products as Origami, Vista and Zune. Apple on the other hand are very tight-lipped about new products and essentially say nothing until a new product is announced by His Steveness at an event like MacWorld or WWDC. This latter approach by Apple always seems to cause the rumour mills to work overtime with speculation and guessing at just what might emerge, but the actual product releases often exceed consumer expectation, or at least are still full of surprises. On the other hand, Microsoft’s hype-in-advance approach seems to build enormous consumer expectation around their products but it is often dissapointingly not met when the crunch comes.

With both Vista and Zune still out on the horizon somewhere, it will be interesting to watch and see just how they manage to meet the expectation they have created for themselves. It appears that in Vista’s case the only way they will be meeting their long-overdue launch date will be to water down or eliminate features… and many of those features are ones that OS X Tiger already has.

Zune is still a ways off and is being touted as an iPod killer, but with over 75% of the portable music player market it will have a lot of catching up to do. And now Sandisk is talking about having an 8Gb flash memory based player, filled to the brim with features at a competitive price.

I can’t help but think that the key differentiator is not just about features but rather usability, and the others have a long way to go to catch the iPod in that regard. Not only that, but it’s only a matter of time before Apple (and others) have access to 8Gb flash memory, and with the profit Apple makes on iPods, they can still afford to compete.

Bring it on…