The Correct Way to Listen to Music in 2015

I refuse to live in a world in which the best time to be a music fan was in the past. The 160GB iPod was released on September 5, 2007. Since then, I just don’t understand what has happened.

For one thing, the amount of storage space in portable devices has stagnated. Presumably this will change once flash storage catches up and we get 256GB phones. But for seven years, the amount of music we can carry with us has been capped too low. Moreover, the file transfer and syncing speed of the best music player available has been stuck at pre-iPhone capabilities, and the mental model and user experience for managing songs in iTunes has only gotten worse. All this has created perfect-storm conditions for a much worse problem.

Two pernicious technological forces emerged around 2007, just as music listening technology peaked: cellular Internet and social media. The combination of mobile (but hardly constant or reliable) Internet access and the socially rewarding taste-labor of performing oneself on social media opened the door for the worst corporate enemy music lovers have ever faced: streaming music rental services. You’ve heard of them: Pandora, Spotify, Rdio (pronounced “ARR-deo,” not “radio,” which is mind-boggling), and probably some other companies soon to lay off all their musically inclined employees to cut costs.

These abominations crippled consumer demand for good music tech at the worst possible moment. By offering ~~~convenience~~~ (and the effortless ability to show off one’s discerning tastes to Friends™ and Followers™), music rental allowed consumers to abandon the effort of maintaining their own music libraries and just hand the keys over to lawyers and code-bros.

Why Music-Rental Services Are Immoral and Harmful to Society

Problem 1: Streaming Sucks

Have you ever attempted to use the Internet in a subway tunnel, on an airplane, in an elevator, in a grocery store, in a public space with many other mobile Internet users, in a rural area, or anywhere else it is common to listen to music besides an office or home with an expensive, private Internet connection? Then surely you, too, listen primarily to music you own stored on a 2007-era device, for it is wildly naïve to attempt to do otherwise.

Problem 2: Streaming-Quality Audio Sucks

Even in circumstances where streaming audio is possible — or when one is lucky enough to have “pinned” or “starred” the right selection of streaming music for offline listening — companies whose businesses depend on minimizing the storage space and bandwidth costs of operating their music rental libraries choose compromised, poor-quality formats and compression, making their music sound flat and unlistenable even to untrained ears. To compensate, they lie in their marketing about this, causing perceived sound quality to improve psychosomatically.

Problem 3: Corporate Overlords and Middlepeople Control Music Availability

For whatever top-down business reason they choose, the owners of music rental services or the holders of intellectual property rights can remove music from availability without warning. Accordingly, if the lawyers or the Silicon Valley Content Engagement Ninjas fail to provide a valuable service to artists — even top-shelf acts — those acts are forced to retaliate by yanking their catalogs from the service. Fans with no other means of listening to that music are screwed.

For the same reasons, these gatekeepers control what music is added to the services, so for a Spotify listener, if an artist fails to persuade/pay the overlords to provide its music, that artist does not exist.

Furthermore, it’s hardly a given that these companies are going to stick around. If a music rental service vanishes — and some of them surely will soon — so does all the customer time and energy spent on fine-tuning collections, not to mention the music.

Problem 9,999,999: Songwriters Are Screwed

Van Dyke Parks co-wrote a song with Ringo Starr this year, and it made $0.00065 per day on Spotify. This post is aimed at listeners, so I don’t want to drone on about the implications for artists, but Parks wrote about it at length. As a footnote, here are my worldwide revenues from all music rental services since September for my album, Portal, for which I control 100% of the rights:

Note: you can own the album in high quality forever for $4.

It costs me $35/year to keep my music available on those services using TuneCore. Fortunately, it doesn’t take many record sales to cover that cost. Much more fortunately, I do not have any ambitions to make even a significant portion of my living as a musician, so $0.01 in monthly revenues is still exciting to me.

The One and Only Thing That Is Good About Music Rental: Discovery

For all the damage they’ve caused, music rental services have achieved one enormous benefit for musicians and music lovers. They have finally built the data bridge between listening to music and finding new music. All these services use software to recommend new music based on what listeners like. Some of them, best exemplified by Beats Music, also use professional humans to curate recommendations.

Interestingly, Beats was acquired by Apple this year for $infinity³. Apple, of course, is the former savior of listener-centric music technology, whose solution is still stuck in 2007, as we have discussed. Apple’s iTunes Store is the world’s leading retailer of downloadable music — like, for owning and actually having decent-quality music. iTunes provides some rudimentary recommendations. Amazingly, Apple has barely begun to figure out how to incorporate data from its customers’ actual listening behaviors into those recommendations, which is presumably where Beats comes in.

Because Apple has demonstrated a multi-billion dollar commitment to music in 2014, and because they’re still the company offering the best music-listening technologies (the Beats deal also included the Beats by Dre line of fashionable headphones), Beats Music is the only music rental service I can recommend. That’s because it will presumably become an integrated part of Apple’s stack of music listening technologies, which is the only one that’s even close to providing the right experience right now. That said, the proper role of Beats in this stack is not central or even strictly necessary. To explain, I offer you a description of the set of technologies I use for listening to music these days.

The Correct Way to Listen to Music in 2015

Discovery

Fortunately, there is no wrong way to discover music. Music rental services are an excellent way. That’s why I use Beats Music, because its heavily curated — as opposed to purely algorithmic — recommendations make its user experience reminiscent of the great era of music magazines, except here you can click play. I also find its music reservoir to be vast and eclectic. I use my library on Beats as a temporary playlist of things to check out for the first time.

Whenever I hear about a record that interests me, my move is to find it on Beats and add it to my library there. I dearly hope Beats improves its offline storage UX to allow automatic and background downloading. As it is, I have to manually add the album to my offline library on each device, and I have to leave the app running until all the downloads are complete. The ideal music rental app would save all music to disk by default except when available storage is low.

Once I’ve had a chance to digest a new record on Beats, I tap the heart or un-heart button to inform Beats of my updated tastes and remove the music from my library. If I liked it, I go download the record from somewhere else (see below) and add it to my iTunes library.

Of course, a music rental service is not necessary for music discovery. Recommendations from people you follow online can be perfectly sufficient, if you optimize for that. Also, friends, shows, and other physical-reality venues. There’s also SoundCloud, which is a social media company entirely for sharing and discussing audio. SoundCloud has thus far been a great service for indie music, but I’m worried about it. Nevertheless, I’m still a user.

Downloading

To overcome the myriad aforementioned inadequacies of music rental services, one must actually download copies of music. This usually requires a transaction in a small denomination of legal currency (about the price of one single alcoholic beverage in an affluent urban center). For most lawyered-up musical acts, much of this transaction is captured by middlepeople and lawyers, but some of it eventually makes its way to the artist who produced the music. Apple’s iTunes Store is the dominant example of this model, and Google and Amazon have competing services that undercut Apple by $0.50 and $1.00 per album, respectively.

Fortunately, the Worldwide Web exists, allowing musical acts who think about it for a second to circumvent all lawyers and middlepeople except the good kinds who help them secure their rightfully earned royalties and protect their fully owned works, and maybe those who help them develop their ideal audience.

Bands who have done the hard work of building a loyal following with a close relationship can release their music directly to fans. That also allows them to escape the corporate mandate of uniform pricing, instead choosing a business plan tailored to their own fans and the fan-artist relationship. One celebrated example is the 2007 Radiohead record In Rainbows, for which listeners could pay whatever they wanted from $0.00 up. The record sold (for more than $0.00) wildly, was beloved by critics, and became my favorite rock album of all time.

Even for artists with no following at all, this business model is now viable thanks to Bandcamp, which I consider to be the best company and service in the history of music, period, bar none. It costs nothing to create a Bandcamp account. Artists upload full-quality versions of their music, and Bandcamp gives them an attractive storefront to sell it however they want, be it a fixed price, a minimum price, or a pay-whatever-you-want price. They also allow artists to sell physical merchandise. They take a totally reasonable service fee (about half of what Apple takes from App Store developers), and the rest of the money is deposited directly into artists’ PayPal accounts. Best of all, if you ask me, Bandcamp also allows its music player to be embedded anywhere on the web, complete with buy buttons, so artists can still display and sell music on their own websites, letting Bandcamp take care of everything. (That’s what I did.)

For listeners, Bandcamp lets you choose your audio quality when you download it. All of its options are excellent, including the 320kbps MP3 option (higher than iTunes), which is how I usually go. It’s also effortless to subscribe to bands you like on Bandcamp, so you can find out when they have new releases. The Bandcamp user experience is so good that I now always check Bandcamp first (unless the band sells music directly) before going anywhere else to buy a record, and I do so knowing full well from experience that it’s the best option for artists who can’t afford their own in-house operation.

For those with no fucks to give to anyone, there are also other options.

After downloading an album, one must go through a not-overly-painful one-time process to add it to one’s personal music library.

Library Management

Music rental customers have tried hard to forget this, but the only correct way to be a lover of recorded music is to own and maintain a local music library. This allows you to control what music is available for listening, decide its acceptable quality threshold, and play it back at any time, even if you are on an airplane. In order to listen on multiple devices, it requires you to occasionally sync your devices with your canonical library, which, if you’re keeping proper encrypted backups of your devices, you should already be doing. For iOS/iTunes users, encrypted device backups and music libraries are controlled in the same application, which might seem crazy, but looking at it from the perspective of the correct way to listen to music, a certain logic begins to emerge. The app is called iTunes, after all.

Admittedly, the performance and user interface of music library management software has some room for improvement. We’ve covered the fact that the lack of progress in this field is Apple’s fault. But the fact is, music library management in iTunes is still the way it is because it does work. Every iTunes UI update requires a few more clicks or commands to get the sane list view back (currently ⌘-1, click either ‘My Music’ or ‘Playlists’ depending on your preference, ⌘-B, then check the proper items in ‘View > Column Browser ►’), but it’s still there. If you still can’t handle it, there are third-party apps that read your iTunes library and can replace iTunes for management and playback, but I’ve never found them to be worth my time. When I’m at my desk or around the house, iTunes is still the most direct way to find and play the music I want.

Listening to Music

When it comes time to actually listen to music, which hopefully happens for at least one hour per day, there’s a simple choice to make. If one wants to spend the time discovering new music, one should launch whichever application one chooses, be it a music rental service, a social network, or the web browser. If one wants to listen to one’s own music, one simply launches the app containing one’s music library, chooses the high-quality recording to which one wants to listen, and no one else in the entire world has any say about it, even if one is in a subway tunnel.

There is currently no portable music device with adequate storage, battery life, and user experience on sale. I am using my second 160GB iPod Classic, which I purchased last year knowing that the device was not long for this world. Sure enough, Apple quietly removed the iPod Classic from the lineup this year, immediately after the event announcing  WATCH. (The day Apple releases a  WATCH with 256GB of flash storage will be a great day for music indeed.)

Until then, music lovers will still have to wait for smartphones to improve. The music library apps themselves are pretty good, but the devices need far more storage and battery life to replace the iPod. Hopefully the storage improvements are around the corner. I’m less optimistic about the batteries. But smartphones are pretty good already. For light daily listening, just about any of today’s phones is adequate.

If this local listening experience is just too solitary for people who crave social feedback on their tastes, one can Create Content™ about it using one’s regular social media services. This is actually more likely to result in successful Engagement™, because statistically far more of one’s Friends™ use Facebook than any one of the several young music rental services. When linking to music on social media, it is polite to link to a website where anyone — not just subscribers of a specific service — can hear it. My practice is to check the band’s website (if applicable) first, then Bandcamp, then SoundCloud, then YouTube, and finally Beats, if all else fails.

Yes, this requires more effort than tapping the share button from within a corporate music rental silo. But look, sometimes going through a little effort to share music with people is the signal that makes it meaningful to them — like decorating a cassette or CD-R jewel case for them once did — instead of just advertising for whatever big-music-business factory farm is the nearest at hand.

P.S.

If anyone is interested in building a high-capacity MP3 player with good UX who isn’t Apple, maybe one with open-source software and not tied to any platform, I would be pretty down to check it out.