Google Play Music: a review

On 22 November, I decided that enough was enough. I needed a new music solution.

All of my digital music was residing on my old, largely defunct laptop which I’d replaced in June. It was sitting in iTunes in a library that I was far from happy with, as I’ve documented in a previous post, titled How Apple ruined my music collection.

Now as many of you will be aware, iTunes is the biggest piece of shit ever to grace a PC laptop. I know many of you Apple fanboyz/girlz will wax lyrical about how wonderful it is on a Mac (although I understand that there are even Mac users who hate it). But on a PC, it’s supremely appalling. Dog shit, if you will.

But that aside, the problem with digital music is that it came too soon. People had big music collections. Mine weighs in at a respectable but by no means mind-boggling 5,500-ish tracks. At maybe 4Mb per song, that’s around 20Gb of music.

Computer hard drives could just about cope with such volumes when iPods were first introduced in the very early part of the new millennium. But iPods could not. They started at 5Gb, although they soon got up high enough to cater for my 20Gb.

But then smartphones were introduced. And these came with SSDs rather than spinning discs. This meant that they were faster, quieter and much more worthy of a hug. But it also meant that their storage capacity was limited. And it meant compromise. You were (I was) unable to store your entire music collection on your portable device. So you had to pick and choose.

Even today, over eleven years after the first iPod came out, my Google Nexus packs a rather paltry 16Gb of storage. But that storage is for everything. Currently, about 5.5Gb of it is used for apps, photos and data other than music. A further 2.3Gb I am unable to access (the Android OS, I expect). Leaving just over 8Gb for music, if I so choose. Not enough for my entire music collection.

Over the years, I’ve upgraded laptops a few times, and music has been lost along the way. I’ve restored partial music collections from iPods. DRM-ed music confuses the hell out of me, and I’ve slowly grown to loathe everything that iTunes is about. It could have been so wonderful. But instead it contributed significantly to fragmenting my music collection. (Every time I’ve upgraded my laptop, I’ve struggled long and hard about how to move my music across.)

Now I’ve often thought about buying a NAS. But I don’t really have a N to speak of to which I can A the S. And they sound that bit too scary. So I haven’t.

But then along came Google Music.

Overnight on 22 November, and throughout most of 23 November, my old laptop’s internal fan was in overdrive as the laptop was resurrected to upload 4,705 songs from its music library into the Google Play Music cloud. It was working. And I felt huge relief and excitement. (There are about 400 tracks thereon that won’t upload, but I’m not quite sure why. It may be something to do with DRM. They’re probably those ones with the funny icon next to them in iTunes, an icon that I don’t comprehend and that has no hover text.)

And now it’s there, it’s lovely. I can play it direct from the Chrome browser. No need for installs. Just lovely. Some of the metadata has been maintained from iTunes, including number of plays. (Sadly, the five-star iTunes rating has been replaced with one with only three levels: thumbs up, nothing or thumbs down.)

And while all of the music can be streamed from the Android app on my phone (which over 3G might rack up some big bills), I can also highlight specific music that I want to store locally. And that music has been downloaded to the Nexus to use up some of my spare disk space until such time that available phone storage exceeds music collection.

The only thing I’d like now is the ability to stream to my Sonos player. I’m expecting that’s on its way.

In the meantime, I’m happy. Happy that I again have a definitive music collection, one that is not tied to a device for the first time since I collected CDs.

The ten-minute takeover

This evening, as I almost always do, I texted Greg James a few moments after 6pm.

You see, after Newsbeat, Greg “opens up the airwaves” to his listeners with the “ten-minute takeover”. Three random songs requested by listeners by text are played, on the proviso that (a) they’re in the database, (b) they’ve not been played on the show earlier, and (c) they don’t contain any naughty words.

Each evening, I text my request. It used to be Bucks Fizz’s Land Of Make Believe. (Part joking; part because it’s an underrated track.) After 54 such requests over a 108-day elapsed period, I switched my choice, fearing that it may not qualify under rule (a), or that maybe rule (c) might be invoked as a result of Greg’s reaction. And so last Monday, I switched to Lady Gaga’s Poker Face.

Tonight, at 1801, Greg announced that the first song to be played in tonight’s ten-minute takeover was to be Lady Gaga’s Poker Face. When the song finished, Greg announced to his 5.8 million listeners that this was the choice of Dan from London. (That’s me.) I heard this in my car at volume 22, which is bloody loud. I sang along, again loudly.

I was giddy. Indeed I still am. It’s true: I could have selected it on my phone, plugged it into my Aux In socket, cranked up the volume and bellowed along with Gaga.

But for 5.8 million people to experience the same song, at exactly the same time, because of a text sent by me, well that’s something else.

Hope you all enjoyed it. Now, what to choose for tomorrow?

The community brought about by radio

Last night, my friend Paul was listening to WCPE, North Carolina’s classical music station. This was likely from suburban Surrey, thanks to the wonders of the internet.

It was, I’m sure you’ll be aware, “all request Friday”, so he put in a request for Scarlatti’s Sonata in G major, K. 201, via their website I expect. Whether the request was played, I’m not sure. But that’s not the point of this post.

Each weekday evening at 6pm, Radio 1’s Greg James opens up the airwaves for the ten-minute takeover, for which listeners can text in with their requests. Greg allegedly plays three random requests that are stored in Radio 1’s music system. Each evening, I text in my request. To date, these attempts have been futile.

Both of us, if we cared to, have access to Spotify or Napster, allowing us to choose whatever track we might want to listen to whenever we might want to listen to it. And streaming aside, the tracks we want to request are likely already in our respective music collections. We could choose to play them directly from our digital devices of choice.

But we don’t. There’s something collaborative about radio, internet-based or otherwise. In regular listening mode, there’s a lovely thought that other people are enjoying the same thing as we’re enjoying at exactly that moment. And with successful requests, that thought becomes ever more delightful, knowing that other people are enjoying the music that we’ve chosen. (My friend Kate today downloaded Now (That’s What I Call Music) 1982 (Disc 1) off the back of a Facebook comment I left on her husband’s wall detailing its track listing. That made me happy.)

No matter the extent to which on-demand content infiltrates our lives, and in spite of the benefit it brings to our lives, we will continue to reach out to broadcast entertainment media, both to enjoy their unpredictability (please don’t counter this argument with “iTunes Genius”) and to join a community of other listeners.

How Apple ruined my music collection

When I was young, I, like many, used to record songs that I liked from Radio 1’s Top 40 countdowns on Sunday evenings. The art lied in capturing as much of the song as possible, while avoiding the dulcet tones of Bruno Brookes. The result was a mini-mixtape that lasted until the following Sunday.

Over time, I moved on to records, grooved circular pieces of vinyl seven or 12 inches in diameter that used to be read by a needle to play music. And then on to CDs.

Throughout that time, I knew what music I owned. Arguably, during the Brookes era, I couldn’t quite tell you what was on the TDK D90 at any point in time. But certainly thereafter, I knew what music I owned, and I knew what music I didn’t own. My CDs were arranged alphabetically by artist. Things were just lovely.

Then along came Apple.

I copied all of the CDs I owned to my computer and uploaded them all to iTunes. In the early days of iPods, storage exceeded my music collection, so I generally kept my iPod in sync with iTunes. The lack of an internet connection on the iPod meant that all music was bought from the computer, and everything was pretty sweet.

Then came the iPhone. Now importantly this came with two features that destroyed my music collection: an internet connection; and more limited storage than its iPod predecessor.

The internet connection meant that suddenly, music could be bought on the move and downloaded to my mobile device unbeknownst to iTunes. And the more limited storage meant that no longer could the two music libraries be kept in sync. My PC-based music collection was bigger than my iPhone could cope with.

So manual sync-ing ensued, as indeed did chaos. There was a manual process in copying items bought on the move back to iTunes. And there was subjectivity and manual intervention in deciding which songs were worthy of transferring to the iPhone.

There was no longer a definitive location for my music. I couldn’t turn to a proverbial CD rack to find an album or song.

The problem has been exacerbated by my recent move away from Apple. In moving to Android, I’ve had to hack my music out of iTunes and into a new format. I’m not sure exactly what’s happened technically, but a very slow process has meant that thus far, a small proportion of my music has made its way across to Songbird, an Android music app. In so doing, for some reason, some songs have lost a split second from the beginning. I’m hoping this is resolvable by following a different process in moving away from iTunes.

But the bottom line is, I don’t know what I own any more. I don’t know where that music is. And I don’t quite know whether music I’ve bought via Apple is legally allowed to be used outside of Apple.

And that’s not good. Apple ruined my music collection.

Is the human voice music?

My grandad used to have somewhat of a purist when it came to music, denouncing the use of the human voice. (In the context of music, as opposed to altogether.)

His favourite piece of music as I remember was Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube (An der schönen blauen Donau), indeed a masterful piece.

But I can’t help but feel that he missed out. All instruments create sound artificially, using a piece of apparatus that has been crafted from raw materials, often using the human hand. And those instruments rely on the skill and movement of humans to make them figuratively sing. They rely on the human breath, dexterous fingers or rhythmic feet.

The main difference between such instruments and the human voice is that in the latter, the instrument and the musician are combined. The instrument has been crafted directly by nature and nurture rather than indirectly as is the case with an instrument. And so the oboe’s reed is combined with the oboist to provide a single unit.

And just as with instruments, voices need to be repaired – just ask Adele.

To remove Whitney Houston from one’s listening repertoire on the basis that the voice is in some respect impure is sacrilege. And here’s such a wonderful example of why.

Arcade Fire vs. Google

Oh my word.  If you haven’t seen this, watch now.  It is utterly stupendous.

My violin fingering: is it still right?

I gave up the violin almost 20 years ago.  Or over half my life ago.  Yet to this day, I often mime the fingering that my left hand would do were it playing the melody of a song I’m listening to, my fingers generally tapping on the pad beneath my thumb.

Or at least I think I am.  I have no idea whether the notes that would ring out if a violin were in my hand would bear any resemblance to the song.  Maybe so many years of dormancy render the mime talentless and the resulting music similarly tuneless.  And doubtless the bow in my right hand would be playing the wrong string anyway.

One day soon, I’ll pick up a violin and see just how true my renditions are to their originals.  Until then, you’re safe.

Map of places in songs

A couple of weeks ago, I created a My Map in Google Maps.  I put a single marker on it, labelled Up the Junction, Squeeze.  The marker sat on the south-west corner of the junction between St. John’s Road and St. John’s Hill, where JD Sports now stands.

The map was created to depict references to places in songs—either in the song title or in the lyrics therein.  I invited a handful of friends to collaborate on the map, and I’m happy to say that it’s now up to 379 icons, representing places mentioned in 227 different songs.  (The KLF’s It’s Grim Up North accounted for an impressive 66 markers alone.)

The markers are colour-coded by musical genre, and collaborators are asked to follow a short list of rules to maintain the map’s integrity.

Our most northerly markers thus far are Siberia Khatru by Yes, and Frank Black’s White Noise Maker, in which Siberia is also mentioned.  Our only Antarctican reference is Ross Dependency, mentioned in Enya’s Orinoco Flow (apparently).

Phase 2 of the project is about to begin, in which a wider set of people will be invited to contribute.  If you’d like to be a part of history, drop me a comment, or an email, and I’ll add you to the list.

The first e-orchestra?

I’ve wondered recently whether a group of musicians could perform together live online.

The problem with playing music is that you need the feedback of the other players in order to understand where you are in the piece, and to react meaningfully to the circumstances of the piece.  With an orchestra, each member works in harmony with the others (often literally), compensating for balance changes and working with the imperfections that are inherent with human-created music.  If the tempo is slightly faster than you’d expected, you don’t resolutely stick to the tempo you know to be correct.  If your instrument is tuned slightly flat, you can compensate (with stringed instruments, at least) by playing sharp.  And if your fellow members are drowning you out, you can play slightly louder to ensure your section can be heard.

If you set the 50 members of an audience off on the same piece of music at exactly the same time without any feedback along the way, they’d all end at different times and the result would be a cacophony.  Hence the need for a conductor.

So what if we had an online orchestra, each member playing in physical isolation from their fellow members, connected only by the internet.

Here lies the problem.  Your fellow members need your audio feed to be played to them to allow them to play their own piece in an informed way; and you need your fellow members’ respective feeds to be played to you to allow you to play in an informed way.

Even in an orchestra that is collocated of course, the finite speed of sound means that there isn’t the immediate feedback.  Assuming an orchestra pit 14 metres in diameter, the harps (stage left) won’t hear what the double basses (stage right) were up to for a whopping 0.04 seconds.  (At sea-level, at least.)  With the internet, we’re dealing with the speed of light (880,991 times faster than sound), but with a physical distribution greater than 14 metres, and processing steps in between.

So here’s my question: if everyone had a pretty decent broadband connection and a musical feed piped directly into something internet-enabled, how long would it take for the feeds from the c. 50 members that make it up to be amalgamated and piped back to the people?  If it’s a small fraction of a second, then we’re in business.

If so, then I propose getting out my dusty old violin (not a euphemism) and arranging what might be the first orchestra never to meet.  Maybe on Twitter.  To inform whether or not to do this, I’ve constructed a detailed decision-tree.

Techies, is this doable?

If yes, then: Musicians, are you interested?

Else: sorry to have wasted your time.  Carry on.

iTunes enhancements

There are a couple of enhancements that Apple should make to iTunes that would make my life a whole lot easier.

First of all, please allow the de-duplication of tracks without compromising the make-up of albums.  I don’t want five identical copies of Blur’s Girls and Boys.  As well as eating up memory unnecessarily (a minor inconvenience given the amount of storage available), it means that randomising the order of tracks on the iPod/iPhone/iTunes results in that track being played many times over.  (I’m currently going through the songs on my iPhone in track name order (from A–Z), exacerbating the problem, to my exasperation.)

I don’t mind there being different versions of the same song.  But if there are two tracks with the same song name, within a second or two in length, with similar musical make-ups, then give the option of creating a master and a slave copy, and managing the music that way.  (If the master is deleted, then replace one of its slaves with the master and re-point all of the other slaves etc.)

And please have the concept of a device-independent star-rating and play count.  When I change my device, I shouldn’t have to re-star all of my music; and my 25 most played tracks shouldn’t be reset.

Can you sort it, Apple?  Well, can you?

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