The Case for Owning Music

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A story about Apple Music, Apple’s recently launched streaming service, made the rounds last week within the tech blogosphere - an article by Jim Dalrymple writing for The Loop regarding his experience with the service. In a nutshell, the service erased a few hundreds shy of 5000 songs from his library. Besides that, it details the hodgepodge that is Apple Music’s UI.

Marco Arment chimed in a few days later shedding light on an even bigger mess - the iTunes app, in which Apple Music resides. On top of all this are the pre-existing iTunes Match and iCloud Music Library cloud services, both of which I have little to no knowledge about as I (happily) deal with neither.

With that last bit said, the way I go about keeping my music is the old fashioned, “computer as the digital hub” method, in which I download songs on my computer and sync them over to my phone. I’ve been doing this for as long as I’ve had a phone/iPod, and I plan on keeping it that way.

There’s a whole array of reasons why I choose to make this the case - beyond whatever problems plague Apple Music exclusively. In other words, I think that streaming services like Spotify, Rdio, and whatnot are fundamentally flawed in many different ways.

Convenience as often as possible

I think that in order for a music solution to work, it has to be convenient as possible as often as possible - this goes for both discovery and purchase/download. The main argument for streaming as I see it is the instantaneousness for both these things. In a span of seconds you can discover a new song recommended by the service, and download it with the tap of a finger.

Sounds compelling, but when you introduce a time and place component - the “as often as possible” bit from a moment ago - that picture of convenience easily falters. When streaming works, it can work very well with no interruptions. But you won’t always have access to an internet connection, let alone a quick one - such is the case in countries such as mine, which is why streaming isn’t such a big deal here in the Philippines.

On the other hand, buying and owning music might not happen in as quick as instant as streaming - the best existing method for this is purchasing music on iTunes (with automatic downloads enabled on an iPhone), hence the term “one-click purchasing”. Of course, not everyone has an iPhone or uses iTunes as their default player (especially in 2015).

However, what this solution offers is reliability - convenience on a regular basis. Instead of having to stream often - its reliability dependent on whatever connection you’re on - downloads from services like the iTunes Store and even imports from physical discs (now we're getting real old school) aren’t reliant on a connection at all since the physical file is with you at all times. As internet speeds get faster, this becomes less of a problem, but as long as a connection can be severed or slowed down, so can your ability to stream music.

Longevity

Which brings me to offline mode. Most, if not all, major streaming services offer an offline mode in which music can be downloaded for offline usage. All of sudden, it seems the time and space component mentioned earlier has been taken care of. But sometimes, on a larger time scale, music can be taken out of services altogether.

Unfortunately, it seems that artists can much more easily detract from certain distribution channels than participate in them. A big name that comes to mind is Taylor Swift, in regards to her taking her music away from Spotify and then refusing to let Apple stream her latest album. I don’t imagine there being any boardroom meeting with music label execs regarding the profitability of the decision - it was probably entirely Swift’s prerogative.

If an artist can swiftly (no pun intended) pull their music away from a service, that’s quite worrisome given that one day you could have 10 albums of your favourite artist on a streaming service, then the next day have those albums taken away, unless you’re willing to invest in getting back those 10 albums elsewhere. With that said, some of your favourite artists might not even be on your preferred service to begin with - the Beatles’ absence on Spotify comes to mind.

Maybe it’s not the music that changes - maybe it’s the service itself. Remember that it’s not just the music that you buy when purchasing a subscription, but also the service’s desktop, mobile, and web app - all of which you’re locked in. If there are one or two minor inconveniences with the UI of a certain streaming app that you don’t like, don’t forget that you might have to deal with these every single time you want to listen to music.

DRM

I had to read up a bit on what this stuff can do to your music. Any music files encumbered by DRM, which stands for digital rights management, can be remotely deleted without forewarning if any IP disputes occur between services and music labels (and media providers in general), even if you have downloaded music files.

This is a problem that affects some individual purchases of songs or albums - some CD’s have DRM, and iTunes used to have DRM. However, most streaming services, even ones like Netflix that offer movies and TV shows, include DRM in all of its content.

In addition, even if you choose to keep some of your music in the form of music files, any integration with services that apply DRM to your files can result in remote deletion as well - Apple Music is among the offenders. The worst part is that DRM policies are never explicit, much less to those who don’t follow what happens in tech. It’s never obvious which bits of your music can be taken away and why.

Cognitive burden

Keeping all of this in mind, it’s easy to see why streaming services are such a cognitive burden. Even Apple’s solution is “a toxic hellstew” as quoted by Arment from CEO Tim Cook in the afore-linked piece: you’ve got so many services (iTunes Store, iTunes Match, iCloud Music Library, and Apple Music) bundled within an app notorious for its confusing UI (iTunes).

The problem is perhaps less conspicuous with services like Spotify that offer a more singular product. But, to me, what they offer can still be potentially confusing and frustrating (I say “potentially” as I’ve never regularly used a streaming service apart from Spotify’s free service), in comparison to simply owning and having 100% access to music files that are always on you and can’t as easily be taken away.

Sure, downloading whole albums beforehand can take time, and sometimes it's a little tedious to fill in missing details like track numbers or choosing which artists and albums to sync to my phone. But if there’s one thing I want to have full awareness of and control over, it’s the music library that I listen to so often and want to preserve for years, if not decades, to come.