Steve Albini’s Face The Music Keynote / More on Beats and iTunes

Reading this I’m beginning to believe things could be getting better in the recorded music industry.

This past weekend I started playing with Beats Music again and have begun questioning the care and meticulousness of my own iTunes collection. I can’t think of a better example then last weekend when I was updating Elton John metadata, hunting for the right year, trying to get high-quality artwork. Then it dawned on me. “Wait a second, I don’t even really like Elton John that much!”

In a single $10 a month payment nearly all my music collection is available, as are all the new releases I’d be paying $10 each for anyway. Sure, if I stop paying it all goes away, but has there ever been a month where I haven’t paid at least $10 in iTunes downloads? No.

So after years of using iTunes, updating ratings, organizing smart playlists to help me wade through tens of thousands of songs, I’m coming around on the idea that I don’t need to own and organize this stuff anymore. I probably haven’t listened to most of my collection in years. These digital music files may as well be like the boxes of CDs I have in a storage room. Except they show up in smart playlists and are often skipped over.

…I still wish I could just login to my Beats Music account using iTunes on my Mac.1

I’m also liking the idea that a new band can get the ears of millions of people in as little as two days.2

Maybe this right now is the golden age of music.

I know that goes against other things I’ve written here, about how the streaming model is unsustainable…but that was before reading Albini’s address and his deconstruction of “We need to figure out how to make this digital distribution work for everyone.”

  1. Spotify has been real buggy for me. I think I’ve hit a collection limit. 

  2. $19.99 a year for unlimited releases using DistroKid means you don’t have to wait to release a CDs worth of material. 

Why you should clean your tags

The amount of work and care that needs to go into accurate iTunes metadata is precisely why nobody but the nerdiest of music nerds cares.1

  1. On a sidenote, it drives me nuts when people send me email with no subject line, or with vague subject lines, or lack the sort of information I may need to find later. I consider all that stuff metadata. Subject lines are metadata. I think I’m being polite and considerate. Others don’t care. 

Underwhelming Start to iTunes Radio Lights Fire Under Apple

Apple is finding that its influence over labels is slipping as YouTube, Spotify, Pandora and other streaming services gather momentum. One independent label said that iTunes’s share of the label’s revenue has eroded from more than 70% in 2012 to about 50% today.

I think the main reason I stick with iTunes is because I can listen to whatever I want, not just whatever jumped through all the hoops to get on Spotify.

Even with Spotify’s addition of Collections (which hasn’t rolled out to me yet) I still use iTunes/iTunes Match. Maybe that will change.

The Genre Tag Problem

The Genre Tag Problem:

Ask any passionate music fan about their favorite genre or genres of music, and you’ll be in for a graduate-level course in their passion. And that’s before you dive in to the various subgenres of music, in details that would overwhelm any sort of systematic organization in a store. For a passionate music fan, it’s not nearly as simple. Just look at this list of subgenres for Heavy Metal, itself a sub-genre of Rock music. And forget about using the iTunes genre images if you get really specific. And, if it’s not easily classifiable, odds are, in the iTunes Store it’s classified as “Alternative”. This is a limitation by design.

I think people like me who are meticulous about their genre tags are a dying breed. I used to recommend getting as specific as possible with your genre tags because if you wanted to listen to something with a beat you could select the 5 dance music genres and iTunes and go nuts.

But you can’t do that on iOS.

The motivation behind having detailed tags was so one could easily navigate a music library. I still have a standard process of verifying that tags are good on new music, but now with things like Genius Mixes and iTunes Radio stations it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put much effort into it.

iTunes Podcast Syncing Stil Having Problems

TidBITS: Explaining Podcasts in iTunes 11.1:

The reality is that syncing of this information through iCloud is confused beyond belief, rife with incorrect and inconsistent behavior. In extensive testing, we experienced a variety of problems, at least some of the time. Sometimes one problem went away, only to be replaced by another.

  • Podcast subscriptions disappearing and reappearing randomly, and differently on four devices
  • Subscriptions syncing from one device to another in only one direction
  • Available episodes in a podcast differing between devices
  • Stations syncing without their underlying subscriptions syncing as well
  • Playback position syncing from iTunes to an iPhone, but not an iPad

Both iTunes and were updated this week. Still seems to be a problem.

The strangest one is that podcast play position is synced from iOS to iTunes, but you don’t know it until you play the podcast on your computer and it suddenly picks up where you left off because all the blue dot besides the episode are completely filled.

…That and the over 200 podcast episodes I get marked as unplayed.

“If anyone from Apple is listening…”

iTunes Guy Kirk McElhearn on this Macworld podcast (paraphrasing):

Come on – Amazon does 250,000 tracks in the cloud. You can’t do better than Amazon?

My trick for getting around the limit is to delete anything I don’t think I need in the cloud from a computer other than my main iTunes library. That way it takes the music off the cloud, but leaves it in my main iTunes library. When/if Apple lifts this limit I’ll be able to add those tracks I removed from iCloud as they were before they were purged.

If that sounds complicated, it kinda is. I shouldn’t have to deal with it. And if your criticism is “well your iTunes music library shouldn’t be so big” the reason it’s that big is because I use iTunes. People with big libraries are big music fans, which is why iTunes still exists.

Otherwise we’d all be on Spotify.

Teenagers Can’t Pay For Things Online

Why can’t music streaming companies get people using their credit cards?

“There is this irrational resistance for people to actually plunk down their credit card for streaming services,” said Ted Cohen, a digital music consultant with the firm TAG Strategic. “We’re 13 years into the Napster phenomenon of ‘music is free,’ and it’s hard to get people back into the idea that music is at least worth the value of a cup of Starbucks coffee a week.”

Here’s my armchair analysis. Their customers don’t even have credit cards.

Music is an important thing for youth. It’s one of the first things that kids and teenagers use to define themselves and compare themselves to their friends and others.

They don’t have credit cards.

When did you get your first credit card? I think I got mine around 17.

Years ago you would go to a retailer and use cash to buy media. In the digital world you can’t.

How much of the “nobody wants to pay for anything” argument is really “nobody CAN pay for anything?”

The analog-to-digital conversion didn’t just happen with media. It happened with payments. Payments haven’t really gone digital for youth. All they have is cash…and iTunes allowances. I wonder how many iTunes gift cards are used just so teenagers can buy themselves iTunes credit.

Podcasting Is Pretty Much The Same As It Was Back In 2005

Allen Pike writes about how podcasting is on the rise. I’m skeptical.

He uses This American Life as an example of non-geeks getting into podcasts. I’ve often used my sister as an example of how non-geeks listen to podcasts. She’s not a power user. I bought her Instacast years ago. Now I’m trying to get her onto Apple’s podcast app so she can sync with iTunes. She hasn’t budged.

Why not? Because it’s not really that important to her.

I think her, and many others, like the IDEA of podcasts. The IDEA of free talk-radio. But what I end up seeing is a people who spend some time in the iTunes Store1 going through podcasts, picking things out, and never listening to them.

Let’s look beyond the assumption that This American Life was always for geeks/nerds/dorks. If you even know what TAL is you’re not like most people. How many of This American Life’s new listeners actually listen to the show? How many of them just like to declare themselves to be TAL listeners without actually listening regularly?

Pike cites a 65% increase in podcasting growth from 2010 to 2012:

Surely this growth can’t all be from geeks. So the jig is up: podcasting is seriously growing, and it’s not just geeks.

While more people are listening, or at least subscribing to podcasts, I don’t think it’s because non-geeks are getting into podcasts. I think it’s because more people are becoming geeks the way we viewed them 10 years ago. This is why 5by5 has a ton of shows about…well, pretty much the same thing.2

Regarding tools, Pike writes:

As of this writing, a horde of developers are building podcast listening apps. Podcast recording apps, on the other hand?

Well, more about that soon.

I assume that he’ll write a followup about making tools for podcasters, or announce some new software he’s been working on. We need it.

My favorite, back in the early days, was Podcast Maker. It hasn’t been updated since 2011. I use Podcast Maker regularly for the private podcast I make for my friends.3 The most technical you need to get with it is give it an audio file and an FTP location to upload to, and then share the feed.

Most non-geeks don’t have FTP space.

Today, if you want to do podcasting right you need a CMS, maybe a podcasting plugin, and understand how all this stuff works. If you don’t get FTP then you’re already locked out.

Meanwhile, Marco Arment writes:

But I’m not a believer that everyone should podcast, or that podcasting should be as easy as blogging. There’s actually a pretty strong benefit to it requiring a lot of effort: fewer bad shows get made, and the work that goes into a good show is so clear and obvious that the effort is almost always rewarded.

I’m not sure if it’s worth keeping bad shows out, because usually good shows rise to the top and the bad ones go to the wayside. Besides, everyone would benefit from having simpler tools, even the pros.

If you want to see what happens when you make these sorts of tools for non-geeks all you need to do is go to Youtube. There are a HUGE amount of Youtube channels from wannabe makeup artists, guys creating a character obsessed with gaming, Horror Movie enthusiasts, video game criticism. Sure, there is a lot of garbage, and I’m demonstrating what bubble I’m in with what I link to, but some of these are GREAT!

Think of it this way. It’s easier, and more lucrative, for Jenna Marbles to turn on her webcam, hit record, and upload it to Youtube than it is for her to create an entire podcasting back-end. Youtube IS the back-end.

I’ve seen a few channels that are nothing more than a graphic for a video and a voiceover. These are Youtube videos that want to be podcasts.

But they are not podcasts.

I’ve always viewed podcasting as something specific. Podcasts are programs (usually audio) I can subscribe to and have available in one spot on my computer, phone, or tablet. I shouldn’t have to go to multiple places to find an MP3 file to listen to. I want to just open iTunes or and it’s all there the way I left it, plus whatever new stuff that’s been made since the last time I opened it.

If you agree with me that this is the definition of a podcast then you too may not be confident that the medium has gotten much different in the past few years. It’s still mostly nerds talking about nerd stuff.

  1. Here’s another thing to think about. How much of the success of podcasting is attached to iTunes and the iTunes Store? If/when iTunes is no longer the dominant media platform then what happens to podcasts? 

  2. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy and regularly listen to a few 5by5 shows. But there’s only so much time one can, or should, dedicate to listening to people talk about new Apple products. 

  3. The other close friends I have tried it a few non-geek ways. One guy uploads his to Soundcloud, where I have to download it, reupload it, and huffduff it to get it into my The other two use Podomatic. This isn’t really much different than what blogs used to be: someone’s personal creative output meant for a small audience. 

Apple is applying their Sound Check technology to iTunes Radio

Bob Katz spoke about it at a recent AES convention:

According to Katz, the game-changer from Apple is something called the ‘Sound Check’ algorithm, which purposely limits the all-max, all-the-time approach. Instead, iTunes Radio wants to create more normalized and predictable volume output levels. Most importantly, Sound Check cannot be turned off.

iTunes Streaming Bitrate

It appears that over wifi iTunes Radio is streamed at 256k AAC, but over cellular networks it drops to 96k.

Some of the posts here lament that, but I’ve been hoping that’s how it’s been all along. iTunes was supposedly going to have some kind of adaptive streaming for these very situations. I don’t want to unwillingly eat up my data plan because of iTunes Radio.

Even at 96k iTunes Radio should sound better than satellite radio.

“Apple’s iCloud is no safe haven for some iTunes purchases”

Even if you have iTunes Match, make sure you download purchased tracks. Access is based upon licenses and other deals you have no control over. This is definitely a problem with the streaming services, but with iTunes you can at least have a local copy of your stuff.

“Dear iTunes”

I often think that iTunes has gotten so weird because of the way normal people use it. In the past my sister had tons of podcast subscriptions in iTunes, each with tons of unplayed episodes. HUNDREDS of episodes. I know she’ll never listen to them, but she doesn’t want to admit it to herself.

That must have been common; people subscribing to a large amount of podcasts, eating up bandwidth, and filling up their storage with episodes that they’ll never ever ever listen to. Now iTunes does this stuff and thinks it’s doing you a favor.

And for people like my sister, it probably is.

“Listener Matched Content”

Hypebot, regarding iTunes Match and iTunes Radio royalties:

Apple will not pay any royalties:

  • during the 120 day beta period
  • “Heat Seeker” promotions approved “at iTunes discretion”
  • “Complete My Albums” plays defined as “a Performance of a sound recording identified for a given Listener or a Remaining Track” and rendered for such Listener in order to promote the relevant CMA offer”.
  • Listener Matched Content – songs that are already in the users collection.

It’s the last category- Listener Matched Content – that will likely reduce payments labels and artists the most. According to the agreement, Apple does not have to pay for for up to two songs per hour of iRadio play if the tracks appear in the users cloud collection.

Since the heaviest users will likely pick iRadio streams that match their tastes, Apple may have effectively cut royalty payments by 10 – 14%.

I don’t understand the outrage here. Matched content means a sale was already made, whether it was a CD sale long ago or an MP3 sale at Amazon or elsewhere.

I know this doesn’t apply all the time. Illegal downloads get matched and people seemingly believe that iTunes match legalizes those downloads when it doesn’t.

But if I legitimately buy a CD and rip it to my iTunes collection, why should the record label get paid again?