Essays on Technology and Culture

iOS 10 Makes Non-Streaming Music a Second-Class Citizen

The release of iOS 10 is just around the corner. I’ve been running the public beta on my phone for a few weeks, and I think it’s going to be an incredible update. It’ll be even better once I can run it with watchOS 3, but that’s neither here nor there. All the UI tweaks, features, and simple improvements have made using my iPhone so much easier and more pleasant, with one exception.

That is: the Music app.

I won’t deny that the iOS 10 Music app is a huge step up from the convoluted mess that was iOS 9.3’s Music app. I can actually figure out how to navigate, control the playback queue, and find my music. The new interface is also a lot more visually appealing. I’m a big fan of the new, bold San Francisco font used for section headers. It looks and it works great, though it’s not likely to sway me back from Cesium any time soon.

The problem I have with the Music app can be summarized in one screenshot. I have highlighted the offending feature, in case you missed it.

If I want to view only my locally stored, downloaded music, there is now a separate menu option. For everything iOS 9.3’s Music app got wrong, and boy did it get a lot wrong, there was at least a simple toggle that would hide all my cloud and iTunes purchases not stored on my phone. It didn’t work all that often, but at least it was there. Apple showed they cared, just a little, about us legacy luddites who still synchronized music to our phones over USB like an animal. And to be honest, after the last time I tried Apple’s cloud music solutions, I’m going to stick with syncing until Apple takes it away.

Replacing the “Downloaded Music” toggle with a menu option means there is now an additional step between me and getting a view into the music I keep on my phone. It’s additional friction, and it renders the music synced and stored on our devices to second-class citizen status. Showing me all the artists and albums I bought on iTunes, even if I don’t have them on my device, is not a benefit. There is a reason I didn’t sync those songs to my phone. Limited space forces me to keep only a subset of my library, the music I know I’ll want to listen to most often. This is fine. If I want to listen to something I don’t normally keep on my phone, I’ll sync it.

And before you ask, yes, I already filed a Feedback report.

I think it’s fine for Apple to create a Music app that puts streaming and the cloud first. This is the future, and how most of Apple’s users listen to their music. Fine. It’s a future I want no part of, until they drag me there, kicking and screaming, but I admit it’s the future. That doesn’t mean the streaming and cloud first Music app needs to leave local music users as second class citizens. A toggle is a simple way to streamline and keep the iOS Music experience pleasant for users who don’t stream or have poor connectivity. You can’t stream music in a subway tunnel with no cellular or wi-fi connection. And let’s not forget those poor iPod Touch users.

You might think I’m just complaining about a zeroth-world problem, and I might be. Despite it, music is something I’m passionate about. It’s a huge part of my life. My music listening habits are strange and idiosyncratic in an age where everything is streaming, but they’re mine. And I know I’m not alone. Just make local music a toggle again, Apple. It’s not hard—you already did it once.

What We Lose In A Streaming Music World

You can call it perfect timing. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to try iTunes Match, the iTunes in the Cloud solution that doesn’t involve Apple Music and subscription streaming. After using it on two Macs and my iPad for a few days, I found that some of my favorite albums and songs were being matched with the wrong versions, yet again. In response, I rage quit and got a refund. I’d never been quite so upset with an Apple product in my life.

Then, I came across this sad piece by James Pinkstone whose library was destroyed by an Apple Music and iTunes bug. A week after that, MacRumors reported that Apple was planning to end music downloads in two years. The rumor was squashed by an Apple spokesperson, and that was enough for many. Not me, though. “What if?” has been running through my mind since.

James Pinkstone wrote about how certain, unique versions of songs in his library were replaced by common versions. I ran into a similar issue with iTunes Match, replacing German-language versions of Kraftwerk songs with their English counterparts, or a remastered version of an album with the original CD master. At least I had recourse of a backup and my local files in situ on my main Mac…

I’ve written before about why I choose to own music in a streaming world, but I never felt as though my music collection would be taken from me. Now, I’m not so sure. Maybe music downloads will go away, and maybe the future of iTunes will be cloud first, and local files somewhere below Connect, but above syncing ringtones.

But the looming threat of a streaming only world opens up a bigger question about music ownership and the experience of music. I’ll be the first to admit that all forms of physical media are a huge pain the rear. LPs, CDs, and cassettes are all fragile. Digital files are less fragile, but just as annoying to organize and sync. I keep an external hard drive tethered to my MacBook just to store my media library. I have more music than could fit on the largest of iPhones. Managing this is a hassle.

Yet, these forms of music media are real in a way that streaming music is not. There are digital files in my collection that are over a decade old. They’ve traveled with me across multiple computers, and multiple lives. This is meaningful in a way that streaming can never be. How do you connect with music that you simply rent, and could disappear from your library the moment you turn your back? A record label dispute could mean that your favorite artist’s music might be locked down to a single streaming service—such as the library of the dearly departed Prince.

It feels like the move to streaming music means we’re losing something. What happens to music that isn’t available on a streaming service? How will you explore the music of a surprisingly good opening band when they don’t exist in the library of Apple Music, Spotify, or TIDAL? So much music that has touched my soul, you can’t stream it for love or money. I had to seek it out on my own, pawing through used music bins, or going to shows. When there’s an all-you-can eat buffet for $9.99, what’s the incentive to order something that isn’t on the menu?

Maybe I’m becoming a fossil, but I can’t help but worry. Music is one of the most personal forms of art in the world. The way we relate to it cannot be isolated to files stored somewhere remotely. There’s the thrill of discovery, the emotional connection to lyrics, a voice, or even a single sound. By owning my music library, I make sure that I can maintain those relationships to the art. I should never have to worry that, if I double-click an album in iTunes, I will hear the wrong thing. If I do, I know that restoring order is within my grasp, not something that requires technical support calls and arcane rituals.

I may, eventually, be left behind by a streaming world. I don’t expect I’ll be alone. If the world goes on without me, and I am left to my digital files, and my collection of plastic and wax discs, I will be okay. But there’s a big difference between being left behind, and being abandoned, and it’s the latter that scares me to death. If you care about music in any tangible form, it should scare you as well.

In Defense of Physical Media

Right now, nobody seems to remember any of those upshots. In fact, people don’t seem to be just tired of the CD; it feels as if they’re actively calling for its demise. When vinyl began dying off in the early Nineties, many people, me included, mourned its passing on many levels. But we didn’t dance in the streets that it was in its death throes, the way so many seem to be doing these days with the CD. A friend recently called to ask what he should do with his shelves of discs, since many of his friends were strongly urging him to chuck them. That’s right: People were actually saying he should throw his CDs in the garbage. (You can recycle them, you know.)

David Browne – “In Defense of the CD”

The CD itself is a pretty crappy format—“Perfect Sound Forever” my foot. A worn out vinyl record still sounds like music. A scratched up CD sounds like glitchy noise, which might be good if you’re into that sort of thing. I still buy CDs, though, along with vinyl, and the rare cassette tape. Vinyl can often be dear, and the penchant of vinyl producers to go with fancy colored vinyl and other various gee-gaws doesn’t help.

There’s value in a physical format for media, even if the CDs I buy often just end up collecting dust on a shelf next to my desk while I listen to the MP3 rips. The practical advantage of this, however, is that I never have to want for getting my music to play. A poor Internet connection will never keep a local MP3 file from playing back perfectly. You can’t stream music on the subway.

The Coming Fractured Landscape of Streaming Music

Back in the late 90s, or early 2000s, there was a commercial for some telecom company where a man checks in to a remote desert motel. He asks the clerk about the place’s amenities, to which the clerk lackadaisically relays a distinct lack thereof—save one. They apparently have every movie, In every language, ever made, and on-demand. “How is this possible?” asks the man, before we smash cut to a logo and a pitch that some day, in the future, this would be possible.

The future came, and suddenly every movie was at our fingertips. And then, just as suddenly, every movie was locked behind one of a dozen streaming video services. For $9.99, you can sign up of Netflix, and watch what they have. For another $9.99, you can sign up for Hulu, and watch that. There’s more: Amazon Prime Video, HBO Now, Crackle, Vudu… the list goes on. Some of these services libraries overlap, but there are endless exclusives and no end of complaining from cord-cutters about content going away from the one they’ve paid for.

And these same voices often love their music streaming service, just like they loved Netflix back in the day. Unfortunately for them, it’s inevitable that the same forces that fractured the landscape of streaming video are going to do the same for streaming music. When it does, all you streaming partisans will not be very happy.

The seeds have already been sown. There are artists who are holding out on different streaming services. Prince, for example, only allows his music to be streamed on Tidal. The music video for “Hotline Bling” was originally an Apple Music exclusive. Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify due to royalty issues. For the most part, though, music streaming licenses are handled on the label level, much like video content is handled on the studio level. What happens when a label decides they don’t like the deal, Spotify is giving them?

Imagine Universal Music Group pulling their entire catalog from Spotify. Here is a list of UMG artists, though I don’t know if that includes artists in their subsidiary labels. I bet there is at least one artist on that list that you’re a fan of. If you want to listen to them, you will have two choices: either buy the record, or pay for a second streaming service. And that’s only if the record is available to even be bought.

The next step is going to be streaming music services becoming music labels of their own. We already have digital exclusives, sometimes even locked to one digital music store, but these are often temporary. But, say Taylor Swift signs a deal with Apple to release her next album exclusively on Apple Music. No physical release. Not even a download. If you want to hear the new T-Swift record, you have to pay $9.99 a month for Apple Music. What are her fans going to think? If they’re signed up to Apple Music already, they’ll be okay with it. If they’re on Tidal… well, how would you feel?

My Top Five (or so) Albums of 2015

This year has been a remarkable one in terms of new music. I didn’t pick up nearly as many new albums this year as I have in previous years, but of the ones I did, I had a way higher hit-to-miss ratio than usual. I also had the pleasure of seeing some incredible live music this year, including seeing a handful of bands I thought I would never get to see. Of course, you don’t want the setup, you want the best ofs, so let’s just get to it.

Top Five Albums of 2015

Honorable Mentions

Like I said, 2015 had an insane hit-to-miss ratio of the music I checked out, and I need to single out the releases by Belle & Sebastian, Erase Errata, Hot Chip, New Order, Rocket From the Tombs, They Might Be Giants, Zhala, and !!! for some of the best music of 2015 for me. But, there can be only five top five.

Except this year, when there’s six, because there’s a tie for 5th. If we can do it in Competitive Air Guitar, I can do it in my best of list.

5. (TIE) – Eskimeaux – O.K. / CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye

I first heard Eskimeaux in a very different incarnation three years ago, and was blown away by the sparse, haunting beautiful of their music. It even made my Top 10 Albums of 2012 list, which is no small achievement. O.K. fills out the Eskimeaux sound, and brightens the palette, while keeping the emotion and the haunting beauty. “Broken Necks” is a brilliant piece of alt-pop, and a perfect gateway into Gabrielle Smith’s world.

Buy Eskimeaux – O.K. on iTunes

CHVRCHES might not need an introduction. Their breakthrough “The Mother We Share” was everywhere in 2013. Every Open Eye, their sophomore album, doesn’t quite hit the highs of their debut, but it also doesn’t hit the lows. Opting for a refinement of their sound, Every Open Eye is uplifting, danceable, feminist synth pop for the ages. I have to single out the song “Keep You On My Side” which is a dance floor rager, if there ever was one. I know I was moving constantly when they played it live in Central Park this year.

Buy CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye on iTunes

4. Princess Chelsea – The Great Cybernetic Depression

I’ve been waiting for a follow-up to Princess Chelsea’s debut album, Lil’ Golden Book for four years. It did not disappoint. Where Golden Book was a slice of childhood morality play in shades of grey, The Great Cybernetic Depression steps boldly into the modern era, with spacey synth-laden songs of digital social isolation. It works quite well, and the surprisingly blistering guitar solos from collaborator Jonathan Bree add just the right tones to ground everything. Guaranteed, you don’t have another album like this in your collection.

Buy Princess Chelsea – The Great Cybernetic Depression on iTunes

3. FFS – FFS

The team-up between Glasgow dance-punks Franz Ferdinand and Art Rock geniuses Sparks might have tied with Grimes for my most anticipated release of 2015. As soon as the debut single, “Piss Off” dropped, it was in near-constant rotation. Then came “Johnny Delusional”, and so much more. FFS manages to combine the urgency of Franz Ferdinand’s sound with the lyrical wit and musical cleverness of Sparks into something entirely unique. If you’re a fan of either band, you need this album in your life. If your just like amazing rock music with incredible lyrics, you need this in your life too.

Buy FFS – FFS on iTunes

2. Holly Herndon – Platform

Holly Herndon broke my mind into a million pieces when I saw her open for St. Vincent back in February of 2014. Not long after that show, the powerful video for her NSA breakup song, “Home” landed, and I was hooked. Imagine, if you will, Laurie Anderson coming up in the Berlin club scene, and you might have a halfway decent frame of reference for Herndon’s sound. Platform is a powerful statement of intent. Music for the Internet age, that somehow manages to maintain a pure listenability while communicating a powerful technological optimism.

Buy Holly Herndon – Platform on iTunes

1. Grimes – Art Angels

I still remember my initial suspicion of Grimes, the same suspicion that I have of anything and anyone that gets a lot of hype. Thank goodness I got over it. “Oblivion” was one of my songs of the year in 2013. I was hooked, and after picking up Visions, and her first two albums, I devoured what little she released in the interim, from the R&B-influenced “Go”, to the demo of “REALiTi” and enjoyed it all.

Then I woke up to the first taste of Art Angels, the music video for “Flesh Without Blood” and “Life in the Vivid Dream”. It was everything I hoped for from Grimes’s return to music. Everything I read about the album made me want to hear it more, and when I found out she was doing a song with Janelle Monaé, I went from hyped, to beyond hyped. This level of anticipation is almost bound to end in disappointment. Art Angels does not disappoint. Fifty minutes of pure electronic pop genius. The future of electronic pop is Grimes. It’s not too late to get on board.

Buy Grimes – Art Angels on iTunes

Song of the Year: Grimes – Kill V. Maim

This year has had some of the best single songs, and it’s hard to just pick one. I singled out some of them from the top five albums this year, but from the first notes of “Kill V. Maim”, I knew the competition was over. Not only is it an wild dance-floor rager, the backstory is just as wild. Grimes was inspired to take on the character of a mobster modeled after Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II., only “he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space.” Sure enough, the song is pure swagger, and gender bending vocal fluidics. When I had the pleasure of seeing Grimes in concert—even sick with the flu, she’s an incredible live performer—“Kill V. Maim” was the encore. Exactly where it should be. It left the entire audience breathless.