I’m a little bit concerned that the way I listen to music is about to fundamentally change, and I’m not sure how it’s going to work.
Both Google Play Music and iTunes are thought to be making major changes in the coming months, and those changes will fundamentally affect how I listen to music.
My daily driver for music is Google Play Music. The reason I adopted that was simply that I own music – a fair amount actually. I have something like 20,000+ tracks in my library. Most of those were ripped from CDs. I worked in a music radio station for many years, so what can I say? For a long time, Google has allowed users to upload their own tracks to their cloud, and play those tracks back from PCs, phones, Android TV and so on. I can pretty much access my music anywhere. The mobile apps let you download encrypted versions for offline listening.
Beyond that, I pay £9.99 for a subscription to Google Play Music – their Spotify-alike service.
I do still buy music – both digitally, and on CD. And I confess that despite its woefulness, I use iTunes to maintain that media library. I don’t actually sync it with anything (my iPod Classic gathers dust in desk drawer, and an iPod Touch never had enough space on it), and I don’t really use it to play back music even on my PC. But I do want a local copy of all my music. Yes – Google would let me download everything from GPM if I needed to, but it’s nice to be secure.
My iTunes library is stored on a NAS drive for extra security – also allowing it to theoretically be shared around my home.
iTunes is also home to a small collection of films – mostly digital copies that came with DVDs or Blurays.
But changes are seemingly afoot with both platforms.
Google Play Music
It seems that by all accounts, Google Play Music has not been Google’s most successful product, and will in due course become YouTube Music – a separate, but related product that already exists.
Now to be clear, I’m really not interested in music videos. But from what I can tell YouTube Music isn’t totally about videos. It’s unclear to me what it is about however.
[Sidenote: It’s worth adding that while YouTube Music costs the same as Google Play Music, and joining YouTube Music gives you Google Play Music for free, it seems that the reverse isn’t true. Whenever I try to see if I have YouTube Music already, I just get attempts to up-sell me to an £11.99 a month product that includes both YouTube Music (including GPM which I already have), YouTube Originals (going away soon) and an ad-free experience. Nope – I’ve no idea why my old GPM subscription doesn’t give me YouTube Music, but the reverse does. But then I also don’t really understand why YouTube Movies & Shows exists when Google also has Movies & TV in the Google Play Store. It’s all completely disconnected and disjointed.]
Recently Google announced that its Artist Hub will be shutting down soon. This is the part of GPM that allows artists to independently upload music to Google’s service – either for sale or as part of the streaming offering.
As reported by 9to5google, Google said:
With the launch of YouTube Music last year, we eventually plan to replace Google Play Music with YouTube Music. In anticipation of this change, we are shutting down the Artist Hub.
Exactly when this change will be made is unclear. We’re told that the new YouTube Music service will have all the functionality of the existing GPM service – and that’s important, because only Amazon ever offered something remotely close to what Google offered. But even Amazon shuttered its service for storing uploaded music for users. I’m not exactly over-excited about the idea of building my own cloud music storage platform!
That all said, I will happily admit that GPM is definitely inferior to Spotify (NB. I have not used Apple Music). The catalogue isn’t as full, and there are fewer shared playlists. A particular bugbear of mine is with soundtrack albums with licenced tracks – the Google Play Music versions are often missing tracks from these albums.
Google bought Songza back in 2015 and added some of its functionality to its app, giving you suggestions of appropriate music based on time and place. But aside from that, there’s been little development in the last few years that I can see. Notably, their Android TV app is terrible, which is a shame because it’s a main way to listen to music at home since my TV is plugged into a decent receiver with large speakers. It has a dull interface that is long overdue a refresh, and doesn’t sync to what you’ve been listening to on other devices.
But despite all those shortcomings, the fact that it allows me to store my own music, free of charge, makes it superior to everything else for my use case. I don’t especially care what the new service is called – just the functionality of how it works.
Now rumours are abounding that iTunes is going to be broken up with the next big MacOS update. To be clear, the suggestion is that music, books, TV and film, and podcasts might all get their own apps.
To some extent this makes sense – move all of their music offerings into an app called Apple Music – home of their music subscription service too. That would mirror the iOS experience. (Remember too that services like Spotify like to know the whereabouts of your iTunes library, because if you already own a track, then Spotify needn’t pay for you to listen to it – at least if it’s physically on the same machine.)
Video could shift into Apple TV which is already the catch-all app that Apple hopes will be home to your video viewing in the future. So pushing their retail iTunes offering into the app makes sense.
On iOS, podcasts have also had their own app for a while – so doing the same for desktop isn’t such a stretch. Apple could sync their desktop and mobile offerings too! They’ve just added some web streaming functionality.
All the chat is about the Mac versions of this software, but of course iTunes is widely used on PCs too. It’s not at all clear what would happen in the PC world were this to happen. Would Apple simply stop supporting PC users?
I don’t think they would. There must be a lot of people who’ve bought a lot of music and video on Apple’s service over the years. But will they be building a new suite of PC apps too? I think that their plans with Apple TV – which include building apps for devices beyond Apple’s own – suggests that they would. Wouldn’t you want the entire world to sell subscriptions to?
To be clear, the only real reason that I’m interested is because I use iTunes to store my music and minimal film collection. Since the music is all DRM-free, moving to another offline catalogue app is completely possible. I’ve no idea what alternative would be best to use, but while it’d be an administrative task I’m not dying to do, I would do so. I’m certain such alternatives do already exist.
And iTunes is a horrible piece of software. It’s bulky, unintuitive and generally just been built upon with every new Apple release over the years. Nobody would end up with iTunes if they started afresh today. But because it has been the default, we continue to use it.
When I buy a new CD, it’s still iTunes I use to rip it into a nice AAC format. I know that there are better rippers out there, but it gets nicely catalogued. I add the artwork and have it stored away. (I then ensure the ripped files are uploaded to GPM at the same time – it’s a two-stage process for me).
Music for Sale
There’s a wider question about how long the major platforms will continue to actually sell music in the form of downloadable mp3s (or FLAC files etc.).
Rumours have suggested that Apple might exit this market – the one they disrupted from its very foundations when they started selling 99c tracks back in 2003.
A rebrand of Google Play Music into YouTube Music might mean that Google too exits the music retail business. Amazon might end up the dominant force in music retail across both physical and streaming.
Streaming has very much taken over owning music in terms of volume and revenue for the music industry. And yet renting is such an ethereal thing.
There are fewer and fewer places to actually buy physical tracks, with an industry just a little too keen on repackaging heritage artists into elaborate and expensive box-sets.
Yet – I continue to buy music. If it’s an album or artist I love, then I know that buying that music both offers me the best long-term access to that music – while supporting the artist in the best possible way, short of seeing an artist live.
And while sites like Bandcamp continue to exist, my music purchasing habits won’t change. Yes – I discover music through things like GPM’s subscription service or the radio, but I still return to my owned library. That’s especially the case with more niche offerings that I can just never find on the streaming services.
I’ve never been happy with the rental model. Sure, I pay for Netflix, Amazon Prime and my Google Play Music subscription. I’m not a luddite.
But things change. Record labels fall out with their business partners. When Discovery has a dispute with Sky, or UKTV a dispute with Virgin Media, channels can disappear for a while. I don’t like the idea that a quarter of my catalogue might disappear while a corporate dispute somewhere is sorted out.
I will wait to see what respective changes Google and Apple make to some of their music services across the course of this year. I just fear that it might have a detrimental impact on how I listen to my music.