In Which Spotify Leads Me to iTunes Home Sharing

The story of how iTunes and Spotify co-exist as a near-perfect music listening environment.

itunes + spotify = happy music

So I was recently sent an invitation to join the “exclusive” ranks of American Spotify users. I had been hearing about the free all-you-can-stream music service for quite some time, but never gave it much serious thought. Maybe it was my years being stranded in a slow-Internet hell, but I’ve never held streaming services is especially high regard. Besides, with a music library as large as mine, I am usually hard-pressed to find many songs that I want to listen to at any given moment that are not already stored in iTunes. And I’ve invested so much effort into that little jukebox that, at the press of a button, I could literally listen to music for 55 days straight and never hear the same song twice.

Despite that, I signed up for Spotify anyway, just to see what all the fuss was about. My initial impression is that the rave reviews are justified. The program is simple to use: search for song->press play. And though the collection of available songs is quite extensive, it is not quite up to the bold marketing claim of “every song ever”. There have been a handful of (admittedly obscure) tracks and artists that I’ve been disappointed not to find.

Rarities aside, if you want to hear it, you can find it. Around here, Spotify has quickly replaced YouTube as the go-to source for one-off indulgences or for finding songs that come up in discussions but aren’t in my iTunes library.

The real power of Spotify is in its immediacy. Virtually any song can be found in a matter of seconds, which makes it a superb platform for exploration. I no longer have to buy or bootleg an album just to see if I’ll like it. I can listen to it in its entirety as many times as I want. And I’ve already spent a considerable amount of time cruising the full catalogs of artists I hadn’t thought about in a while. I had no idea PJ Harvey had so many albums.

A lot of deep cuts, b-sides and compilation appearances are also available. So if you like to dig into the music of your favorite artists, Spotify is a great way to do so. All-in-all, a big thumbs up for Spotify from me. I can see myself getting a lot of use from the service in the future.

A few other observations:

  • Albums often have the wrong year associated with them. Nine Inch Nail’s Head Like A Hole single/EP was released in 1990, not 2011. And there are plenty more examples where the date is more recent than it should be. So many so, I don’t trust the dates until I’ve seen them confirmed by an outside source. I don’t know where Spotify gets its data from, but this needs to be fixed.
  • Tricksy Spotify pauses commercials if you mute the computer, so there’s no avoiding them.
  • However, songs are not paused if the computer is muted. This is disappointing, especially after seeing the behavior with the ads.
  • The ads themselves cover the usual self-promotion gamut (encouraging the exploration of Spotify’s full range of services), as well as promotions for new content (artists, albums, etc). I don’t mind the promos, but the content ads can be a little jarring. It’s quite disconcerting to have your mellow Yo La Tengo marathon interrupted by boisterous ads for Thug Rapper Whozit or Popstar Whatserface. If the ads were more relevant to my interests (say, based on my listening habits), I wouldn’t really mind them. But as it stands I just find them annoying. Neither the artist nor record companies nor I receive any benefit from having Top 40 content directed at me.

So what does all this have to do with iTunes?

The thing is, I like Spotify. And I can see how it has the potential to be a massive disruptive influence on people’s music listening habits. The murder-obsessed tech media has been calling it “an iTunes killer” for some time, even before it was available in the States.

And it certainly had an effect here; it made me realize how much I missed being able to listen to music at my computer. Crazy thought isn’t it? I love music, but for the longest time, technological limitation has made it difficult for me to listen to it in the places I most often am.

Since the day iTunes came out, my library has been too large to fit on the internal drives of any computer I’ve ever owned. As drives got bigger, so did my library. Thus the library has been forced to live on an external drive connected to my iMac for its entire existence.

I, however, rarely do any actual work on my iMac. I’m more frequently found using a laptop from the comfort of a couch, bed or dining table. These days, the iMac mostly acts as a server and information hub/data manager.

My library is a rather complicated thing. The shear size of it necessitates a rigorous organizational structure (taking full advantage of multiple smart playlists based on play counts, play dates, star ratings, etc) to be used effectively. And traditionally, the problem has been that it’s hard to listen to music in places other than the iMac without corrupting the integrity of the library.

This effectively meant that my music library was isolated from the other computers in the house. All my vast quantities of tunes inaccessible save for some workarounds of various success:

  • Grabbing files over the network directly and/or using a third-party music player program. Advantage: playing music from the laptop itself. Disadvantages: no interaction with the library.
  • An iPod. Advantage: Since iPods are extensions of the iTunes library, I didn’t have to worry about breaking my organization. Disadvantage: requires headphones, limited music selections, metadata/playlists only updated at sync time.
  • iTunes Sharing/LAN streaming. Advantage: Access to the full library from any computer in the house. Disadvantage: does not update song metadata, so I could listen to songs, but my playlists would not get updated or refreshed.
  • Airfoil, essentially pushing music from the iMac to other computers. Advantages: music is sourced from the main library and can be played simultaneously on multiple computers. Disadvantages: cumbersome to set up, difficult to control.

This is the environment I was operating in when I discovered Spotify. Not a group of ideal solutions there.

Spotify’s ease of use reminded me that I wanted to easily play my music on a laptop. But as much as I like Spotify, using it exclusively is out of the question. For one, there are songs in my library that aren’t on Spotify. It also doesn’t share/sync local files (that aren’t in its database) between computers, so the app wouldn’t actually solve my multi-Mac music dilemma. Ultimately though, what’s the point of having a meticulously maintained, tagged and organized music collection sitting in the next room if I’m just going to stream it all over the Internet? Besides, there’s no guarantee on Spotify’s lifespan; its service could change or be shutdown completely in the future. My local library will remain usable even if Apple goes out of business tomorrow.

Also, no smart playlists. And I loves me some smart playlists.

While Spotify isn’t a solution for me, it did inspire me to look for others. My first inclination was to look at iTunes LAN streaming, which allows the client laptop to access and control the music. I’d seen some solutions to the metadata problem in the past, but none of them ever worked for me. I hoped that there had been more recent developments.

Enter Home Sharing

Fortunately, one of the first search results I found pointed out the oft-overlooked preference in iTunes to allow Home Sharing to update play counts. Until this point, I had never considered Home Sharing. When Apple introduced the feature in iTunes 9 two years ago, it was pitched as a way for family members to share music among their computers. Since I’m only one guy, I didn’t think, like parental controls, that the feature would be of much use to me.

So I ignored it.

My mistake. Home Sharing is the next best thing to having my master iTunes library synced up between iMac and laptops. From my laptop, I can load the shared library, play songs and the metadata is updated when finished, which keeps my organizational schemes intact. Plus, I can use Home Sharing to move actual files between the master library and a satellite library, which helps improve my management workflow. The only thing I can’t do is edit the song or any playlists on the remote library. But that’s a limitation I can live with.

This is such a big breakthrough for me, that I don’t think I’ve been this excited since the invention of smart playlists. I’m just ashamed it took me two years to figure it out.

From the comfort of my couch, I can, within the span of seconds, be listening to any song in my collection. And for everything else, there’s Spotify.

MacBook Air 11.6″. Some real world usage notes

MacBook Air profile

Hey folks. So I picked up one of Apple’s new MacBook Air notebooks. I had been wanting a more portable computer than my trusty tote-able 2008 MacBook Pro and the new 11.6″ form factor was mighty tempting. I did spring for the BTO 4GB RAM upgrade, but I opted to stick with the stock 64GB hard drive.

My first impressions are, like a lot of other reviewers, that despite its relatively slow clock speed the machine is fairly snappy and capable of doing more than just writing and web surfing. Yes, you can do real work on this thing. You just might have to have some patience during certain tasks.

After using it for about a day, installing programs, copying files (WIFI only) and running some usage tests I’ve come to two principle conclusions:

  • For CPU-intensive computational tasks, the 11.6 model is a bit of a laggard (blame the slow CPU)
  • But for usage involving many open applications and background tasks, the thing flies (thank the SSD)

Some Numbers

No usage summary would be complete without a few benchmarks, so I put together a suite of tasks to compare the performance with the other Macs in my house. The contenders:

  • 2010 MacBook Air 1.4Ghz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, 64GB SSD
  • 2008 MacBook Pro 2.4Ghz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, 200GB HD (5400 RPM)
  • (some tests only) 2006 iMac 1.83Ghz Core Duo, 2GB RAM

The tests included start up time, video encoding, misc usage tasks and working a Parallels 5 virtual machine to do some geospatial analysis.

The Tests

Start up time

  • Winner: MacBook Air, by a lot
  • It was more than thirty seconds difference so I stopped counting. I could probably start the Air up twice before the Pro even reached the login screen.
Parallels 5: Boot identical virtual machines:
  • MacBook Pro faster by ~3sec
Parallels 5: Launch ArcMap 9.3 GIS software inside VM:
  • MacBook Air faster by ~15 sec.
  • I did this one twice and the result was the same both times.
Parallels 5: Suspend VM:
  • Tie: virtually no difference
Parallels 5: Wake VM:
  • MacBook Air by 1 sec
Parallels 5: ArcMap: Spatial Autocorrelation analysis
  • Spatial Autocorrelation analysis is a computationally expensive process of searching for clusters of similar values inside geographic data. This task was run on a feature set of 3700 observations.
  • MacBook Pro by 59 sec
Parallels 5: ArcMap: High/Low Cluster analysis:
  • High/Low Cluster analysis is similar to Spatial Autocorrelation analysis. This task was run on the same feature set.
  • MacBook Pro by 60 sec
Parallels 5: Reboot of VM:
  • MacBook Pro by ~2 sec
Launching Safari with Parallels and Aperture open:
  • MacBook Air by ~25 sec
Wake VM with Safari and Aperture open
  • MacBook Air by ~10sec
Create a Par2 set from 110 MB of files:
  • MacBook Pro by ~10sec
Python script (time to task completion):
  • I’ve written a Python script that loads, parses and analyzes my iTunes XML file (~56 MB).
  • MacBook Pro: 40.5 sec
  • MacBook Air: 64.0 sec
  • iMac: 59.8 sec
Handbrake CLI video encoding
  • Convert a 1.7GB HD-Photo JPEG .MOV from my digital camera to a 900kbps mp4 using ffmpeg
  • MacBook Pro: 74 fps (fan kicked on)
  • MacBook Air: 47 fps (no fan)
  • iMac: 43 fps

Subjective Analysis

From the numbers we can clearly see that the faster processor in the 2-year-old MacBook Pro makes a big difference when crunching numbers. In all the CPU tests, the Pro performed the task in about 66% of the time as the Air. The real surprise (and disappointment) is where the Air barely keeps up with a 5-year-old iMac using an older chip architecture in the Python and Handbrake tests. (Though I suppose it shows that a 1.4 C2D can do the work of a 1.8 CD, which I’m sure helps with heat and power consumption).

One thing to note though, is that despite all the intense processor usage, the Air barely got warm. During the video encode test, while Handbrake was doing its best to max out both cores, the Macbook Pro’s fan kicked on to full speed after about 1 minute. The Air on the other hand stayed cool and quiet the entire time. This bottom comfort is something my lap and legs are sure to appreciate.

But what the Air lacks in raw power, it makes up for in responsiveness. It’s hardly possible to get it to hiccup, even when running tasks in the background. I was able to use Aperture to edit some RAW photos without any significant slowdown while copying 6 gigs of files to the Air. Kernel_task was chugging away at ~50% usage in Activity Monitor without any noticeable effect on the overall system performance.

And this is where productivity gains will be made with the Air. In all the tests above, the processes running were the only active applications and that’s rarely how I work. I often have multiple browser windows open and Mail and who know what other apps going simultaneously. Look at the Safari launch test. With both Aperture and Parallels open, the Air launched Safari almost instantaneously while on the Pro it bounced in the Dock for 25 seconds. Similarly, Parallels’ disk-based performance (waking the VM) slowed significantly when other programs were open competing for resources. If the Air can keep the dreaded beach ball from the showing itself, then I will be a happy, less frustrated Mac user.

Youth, Aging, and the Making of Music History

Hi folks! I bet many of you were thinking you’d never here from the ol’ tunequester ever again. I can’t say I blame you; it’s been months since I’ve written anything for this site. And it’s been a busy handful of months. But lately I’ve been pondering something and I’ve decided to share.

I recently finished a course in the history of rock music. I like rock and I like history, so I of course enjoyed the study. We started with early 20th century blues and old time country as the roots of rock and progressed through the development of rock n roll, british beat, folk, soul, funk, psycadelic rock, metal and so on.

One of the central themes of the course was that the development of a new style comes from the appropriation, combination and adaptation of existing styles. To wit, artists start out imitating their influences and gradually add in their own creativity, bringing about a new form. This can be seen in early rock n roll artists of the 1950s (e.g. Bill Haley) extensively covering existing rhythm and blues songs from the 40s (Big Joe Turner) and early British beat groups of the 60s (The Beatles) covering the rock n roll music of 50s (Chuck Berry), and so on.

At the same, or perhaps because of, societal changes in the wake of World War II, a “teen culture” emerged in the western world. Before the war, there was very little media aimed specifically at young adults. But with post-war economic bounty and increased urbanization, a market and the means to make purchases developed, and suddenly “dad’s music” wouldn’t cut it anymore.

Mix these two factors together and get a situation where change comes very quickly. This much should be obvious to anyone who pays attention to the prevailing tastes in music. What was hip in 1978 was hardly the same as what was hip in 1974. And this is because rock/pop music is a game for the young. Young performers playing to young audiences. Young artists building off their inspirations in rapid succession. And because the definition of “youth” is fairly narrow, this succession is quite rapid indeed. The entire history of rock music is the story of chasing what the teenagers like.

One side effect of this succession is that artists tend to make their main contributions to music, then fade from popularity. Barring accidents or tragedy, these people then tend to stick around for a while.

And this brings me to the point of my ramble. So often in history, the accomplishments and contributions we hear about people tend to occur later in their lives. Most of the time, we expect these people to have died not long after. Because in most fields, it requires a lot of time and effort to reach the point of great accomplishment: years studying science, working the halls of political power, building a business, honing a craft, etc. No matter who the person, we almost never expect them to still be alive when studying their history.

Yet in the case of music (especially within the relatively short history of rock music), because success can be found at so young an age, we routinely see musicians living well past their marks of primary contribution. It completely blows my mind that 50 years adding to music history, the likes of Chuck Berry, Pete Seeger, Little Richard and George Clinton (among others) are still around and kickin’ it.

The fact that many of these “elder statesmen” of music still perform and make new contributions to musical heritage creates a living connection to the histories and traditions of the form. As time goes on and new waves of performers and creators come and go, it is important to remember those connections.

Infographics, nuclear weapons and Ratatat

While perusing the Internet this morning, like you do, I stumbled upon this very compelling video at YouTube. I was drawn to it initially because the song used for the soundtrack is Ratatat’s Gettysburg, and I’m a sucker for anything Ratatat related.

The video is a taut and thorough overview of the current state of nuclear weapons technology and proliferation in the world. It showcases all the nations that currently possess armed-and-ready weapons as well as the number of weapons that are operational (Russia has the most with 5830 active). It goes on to simulate a 150-kiloton detonation centered on the Empire State Building.

It effectlively crams a lot of information into a scant three minutes and the somewhat frantic beat of the music impressively augments the visuals. There is no advocatcy message however. The video is strictly informative and the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions.

The video was produced by GOODmagazine, which has a number of similarly styled videos on it’s own YouTube channel. GOODmagazine describes itself as a non-profit media outlet for “people who give a damn.”

You can pick up Gettysburg, here:
ratatat classics ratatat gettyburg at itunes

Music Store Showdown: iTunes vs Amazon vs eMusic

So Amazon recently threw its hat into the thunderdome of online digital music sales. The store’s big brand name and huge retail operation instantly make it one of the top tier marts for digital music. As Amazon MP3 is seen primarily as a challenger to the iTunes Store’s throne, I originally wanted to do a compare and contrast with that gorilla, but later thought that unfair to eMusic, who consistently claims to be the second largest online store on the net. The iTunes Store has more than enough going for it that an equilibrium will eventually be met with whatever competition comes its way. eMusic, however, might be quite vulnerable to Amazon’s might and muscle.

music Store Showdown

But just how does that muscle shape up?

I took a look at Amazon MP3, trying to gauge its place on the market and judge its strengths and weaknesses compared to its more established rivals. Each service was evaluated using the following criteria:

  • Format & Quality
  • Selection
  • Search & Ease of Use
  • Pricing
  • Artwork and Tagging
  • Free Stuff

Format & Quality

Amazon MP3

As the store’s name suggests, Amazon MP3 provides music in the MP3 format. MP3 is incompatible with any type of rights management and the most notable claim of AMZMP3 is the freedom of the file format it is willing to sell. MP3s, of course, work on virtually all portable devices. Amazon MP3’s also pitches its files as being high quality. The site claims to supply a very healthy bitate of 256kbps for its downloads, but the files I’ve purchased have averaged 214 (VBR) kbps. Though they sound fine to my ears, it is less than the site advertises.

Getting info on the file tells me that it was encoded using LAME 3.97.


Like Amazon, eMusic provides free and open MP3 files and has been doing so since 2003. The MP3s are encoded around 192kbps (VBR) using LAME 3.92. The music sounds great.

The iTunes Store

The iTunes Store has been the spearhead in the adoption of the AAC format, selling AAC encoded files since the store’s 2003 inception. AAC is billed as a successor to MP3 and is particularly noted for sounding better at lower bitrates. At the time of this writing, the iTunes Store is providing two flavors of AAC. The standard encoding is 128kbps, which to its credit sounds pretty good. The store benefits from having the songs encoded from the original master recordings, rather than being ripped from a CD. Throughout much of the store’s history, however, Apple has been forced by its contracts with record labels to include the much-criticized and oft-despised rights management, FairPlay, on all song downloads. Most of the songs it sell come packaged this way.

Recently though, the store has made moves to free its music from those restrictions. The iTunes Plus service sells songs with no DRM attached and doubles the bitrate to 256kbps. There’s a lot of debate about the merits of AAC vs MP3 at higher bitrates, so the benefit of the increase may not be that significant, but surely, it can’t hurt. Currently, about 1/3 of the store’s inventory is offered via iTunes Plus.

Winner: 3-way tie (with edge to Amazon and eMusic). The files supplied by each store, while not lossless, sound quite adequate for the majority of listening applications and music systems. iTunes loses a couple points for the continued existence of FairPlay, but the way things are trending, it probably won’t be around for much longer.

Update 28 March 2009: Apple has announced that by April 2009, 100% of its music content will be DRM-free. It that comes to pass, then there really will be little to debate about format choice. All three stores will be using files that are compatible with a large number and wide range of players and hardware.


Each store likes to boast about its large catalogue. iTunes is by far the largest with about six million songs to choose from. eMusic and Amazon both claim to offer more than two million songs each (Playlistmag says eMusic has 2.7 million UPDATE 11/7: Macworld reports that eMusic now stores 3 million songs in its catalogue, while Amazon’s complete list shows 2,479,112 at the time of this writing). Impressive numbers all around, but catalogue size doesn’t mean squat if it doesn’t have the songs you’re looking for. So, I went through the music libraries of three people and randomly choose 20 songs from each. I then looked for those songs on all three services, giving one point for songs on the album I was searching for or half a point for the song in another context (soundtrack, compilation, greatest hits, etc).

Here are the results:

The iTunes Store is easily the champion in this contest, besting its two rivals combined. Of the 60 songs searched, iTunes scored 46 points, Amazon finished with 20 and eMusic ranked in with 14.5. Within those results, there were only 2 instances where either AMZMP3 or eMusic had a song that iTunes did not and 5 instances where eMusic provided a song that Amazon did not. In total, there were 10 songs that none of the stores carried in their inventory.

But besides the run-of-the-mill catalogue, each store has its selectional perks.

iTunes offers tons of exclusive content, such as its iTunes Originals series, celebrity playlists or the AOL Sessions series.

eMusic has an extensive selection of “eMusic Only” releases, many of them full live concerts. The site also hosts the world’s largest collection of DRM-free music, which eMusic notes come from 20,000+ independent labels. However, the iTunes Store and Amazon are both gaining in that respect. What you won’t find, however, is any of the majors, which is a bit ironic considering that Universal used to own the place.

In contrast to eMusic and iTunes, Amazon MP3 is lacking in the exclusives department. There’s no “Amazon Presents…” or the like, just search-and-download. In a notable coup, however, AMZMP3 is the first and only store to offer digital downloads of Radiohead’s albums (plus one single for the completeists out there). Though the band’s label, EMI, also participates in Apple’s iTunes Plus program, Radiohead only wants to sell complete albums, which violate Apple’s policy to offer track-only purchases. Thus, OK Computer at Amazon, but not at iTunes. Update 3 June 2008: Radiohead’s complete catalog is now also available DRM-free from iTunes.

Winner: Each store offers a reason to shop there, but at the end of the day, it’s the iTunes Store that will most likely be selling what you’re looking to buy.

Search & Ease of Use


In typical Apple fashion, the iTunes Store screams ease of use.

The storefront is built into the iTunes desktop app, making for one stop shopping. Apple has gone to great lengths to integrate the offline library management functions of the program with the online sales environment. The ubiquitous “iTunes Store” arrows and the “Minibrowser” might be a little intrusive, but those can be turned off.

Once in the store, finding songs/albums/artists is trivial; just type it into the search bar, though most of the time you have to sort through movies/tv shows/podcasts/etc in the results. The store does a pretty good job of segregating the various types of media. iTunes falters when it comes to the exploratory level. In the four years since its launch, I’ve never found it all that comfortable or appealing to browse the place for an extended period of time.

Like almost all online shoppes, the iTunes Store allows users to leave feedback, ratings and comments about albums. It also provides rudimentary recommendations in the form of “People who bought X also bought Y.” Users can also contribute to the store via iMixes, compilations put together by individuals and submitted to the store. However, the presentation is pretty sparse and there’s minimal “social aspects” to them, i.e. you can see what another person has rated or look at their iMixes, but you can’t “befriend” them or interact or see recommendations based on tastes you might have in common.

Once purchased, songs download straight into your library. It’s seamless. But be sure to make a backup of everything you buy. Apple only allows you to download the song one time, though if a catastrophic event wipes out your collection, the store does permit an unpublicized one-time re-download of your purchase history.

Some songs, usually determined by length, are not available as a single download, but must be purchased as part of an album. That can be a drag when you just want the one song.


eMusic’s storefront is HTML-based. The store can be accessed and songs downloaded from any web browser. Recently though, the company released eMusic Remote as a way to integrate the online store with the desktop. The app runs on Mac/Win/Lin and is based on the Mozilla browser. Think: iTunes-Store-inside-Firefox. eMusic Remote provides an easy way to navigate the store and manage downloads, which can automatically be added to your iTunes library, should you so desire.

The site’s search feature could use some vast improvements. Often, the results it returns are far too many, especially for simple queries, and they don’t seem to be prioritized and are not sub-sortable. Sometimes, I find it easier to do a Google site search instead:

Previewing music comes in the form of downloadable m4u playlist files, which can be opened by iTunes or Quicktime Player. The process can be tedious for single tracks, but is really quite nice for checking out complete albums. Though, I’d rather they switched to Flash-based, in-browser previewing. UPDATE 04/17/08: Hooray! eMusic recently switched to an in-browser sample preview system. It greatly improves the ability to get a taste for a song/band/album before deciding to buy.

In contrast to iTunes, eMusic’s social aspects are more robust. While similar in theory to what iTunes does, the execution is better. Each album’s page shows any reviews that members have written; that’s not special. But, where iTunes says “People who bought X also bought Y,” eMusic is more specific, giving recommendations based on what a handful of particular fans also enjoy. These make great springboards for further exploration.

Also, an album’s page shows which users’ ‘playlists’ it appears on. Akin to iMixes, a user playlist can be whatever the author wants it to be. A playlist can be as simple as someone’s public bookmarks, or as indepth and voluminous as “80+ Reasons Why Japan Rules,” much like Amazon’s Listmania.

One of the best music discovery tools I’ve run across on any platform is eMusic’s Neighbors screen. It shows fellow music fans with similar tastes. Hover over a shared artist and get recommendations based on that artist. On my current screen, based on my interest in Mogwai, I have five neighbors telling me to check out Cat Power, Of Montreal, and eight other artists. Using this tool, I’ve found a number of new and interesting bands based on my intersections with my musical neighbors.

eMusic, unlike iTunes, offers no restrictions on the number of times you can download a purchase. Hard drive melt? Just log into your history a grab it again. Also, unlike iTunes, eMusic has no restriction on songs based on length. There are no “album only” purchases. Every song, even a 30 minute opus, is available as a single purchase.

emusic neighbors
eMusic Neighbors screen

Amazon MP3

AMZMP3, like eMusic, is browser-based with both direct download for singles and a desktop app for grabbing albums. The company knows how to run a web store, and its expertise shows. If results are available, a search will return a list of artists, albums and song that match. Songs can be previewed immediately via a nifty on-page Flash-based system, or more details on the album can found on the album’s page, which integrates the feedback, reviews and ratings from the physical CD’s entry in the vast AMZ database.

Likewise, if MP3s are available, the option to buy them appear on the actual physical CD’s page. A useful gimmick that doesn’t seem to be in place though is, “Buy a CD, download MP3 immediately” type bundles. I suspect that would result in a fair amount of up-selling.

Getting the actual music files is straightforward enough. For single songs, click the “Buy MP3” button, confirm payment and a single MP3 will be all yours for the downloadin’. Whole albums require the Amazon MP3 Downloader program. When purchasing an album, a reference file is downloaded to the desktop. That reference file tells the Downloader which album to retrieve. Then the music begins to flow. When finished, the app will auto add to iTunes if requested. The process requires a couple extra steps, but it works.

Like iTunes, some music at AMZMP3 is album only, though it’s hard to know what or why. Those Radiohead albums for example, no individual songs can be purchased. The length of the song isn’t necessarily a factor. There are some 17 and 18 minute-long Mogwai tracks available separately, while at least one 11 minute Sonic Youth song is album only. Adding to the confusion is the store’s somewhat perplexing price structure.

Overall though, the site is still considered to be “public beta,” so we can guess that it will improve with time.

Winner: Each services is pretty much on par with the others on the ease-of-use front. None have a particularly show-stopping difficulty. iTunes gets points for the all-in-one solution, while Amazon is a known quantity that now extends to MP3 sales. eMusic’s search can be challenging, but its re-download policy and music discovery tools make it very appealing to the adventurous.


The iTunes Store charges a flat $0.99 per song for individual tracks. Albums cost the sum of all songs, or $9.99, whichever is lower. It’s the same way throughout the store; there are no variations.

Unlike iTunes, Amazon charges a variable price for downloads. At launch, Amazon’s typical price per song is $0.89, though some are $0.99. Most complete albums run $4.95 to $9.99, though I’ve not figured out how those prices are computed. Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves is 11 songs at $0.99 each or $7.97 for the whole album, a difference of $2.92. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is currently $8.99 for all 26 songs ($0.35 vs $0.99 a piece), whereas Dark Side of the Moon has some songs for $0.89, others for $0.99, or $7.99 for the album, a difference of only $0.62. It doesn’t make much sense, but in some cases, you might find a better deal than the iTunes Store.

eMusic’s business model is different than the pay-per-track services of Amazon and iTunes. Similar to the Netflix model, subscribers pay for a membership plan to access a certain number of downloads per 30-day cycle, rather than paying for songs individually. In my case, I pay $14.95 for 50 downloads every thirty days. If I download all 50 songs, I end up spending just $0.30 per song. There are more extensive bulk plans that will bring the price down to $0.25 per song. Also, the length of the song doesn’t matter; a 30 minute epic track costs just one download credit, as does a 30 second interlude.

Maximizing the value of one’s subscription requires diligence however. It’s never happened to me personally, but if one forgets or is too busy to retrieve their current downloads, well then, they get squat for their $15. In my case, the worst I’ve ever done is have 6 credits left at the end of the cycle. I’m usually plagued by the *other* subscription conundrum: Wanting a 10-song album, with only four credits until the next refresh. Most of the time, I solve this dilemma by grabbing the first four songs, bookmarking the album in my “save for later” area, then return first thing after the refresh (I have an iCal reminder tell me when it’s time). Alternately, I find eMusic to be an inexpensive way of exploring classical music.

Winner: On price alone, eMusic wins, provided you take full advantage of your subscription. With the $14.95 plan, you’ll be on par with iTunes as long as you download at least 15 songs per cycle. At this time, Amazon is also undercutting iTunes on price. This could change after the honeymoon period, as more popular songs might be priced higher than $0.99, but for now, iTunes is the loser on the money factor.

Artwork and Tagging

Songs from all three stores come with comprehensive ID3 tags, providing song name, artists, album, genre, etc. AMZMP3 provides high-quality album art embedded in the file, while iTunes supplies it in a separate sidecar file. eMusic will download a jpeg along with the MP3s, but it must be manually added to the files. eMusic’s jpeg however is a pitifully small 150 x 150 pixels. so I either use iTunes to retrieve the album cover or search for better art using sloth radio. UPDATE: 4 Dec 2008: However, a recent redesign of the site does provide high-quality album art in the browser. It must still be manually added to the music files, but at least it’s right there when you download an album.

Winner: Slight edge to Amazon for embedding the art, slight knock to eMusic for making me work to find better art.

Free Stuff

The iTunes Store provides free content across its entire product line, from TV episodes to movie clips to sample audiobook chapters and of course, music, not a day goes by without some kind of freebie posted and available for consumption. Most notable is the Single of the Week, which changes every Tuesday. There are entire websites devoted to tracking the latest zero cost offerings at the store.

Likewise, eMusic also offers free downloads. You don’t even need to be a customer to snag them. eMusic offers two types of freebies. One, the Daily Download is updated every day. Other, long term free tracks are kept in their own part of the site. At the time of this writing, there are roughly 70 tracks up for the taking. Since eMusic caters to those outside the mainstream, most of the free tracks are from the relatively obscure, so if you’re looking to explore a bit, here’s a chance to do so without spending a cent.

I’ve not found much zero cost music at AMZMP3. There’s certainly no breakout section saying “Free Downloads Here.” However, the list of every available MP3, sorted by price, reveals a total of 36 songs available free of charge. The store is young, so who knows what kind of free stuff is planned for it.

Winner: Each store has something to give away, but eMusic gains an edge by not even requiring an account to download it. iTunes has a lot of variety, plus the entire podcast directory and iTunes U, so mucho bonus points there. Amazon lags at a distant third.


In terms of service, the stores are fairly evenly matched. Some foibles here and there, but, hey, nobody’s perfect. Amazon is a worthy contender and an appealling place to look when you just have to have a song right now. eMusic pretty much rules for those who enjoy exploring off the beaten path. But if you want to be absolutely sure to find the songs you’re looking for, iTunes can’t be beat. You just might have to pay a premium for the convenience and hope it’s not poisoned with DRM.

Personally, I find each to be a fine service and I see no reason to exclude any of them from my music-buying arsenal. In fact, I look forward to using Amazon a little more. And maybe, just maybe, the pressure will drive those other two companies to improve their digital music services.

Note: In the interest of disclosure, you should be aware that tunequest acts as an affiliate for two of the stores mentioned in this article. They send me a pittance whenever I send them a customer. However, that relationship in no way changes my opinion of each company. The fact is that I would not have chosen to become affiliated were I not already impressed with the services in the first place. They each have their strengths and weaknesses.

Thoughts on an iPod Shuffle

Orange iPod Shuffle in Dock (photo by tunequest)
Thinking of an iPod Shuffle? Find one on Amazon.

Birthday season is in effect around the tunequest compound and themodernista kicked off the festivities by presenting me with my long-desired orange iPod Shuffle (2G) (which I have dubbed “Shuffleupagus”). I had been struck by the orange model since they were announced this past January, but despite its relative inexpensiveness, I could never justify purchasing one; I’m a fairly austere guy when it comes to material goods and all my iPod needs have been handled quite nicely by my 5G. Still, the gift is not unappreciated, though I am somewhat abashed to admit that it makes the seventh iPod in six years for a family of two.

After palling around with the device for couple days, I’ve made some observations. Overall, the iPod Shuffle is pretty sweet and the vibrant orange casing is quite the eye-catcher. Straightforward and easy to use, it provides no-thinking audio entertainment. I love my 5G-pod, but its daily use often involves effort, whether its assessing new music, adding star ratings, absorbing dense material such as audiobooks and podcasts or just plain searching for something I’m in the mood to hear. The Shuffle, with a suitable playlist, provides a worry-free, effortless and enjoyable experience and the one gigabyte capacity provides ample music for daily jaunts, commutes and errands.

That experience, however, does come with some caveats.

The iPod Shuffle’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness: the lack of a screen. The same brain-dead simplicity that allows for simple recreation also can be a hindrance in some situations. On my 5G, whenever I run into a track that might be corrupted or otherwise malformed, I mark it with two stars as a way to pull it out of rotation and set it aside for reevaluation at a later date. On the Shuffle, that’s just not possible. And of course, when I can’t quite place the name/artist/album of the song I’m listening to, I’m just out of luck trying to identify it.

Also, the unit provides no visual indicator for volume. It’s hard to know exactly how loud the Shuffle is set without any visual feedback. I had it plugged into the tape adapter in my car and nearly blew out the speakers when a quiet classical piece transitioned to some bombastic Primus bass. Gave me quite the jolt too. In iTunes, however, you can set a maximum volume with a volume limiting slider.

Also, there’s no internal clock. The vast majority of my listening habits rely on the heavy use of iTunes’ Last Played Date. As a condition on my Smart Playlists, I use it to automatically refresh my listening selections, rotating recently played songs for those that haven’t been played in a while. The first-generation Shuffle was noted for its lack of a clock and, unfortunately, its successor is no different. Without a clock, the Shuffle has no way to know when you’ve finished playing a song and thus can’t update iTunes the next time you sync up. Instead, iTunes sets the Last Played Date to the time at which you perform the sync. While not quite as precise as I’d prefer, I tend to update my Pods frequently enough that it shouldn’t disrupt my schemes significantly.

Then there’s the size again. The thing is wicked small and keeping track of its whereabouts has proven bit elusive. A couple times already, I thought I had misplaced it or lost it under some paperwork when it was actually still clipped to my pocket. That’s definitely a behavioral change that I’ll have to adjust to.

Despite these minor inconveniences, and that’s really what they are, inconveniences, the iPod Shuffle is a solid product. In the few days I’ve had it, I’ve already found myself reaching for it more often than my 5G when I want to sit back and relax. In fact, once I get going, I find myself hesitant to turn it off. The only thing I need to figure out now is how to shuffle-by-album (if that’s even possible) rather than default shuffle-by-song.

iTunes Store fact check: The Largest Selection?

via iLounge.

Apple today announced the expansion of its DRM-free iTunes Plus catalogue. The press release claims that the iTunes Store now offers the largest selection of non-rights-managed tracks in the world, with “more than two million” available.

I welcome news of the expansion, as well as the accompanying drop in price to $0.99 a track, but I have to question that superlative claim.

Apple doesn’t say how many more than two million the selection is. 2.1? 2.5? If it were larger than that, I’d expect Apple to claim “nearly three million songs.”

It’s worth pointing out though that emusic also claims to have offer more than two million songs, all in un-DRM-able MP3 format. Playlistmag goes so far as to say that emusic offers 2.7 million songs for download, from more than 20,000 labels.

So the question is, who really has the world’s largest non-DRM music download catalogue?

no, the answer is not bittorrent

Radiohead – In Raindows: Ethos and ambiance

Via this 9rules note:



I haven’t placed an order for In Rainbows yet because I was waiting to find out the quality and format of the digital files. With this news I’m a little disappointed. Sure, 160kbps is quite *acceptable* but I consider 192kbps to be my minimum bitrate for MP3 (or did before I started encoding into AAC). Still, I assume the tracks are coming straight from the masters, so they’re bound to be decent. Even so, 160kbps seems like a strangely small format in this day in age.

All in all though, what this experience amounts to is a controlled (and profitable) “leak” for the band. Whether they succeed in up-selling the Discbox or traditional CD remains to be seen. Personally, I’m still debating whether there’s a Discbox with my name on it.

In any case, I’m sure the album will be fantastic. This is Radiohead we’re talking about.

Also strangely, the mp3s don’t come with any cover art included, though they otherwise have good ID3 tags (except for genre). Two images I’ve run across so far are this one, which looks like it could be from one of the vinyl sleeves:

in rainbows cover

And this one, which looks like it’s taken from the In Rainbows website:

in rainbows cover


Update 10/10: Having found out the format, I went ahead downloaded the album. I’m just glad I didn’t pre-pay a large amount for it. If I’m going to pay retail price for a record, I’m going to expect to be able to encode it at whatever quality I want. Having listened, the files sound fine in my ear buds and are certainly enjoyable enough for now, so I’m not going to make any further deal of it.

Albums by Radiohead always take a little while to grow on you. While they are never disappointing on the first listen, it takes some time before the gems are evident. I’m sure I won’t know quite what I think about In Rainbows for some time, but here are my first thoughts.

In Rainbows is perhaps the smallest departure in style in the band’s history, feeling like a continuation of the Hail to the Thief ethos, but with Amnesiac’s dour ambiance. Overall, the sense I get from the album is unambitious, but not staid. It is music of and for people who are weary. Of what, who knows? But true to the Radiohead mind-set, a detached alienation pervades the entire elaborated experience. To be sure, the music itself is as intricate as is to be expected, it just feels smaller and more straight-forward. There are no grand exclamations like Karma Police, mind-bending riffs like My Iron Lung or voyages into the unknown like Idioteque.

The other thing that strikes me right off the bat is that, for a rock band, this album doesn’t feature much in the way of rock. I don’t necessarily call that a bad thing. In fact, In Rainbows sounds so good as a whole that a massive rock song would feel totally out of place. It’s just unfortunate for me because Radiohead jams are some of my favorite things. I think they make up for it though with some down-right inspired percussion.

Initial song-by-song impressions:

15 Steps
A glitchy Bjork-like intro powers Thom Yorke’s trademark, though nearly unintelligible, falsetto in this up-tempo opener. The percussion here is the most interesting part, with the live drums providing body to the emphasized synth beats.

Dirty distorted riffs, straight-end drums and wailing electronics make me want to dance on top of a haunted house.

This slow proto-waltz is mesmerizing in its stripped down simplicity.

Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Gloriously clean arpeggios and a galloping rhythm make this one an early contender as my favorite from the album.

All I Need
A somber piano ballad builds to brilliant crescendo.

Faust Arp
A cello accentuates more arpeggios, this time played by a Spanish guitar, on this mellow tune. It’s possibly the most tender song in all of Radiohead’s repertoire.

Rounds out an elegiac trio of songs. All I Need, Faust Arp and Reckoner feel like they could easily meander by, unnoticed in a dream or on a dark foggy night, if they weren’t so captivating.

House of Cards
Thom’s vocals echo through the emptiness on what could be the B-side to Knives Out (if Knives Out didn’t already have b-sides).

Jigsaw Falling Into Place
The tempo finally picks back up on what it the most direct pop song on the record. It could be Sit Down. Stand Up’s little brother.

A boy and his piano ponder the persistence of media and the cruel march of time. A bit of a downer to end the album on.

All in all a great album to listen to, though you might want to save for a soundtrack on a rainy day or you find yourself in too good of a mood.

Here’s a fan-vid featuring Weird Fishes/Arpeggi:

Radiohead – In Rainbows – Weird Fishes_Arpeggi

What Radiohead’s In Rainbows says about the state of the music industry

Radiohead buzz jumps 1300%

It’s been nearly forty-eight hours have passed since Radiohead’s surprise announcement set off an explosion of fandom around the web. Indeed, Blogpulse shows a more than 1300% increase in the number of posts mentioning the band from September 29 to October 1. Of course, a new Radiohead album is big news, especially after a four year wait, but the real source of conversation is the band’s decision to allow variable pricing of In Rainbows. Much of the commentary revolves around how this is a shot across the bow of the record labels.

In Rainbows is Radiohead’s first record since fulfilling their recording contract. That is to say that there was no record label involvement in the financing, production, marketing or distribution of the album. It’s yet another sign of the changing economics of the music industry in the digital era. Besides the usual “labels are dinosaurs” meme being bandied about, the aspect that strikes me the most about the In Rainbows announcement is the complete element of surprise.

It’s almost inconceivable that one of the world’s most watched band’s most anticipated albums could be sprung so suddenly on an unsuspecting populace.

Radiohead fans have known that there would be a new album “soon,” but a specific time frame was unknown. In fact, until as recently as week ago (Sept. 25) the Wikipedia page for the album maintained that it was to be released in 2008. There were no details other than suspected track titles and new songs played at live shows. We didn’t even know the album’s title until the other day. The fact that the band can say, “Hey it’s done and can be yours in a little more than a week,” that’s the real game changer here.

Consider the case with the band’s previous album, 2003’s Hail to the Thief. Whereas we’d heard nary a peep about In Rainbows, a surprisingly robust unmastered version of Hail to the Thief was leaked on the net TWO MONTHS before the official release date. Albums by other artists regularly appear on the net well ahead of their scheduled release date. Now, there’s the argument that leaked albums aren’t exactly a bad thing, but that’s not the point here.

The point is about control.

Now this is pure speculation, but it seems to me that without the involvement of record label personnel, Radiohead has been able to work in a more secured and isolated environment. Fewer spoons in the pot, so to speak, means fewer opportunities for unscrupulous individuals to make off with recorded materials. When there are so few people working closely on a project, I imagine that there’s much more loyalty and devotion as a whole and fewer people who feel that what they are doing is simply a job.

Added security and more artistic control? Chalk that up as another advantage to not working with a record label.

Of course, like Trent Reznor telling fans to steal his music, Radiohead can get away with this scheme because they’re a known quantity, having already benefitted from ten years of record label backing from a time when record labels were essential to lasting success. In 1997, there’s no way that OK Computer could have become one of the greatest albums ever released without the support of a major label. The media landscape of the late 90s was such that sufficient money to go big could only be found at a major corporation (EMI in Radiohead’s case).

Having generated all that cultural capital with the help of EMI’s resources and having a fan base that is already legion, there’s not much the band has to do at this point to stir up excitement. However, while they have generated the biggest buzz, Radiohead is not the first to distribute “donation-ware” music. Athens, Ga-based label Quote Unquote Records has been working in that fashion since 2006, billing itself at the first donation-based record label. And certainly there have been individual artists with Paypal buttons on their site, asking for contributions in exchange for free downloads. Though, it’s hard to find evidence on how financially successful that approach has been for the relatively obscure.

With a big name artist popularizing the idea, direct-to-consumer sales and personal value pricing are just more cracks in the business model of the record industry.

Historically, labels served the artists by putting money down to help promote, produce and distribute physical media. Throughout the 20th century, it was very expensive to shoot a music video and get posters printed and pay for studio time and hire recording technicians. The mass-production of thousands or millions of vinyl, cassettes or compact discs didn’t come cheap either. It’s impossible to have a record go platinum without manufacturing at least one million copies of it. The upfront money to do that was essentially on loan in the hopes that public interest in the artist would recoup costs and generate a healthy profit.

But since the boom of the MP3 and the increasing affordability and sophistication of “pro-am” music production, that system has been changing. Compared to even ten years ago, it’s exponentially cheaper to record, promote and distribute music using desktop computers and the Internet. Programs like Apple’s GarageBand make it relatively simple for actual garage bands or bedroom auteurs to create compelling, professional sounding music.

Add YouTube and music blogs (such as tunequest) to the mix and artists have a lot promotional muscle at their disposal. Top it off with low-cost DIY and pay-what-you-want digital distribution and the question becomes, “Who needs labels?”