I’ve been trying to decide on a music streaming service for a while now, and I have failed. Music is an important part of my daily life, so I am particular about what I want from a streaming service.

My requirements fit under one of two categories:

  1. Music availability.
  2. Access to my data.

This will be a long and detailed post, and I think you should read it, but you should know from the start that I do not find a solution at the end.

What I want

  1. Access to a decent amount of music to listen to when I don’t have access to my iTunes library and don’t want to listen to the music on my iPhone.

  2. The ability to listen to specific artists, albums, or tracks, and also the ability to explore new music either through recommendations based on my listening history, or based on current popular music.

    Even if I were to stop at that, I wouldn’t have a solution I’m happy with. But there’s more:

  3. Some access to my listening history. By access I mean either an export feature that gives me a data file of my listening history in some standard format, or at least an API that I can use to get that data myself.

What I do now: iTunes + last.fm

iTunes

I have a large music library that I keep in iTunes. People1 like to hate on iTunes. I understand some of their criticisms, but I never understood why the dislike is so intense. They don’t just dislike iTunes, they loathe iTunes.

I think I use iTunes as intensely as anyone can. I keep a 35k song library in iTunes, and it’s always growing. Many of those are large lossless tracks and the majority have correct ID3 tags and album art. I’ve added a star rating for every track I’ve listened to.

And smart playlists. Many smart playlists. Smart playlists are so powerful and work so well that this feature alone sells iTunes. I can think “I want to listen to all tracks that I rated 4 or 5 stars but haven’t listened to in 3 years or more, and also haven’t listened to that much, say, no more than 10 times” and I can make it happen in 20 seconds. Nuff said.

Not only does iTunes keep up with that, it’s actually pretty fast, even on a Mac Mini with a Fusion Drive.

In any case, like it or not, iTunes is the one option you have for managing your music library if you want to keep your own files and use an iOS device. I know there are applications out there that will maintain a local library and sync to your iPhone, but they cannot be as reliable as the software made by the hardware’s vendor, and they may not be as able to update metadata like playcounts as you listen to music on your iOS device.

Last.fm

I’ve been using last.fm since 2008; 8 years this coming December. That’s a long time. Since I started using last.fm, the site has consistently gotten worse. I mourn last.fm. It should just die already so I can have a reason to find or make a replacement. In the meantime, I continue providing them with my listening history knowing it goes to waste.

Tom MacWright summarizes the last.fm tragedy well in his post about Heard:

I was an eager user of Audioscrobber, which became last.fm, until it was acquired by CBS music group and then the founders left and then there was all kinds of drama about them possibly forking over data to the RIAA. The tinfoil-hat wearing users with iTunes libraries not entirely purchased from the iTunes Music ‘Store’ understandably ran away. That and the new features they tried to implement, like streaming and subscriptions seemed like a money-making proposition for the Pandora-listening audience rather than a feature for data-hoarding programmer-types like myself.

“data-hoarding programmer type” describes me well, and that is the one reason I still use last.fm: scrobbling.2 last.fm’s desktop client3 sends records of the music I play in iTunes and on my iPhone to the site.

You used to be able to request an archive of your listens in csv and json files, but a recent site redesign took that away. A site redesign that suffocated whatever was left of a sense of community on last.fm. People barely comment on artist or song pages anymore. The last post on the forums as of the date of this post was in 2015.

I can replace last.fm’s iTunes scrobbling. Tom MacWright’s Heard.app is one way of doing so. It’s tracking the music played on the iPhone that no other service that I know of can do.

Summary: last.fm is dead or dying. They stopped doing their own streaming a long time ago, and instead either hook into Spotify (keep reading), or use YouTube while having auto-playing video ads on the homepage when you log in. Really.

Option 1. Apple Music

Apple Music should be the obvious answer. I use Apple hardware, Apple software, and (some) Apple services.

Except I don’t want Apple anywhere near my music.

Over the weekend, I turned off Apple Music and it took large chunks of my purchased music with it. Sadly, many of the songs were added from CDs years ago that I no longer have access to.

Horror.

In the end Jim Dalrymple gets “about 99 percent of [his] music back”. Thing is, Jim spoke to people at Apple. He went to Apple and experts worked on solving his specific problem. I don’t have that option if Apple Music screws with my library. I won’t be able to speak to anyone who knows anyone who works on Apple Music.

If Apple Music was a separate app, things would work out great. $10/month is reasonable for the amount of use and availability I expect. But as long as Apple Music remains integrated into the same application that I trust with the music I’ve been collecting and listening to for almost 10 years, it’s a big unacceptable risk.

It’s not just the thousands of tracks from hundreds of CDs that I ripped and tagged myself over years, it’s also the information contained in the metadata of those tracks. Play counts, date added, last played, etc. If Apple Music destroys my local library I can’t recover even if I were to re-rip all those CDs again.

Option 2: Spotify

Aside from Apple Music, Spotify seems to be the most popular streaming service. But I have problems with how I’m supposed to use it.

I tried to use Spotify’s web player and was met with this:

Spotify requires Flash

No.

If you Google search “flash security” the first result you – or at least I – get is an article on a major security vulnerability in Adobe Flash and how the only recourse at the time was to uninstall it. This kind of thing happens all the time with Flash.

Even if Flash stops having a ton of security problems it still uses more of my processor than I want to give a music player. I don’t have Flash installed on my machine and I won’t do it for Spotify.

Spotify’s OS X app is not the kind you install by dragging it into your /Applications/ folder. You download a tiny installer that then itself downloads something else and puts Spotify.app in /Applications/. I am paranoid that it’s just a web app that’s running on its own downloaded Flash, and I can’t find information online to confirm or disconfirm that.

The Sweet Setup on the Spotify desktop app:

Spotify’s desktop experience isn’t a shining example of how to build an app. The design is horrendous, the layout is clunky, and the app doesn’t have great performance. Like iTunes, it is what it is and if you want to listen on the desktop, you’re pretty much stuck with it. The web version requires Flash, so that’s a non-starter for many users.

Maybe that will change in the future, but for now, my paranoia about their web and desktop clients keeps me away from Spotify.

Update (24/02/2016)

An hour after publishing this post I checked my RSS feeds and read that John Gruber at Daring Fireball is predicting – via Om Malik – that Google will acquire Spotify.

I avoid using Google services when I can. If this happens, it’s really unlikely I’ll end up using Spotify.

Option 3: Soundcloud

Soundcloud’s site is really nice, and I’ve been using it for the last few weeks to listen to music while I work. I put the house charts on shuffle. It works well enough.

The problem is that Soundcloud is not a music streaming service like Apple Music or Soundcloud or Rdio4 are/were. I think Soundcloud is more in the business of providing a service that lets musicians and podcasters host their files in a place where people can find them, listen to them, comment on them5, and add them to playlists.

Soundcloud is not trying to get recording artists to let them have all or a majority of their music available to stream on demand. Some artists will make available a few of their tracks, but I think the point of that is to give you a teaser so you can go find their music to pay for somewhere else.

So, Soundcloud is a decent place to find some music to listen to while working, but sometimes what I want is to be able to listen to a specific album by a specific artist, and that’s not happening on Soundcloud right now.

Closing thoughts

I can’t buy into any of the services I mentioned above.

If I start accumulating listening history and playlists on one service, that’s an investment. I don’t want to start using a service on a temporary basis while waiting for it to get better or for a better alternative to come up somewhere else.

It’s also worth mentioning that as far as I know, none of those services give me access to my listening data the way I want. Apple Music uses iTunes so I might be able to capture plays using Heard or an AppleScript script. Spotify has an API but I think it only exposes playlists and libraries, not listening history.

In the meantime, I’m resurrecting my 160 GB iPod Classic, filling it up with as much music as I can put on it, and using it as the world’s smallest streaming library.

  1. By “people” I mean technical bloggers that are in my internet visual field. 

  2. Careful. “scrobbling” is Trademarked by Audioscrobbler Limited. 

  3. which is crap that hasn’t been updated in forever and barely works. 

  4. I miss you. Come back. 

  5. On specific parts of them, which is a really great feature.