I pay for all of these music services: Rhapsody, Rdio, Spotify, SiriusXM.  The first three are more or less identical if you look at it as only paying for access to music, and Sirius is redundant if you connect your phone to your car.  So why would anyone pay for all of them?  Am I crazy?

I may be crazy, but I also listen to a lot of music.  When you listen to a lot of music, and especially a lot of new music, your primary musical challenge shifts from acquiring music to discovering music.  It’s now trivially easy to listen to just about any band or artist any time you want, but finding a continuous stream of great new music is still very hard.

To put it another way, the music itself is now a commodity.  You can find most music in a large number of places, legally and illegally, free and paid.  Services like Spotify and Rdio have tens of millions of songs, and when you add in BitTorrent it’s probably starting to approach the full collected recorded works of the human race.  The real value of a streaming music service then is helping you make sense of all of that.  The goal of every music service should be putting music you love (whether you know it yet or not) one tap/click away at any moment anywhere.  We’re not there yet, but it’s getting closer.

So, what’s the value beyond the music in the music service I pay for and use?

Rhapsody: I originally signed up for Rhapsody to use on my Sonos as they were the first music service available there.  It’s taken on the role of being the main family home jukebox.  We’ve been using it for a long time at this point and have a large library of favorites.  They also have a pretty good set of “Stations” (basically just curated playlists) that include nice ones like a variety of holiday music.  I’m considering dropping this subscription now because the stations/playlists of other services (such as Rdio) have largely caught up.

Rdio: A few years ago, when I decided I wanted a different music service for my own personal listening I tried out Spotify, Rdio, and MOG.  Rdio won me over with its approach to music discovery.  It’s asynchronous (more like Twitter, less like Facebook) and that works well for music recommendations.  Just because I’m “friends” with someone doesn’t mean I like their music choices.  Rdio is my primary personal listening tool now.

Spotify: Spotify is the clear leader in music streaming services, and is probably the closest to a music focused social network now.  They pioneered the free streaming plan and grew very quickly as a result.  I’ve always found their approach to music discovery and UI to be less appealing than Rdio so it’s not been my first choice.  Spotify’s huge reach and user base has made them into a platform that other music apps are now using as a shortcut to providing a music library.  Two new music recommendation apps (both unreleased) I’ve been testing use Spotify in this way.  Spotify has value as a general music streaming platform even if you don’t use its own player, and I expect that to continue to grow.

SiriusXM: The value of Sirius is mostly about convenience, but they do also have some unique valuable programming.  We pay for Sirius only because it’s in our cars and it’s less effort than connecting our phones.  Our 5 year old Audi doesn’t actually even make it very easy to get music streaming from an iPhone into the speakers, actually.  Sirius’s programming in genre-specific areas, such as Jazz, are pretty good too, if you’re not very well versed in those (like me).

I also additionally use some free services.

KCRW: The world’s best radio station, KCRW is an NPR college radio station out of Santa Monica.  I first started listening to it while in college in Southern California and have never stopped.  It’s listener-supported and I have donated in the past, but should donate more regularly.

Soundcloud: I have some of my own music on there for sharing with others, and this is probably the largest single repository of unreleased independent music and DJ mixes.  I don’t actually listen to soundcloud much now, but I think I should.

Last.fm: This was once known as AudioScrobbler.  I’ve been sending data about my music listening to them since 2003, and my Last.fm profile even shows what I’m listening to right now (John Tejada).  I think the music you have listened to in the past is the best indicator of what you’re likely to want to listen to in the future.  I like Last.fm for finding bands similar to ones I already know, especially in less mainstream genres like punk rock.

Apple Music (and Beats 1): The launch of Apple Music is partially what got me thinking about this topic again.  They talk up their use of human curation rather than algorithms.  From what I can see on the outside, they are thinking about the music listening problem in a good way.  The service still hasn’t been super interesting to me, but the use of live DJs is an important move whether or not it is successful from a business perspective.  Apple’s family pricing of $15 for up to 6 people is also a big deal and is something I’m expecting to see other services try to copy.  The same thing would cost more like $45+ on other services today, if you actually need all 6.

QuNeo was the first Kickstarter project I ever funded and I just got mine in the mail a couple of weeks ago.  I’ve only had a few hours to spend with it, but that’s been enough to get a feel for what it’s capable of and what it will do for my setup.

I play live laptop/keyboards/synths/drum machine in a rock-tronic band called Thrillouette in San Francisco.  The setup is primarily Ableton Live on a laptop with some midi controllers plugged into it for live control.  The controllers include a Softstep from Keith McMillen, the people who make the QuNeo, as well as an Akai MPD32.  The QuNeo is expected to replace the MPD32 so I’m going to do a quick comparison of the two.

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I went to a Suicidal Tendencies show at Slim’s in San Francisco last week. The place only holds maybe 400 people so it’s a pretty tiny place for a band as well-known as them. They haven’t released an album for several years and have been out of the bit of spotlight they did have as a result. They’re by no means a huge band but there’s a good chance anyone who’s ever been into metal, hardcore punk, or other loud, fast music has listened to them at some point.

Suicidal Tendencies’ 1990 album, “Lights, Camera, Revolution”, is on my “Top 10 Metal Albums of All Time” list (which I have not yet actually published) and I hold them in very high regard overall. I also knew that the crowd would be pretty insane in a place that small and it should be a fun show all around. We made our way up to the very front left of the stage between the first band and the second band, Municipal Waste, and planted ourselves there for the rest of the evening. Municipal Waste was previously unknown to me and was a pretty good show. They reminded me a bit of M.O.D. and Exodus at different moments and I noticed some Slayer influence at times as well.

After Municipal Waste was finished our beers were empty but there was no way we were going to give up our spots so we had to go thirsty. Sad, I know. Suicidal Tendencies first came on without Mike Muir and began to make a lot of guitar sounds for a few minutes until he came out and the crowd went wild. The guitar sounds eventually turned into an epic version of “You Can’t Bring Me Down” and it took me all the way back to those early highschool years when that song was one of my anthems. It’s a song based firmly in the themes of teen angst, like most Metal songs, but it also has a very strong sense of empowerment. It’s not a song about aggression, but instead about standing up for yourself and your beliefs. That may sound a bit trite now, but when I was 15 it did a lot for me.

Overall, it was a great show and the crowd energy level rarely dropped below a dull roar. I frequently found myself shouting along with the crowd to classic songs like “War Inside My Head”, “Send Me Your Money”, and “How Can I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can’t Even Smile Today”. Goooood times.

I’ve heard some rumors that S.T. is coming out with a new album next year and I don’t know for sure if they played any songs from it or not. I don’t know every single song of theirs but I did recognize almost all of them. It’s hard to say if a band with as much history as Suicial Tendencies will actually produce a must-hear new album, but their live shows are still an experience anyone with any inclination shouldn’t pass up.

Until recently I had generally followed the Apple/iTunes/Steve Jobs party line and thought of subscription music services as dumb and useless. Apple describes it as ‘renting music’, which surely does sound bad. When I thought about it a little more, though, it started seeming more like cable television. Do you think of cable as ‘renting TV’? Do you expect to be able to keep watching it after you stop paying? You’re essentially just paying for access to content and it’s up to you to decide if its worth it to you to continue paying to maintain that access or not. You’re free to buy last season of Smallville on DVD and own it if you want, and likewise you can still buy CDs even if you also pay for a music subscription.

Rhapsody (and other music services) one up cable tv, though. They provide on-demand access to a pretty large library of all music. Wouldn’t it be great to have on-demand access to any episode of any television show from the last 20 years? That might actually be worth the extortion fees I pay for cable television now!

The Rhapsody library doesn’t have everything but I’ve been impressed with the selection. There’s only been a couple of things I’ve looked for and not found, the most notable being Metallica (of course). There’s likely other notable gaps in the offering as well but there’s enough to keep me interested for now.

They’ve done a pretty good job of organizing the catalog to make it easier to find new music you might like. They have a pretty good two level genre categorization (main genres and subgrenes) with key artists for each level giving you an overview of what’s in there. They also have charts (top tracks, top albums, top artists) for each genre and artist so you can see what other people are listening to. That’s handy for artists or genres you’re not very familiar with. There’s also ‘radio’ stations for each artist that plays you a mix of music their system considers similar to the artist. I don’t know yet if it’s only based on genre categories or if there’s something more advanced going on behind the scenes. I also don’t know if they track which songs you skip to tailor it more to your own tastes or not. It seems likely they’re at least thinking about features like that if they’re not in there now. There’s a lot of potential.

I’m just finishing up a 30 day free trial and I think I’m going to sign up. It costs about the same as Netflix and though I like watching movies, I listen to music pretty much all the time. I’ll get way more value out of this.

For maybe the past year or so I’ve been searching far and wide for some sort of relatively easy way to synchronize two iTunes libraries, one at home and one at the office. I could use something unixy like rsync but iTunes has to be quit to make sure the library xml file is actually updated properly. That’s doable but not ideal. There’s also iPod.iTunes which uses your iPod as a go-between medium. That looks pretty featureful and would probably do the job if not for the fact that my iPod is full.

So, when I heard about MP3tunes.com, I was excited. It’s basically a music backup service with unlimited disk space. It has an iTunes plugin (it’s actually just an application that sort of behaves like a plugin) that facilitates syncing your library to and from the server and it also lets you stream your library from the server using the iTunes plugin or their own custom web interface. In theory this all sounds perfect so when I was offered a deal to get in on the fun for half normal price (half of $39.95 per year) I decided to do it! (Note that they also have a free account but it doesn’t do this iTunes syncing so is mostly useless to me).

First the good:

  1. It pretty much does work as advertised.
  2. half price is probably worth it, but full price might not be.
  3. the online player is pretty good but kinda slow
  4. It’s neat to have access to all of my music from anywhere!

Now the bad:

  1. I actually already had access to all of my music from anywhere via slimserver.
  2. The upload speed is sloooooow. It took like a week of straight uploading on my 768k uplink to get my 40GB of music on the server. I haven’t done the math but it seems like that’s slow.
  3. The sync application is buggy and the cache has to be reset from time to time during the upload process. It just errors out sometimes and that’s the fix.
  4. The iTunes ‘plugin’ seemingly requires that you re-login on each launch. That’s not ideal.
  5. And here’s the biggie for me… It’s not a true two-way sync. It can detect changes made on your computer and upload those to the server but it cannot remove files that no longer exist on your computer. In practice this means that if you update a bunch of meta tags (like if you add album art work or something), it will re-upload all of those files creating duplicates on the server. Agh! You have to manually remove the changed files from the server before doing another Oboe sync. I asked them if they have plans to fix that and they said, ‘No’. Weird!

Update April 18, 2007: After my first year of mp3tunes.com service I decided to not renew, even though they extended the same half price offer I got for the first year. After fighting with it off and on for the first few months I ended up hardly ever using it and have probably not used it once in the last 4 or 5 months now. None of the features worked the way I had hoped and it didn’t do what I hoped it would.

I’ve had a TiVo for about two and a half years now and it definitely did change the nature of my personal entertainment, probably forever. There is no way I will watch television without a PVR/DVR sort of device again. The TiVo is far from perfect, but it does provide an overall excellent interface to what is actually a fairly complex technology underneath. There is one important thing my TiVo is unable to do, though. It can’t record Comcast’s HD channels.

Since I got my HD-capable television I have increasingly wanted to watch as much HD content as possible. It is difficult to go back after experiencing HD video with digital surround sound audio. Split between the TiVo interface and the Comcast supplied HD DVR (dual tuner) service, I decided to go with the one that could record the stuff I wanted to watch. I don’t think I’m the only one who would have made this decision, and I’m pretty sure TiVo knows that. TiVo has signed a deal with Comcast to provide them with a TiVo branded DVR device for use with their service. Knowing that, I figured I could deal with the Comcast DVR interface for a little while even if it really sucked.

Well, now I’ve been using the Comcast DVR almost exclusively for a couple of weeks and I’ve developed some opinions about it. It’s a very usable device, but there are some thorny parts of the interface and some annoyances with how it operates. The main differences I’ve noticed seem to center around the fact that the TiVo is a PVR first and foremost, while the Comcast box is a cable box first and then a PVR second. That makes sense, but it takes some getting used to after a TiVo. Also, there are some inexplicably confusing and strange aspects to the way the interface and menu system work.

Here’s a good example that I think applies to both of my gripes at the same time. There is a ‘My DVR’ button for the Comcast DVR. I assumed it would work like the TiVo button on a TiVo, but it doesn’t really at all. The My DVR button takes you to see your list of recorded shows, and that’s it. You can sort the list by Date, Channel, or Title. To go to your list of series recordings (Season Pass in TiVo-speak), you push the ‘Menu’ button once which brings up the quick access menu, and you select ‘DVR’ from there. That somewhat oddly takes you to a menu where you can choose either ‘DVR Recordings’ (ie, where the My DVR button takes you) or ‘DVR Schedule’ where you can view upcoming scheduled recordings on a date grid, view your list of series recordings in order of priority, or create a manual recording. It is pretty well organized, but why is there no option to create a series recording from that screen? That befuddles me. To create a series recording, you go back to the quick access menu and choose ‘Find’, search for the show and then create a series recording. I probably am TiVo-trained now, but I think it’d be more convenient to be able to pick Search directly from the DVR area instead of having to go back to the menu. It’s not a huge difference, but it still trips me up.

The cable box interface itself is pretty good, but the DVR part feels a little tacked on. From the quick access menu where you can choose ‘DVR’, you can also choose ‘HD’ to explore available HD content (very nice!), ‘Movies’ to see movies playing, ‘Sports’ for sports, etc. It’s pretty handy! Also, the currently playing recording or tv channel continues playing in the upper right-hand corner of the screen while you fiddle with the programming guide, the menus, or the DVR component. TiVo should take some notes from that!

Overall, the Comcast DVR gets the job done and I’m gradually forgetting about the TiVo. The TiVo interface is more intuitive and well-designed, but the Comcast interface is usable and has some nice features I’ve gotten used to. Being able to record and playback HD movies from HBO HD with the full digital soundtrack pushes the Comcast DVR over in my book. TiVo needs to provide a very compelling product for Comcast subscribers in mid to late 2006 or they could be facing a long hard decline from relevance as these competing DVR products mature. At the end of the day, it’s the content that people want and they’ll put up with a lot to get it. TiVo’s interface lead is not enough to keep them going for long.

Fabio and I went to the Groundscore 10 year Anniversary party last week (June 3, 05). Groundscore is the crew behind the Eklektic, Hektic and the Rude Metal Series of parties in the San Francisco area. It was our first drum ‘n bass party in years and had a huge lineup with some of the really big names from the last 10 years, Aphrodite, Fierce and Shimon.

Shimon’s set was filled with huge barnstormers, one after another. Some of the tunes had the crowd going, but the mixing didn’t flow that well and he repeatedly lost the energy he had built up. The songs were big enough to build thing up again quickly but I would have preferred more of a dynamic throughout the set.

Fierce’s set flowed better and of what he played I mostly remember a few intense tracks with some hard beats that rolled nicely. Fierce’s intensity behind the turntables was infectious and I found myself moving to the music without realizing it.

Aphrodite went on at 2:15 and made the night for me. He played a good mix of music including some great jump-up tunes. You just don’t hear much jump-up playing these days, and it was cool to see the whole crowd grooving to it.

We left before Aphrodite finished (because we’re old now) and I think the way too loud sound in the second room may have done permanent damage to my ears as we walked through it to the exit. Once we got outside we could still hear the sound from the club a half block away. Wow!

Overall, I had a good time and it looked like most of the sizable crowd did as well. Nice job, Groundscore!