The When, Where and How of Music the Way I like It
I am a self-professed technology geek and though I am happy to pay for the perfect service or product that delivers nirvana without my having to get involved, I frequently find that, when it comes to getting what I want, there is no price I can pay if the service doesn’t exist.
Which brings me to the subject of music. I like music and I have just finished spending the last few months trying to reach, what for me represents, music nirvana. I thought I might share the results of my journey with you.
So what is my music nirvana? Well, to start it means being able to call up any song I want when I want and where I want. Second, it means discovering new music that I don’t know about that I might like. When I started it didn’t seem like such an ambitious goal. I knew there were products and services galore popping up and I was prepared to spend what it took to achieve the goal. But what I found was that money wasnt going to solve the problem.
I started where everyone starts: with iPods and iTunes. I kitted out my kids with iPods, set up a single iTunes account for all of them and quickly found out that Steve Jobs has created a world that bothers me immensely. First, if multiple users want to share a song, though it is possible, it is not convenient. Each song has to be re-registered on each iPod. Each tune when moved has to be managed to be recognised on each computer, but most annoyingly; when I purchase a song from iTunes I have purchased a song that gives me less rights over my use of the music than if I had purchased a CD from a store and simply ripped it up on to my computer.
This ties to Mr. Jobs view of something called Digital Rights Management or DRM. Under the Apple scheme, the song is limited to a specific number of devices which in a world where my children break their computers (as my daughter did when she poured hot chocolate on her notebook), or their iPods batteries mysteriously lose their battery life; the inconvenience of the system becomes apparent.
This became more complicated when I decided to distribute music around my home. I looked at a broad range of solutions: Windows Media Servers, the Philips Streamium, Squeezebox, Roku Soundbridge, and the Sonos. Though not immediately apparent the hands-down winner was the Sonos System. The Sonos combined extremely elegant design, with an addictive remote control and the ability to set up a system effortlessly and let it adapt to all the kit I already owned. With the Sonos I was able to plug into the surround sound system in my media room, plug into the traditional Hi-Fi in my living (Arcam Amp and B&W Speakers) and also outfit rooms with no installed equipment with nothing more than a Sonos box. The Sonos leveraged the WiFi I had in my house and required no more technical knowledge than being able to plug it in and wait for it to configure itself.
Though it is not the least expensive system on the market, its elegance and adaptability quickly let me distribute any music to any room, group rooms together for a party, listen in high fidelity through my existing system, leverage my daughters desire to plug in her iPod when required, listen to the entire world of internet radio and transformed our home into a musical wonderland that I’m still beginning to appreciate.
My second goal was to take my entire collection of CDs and get them in a high fidelity digital format without having to load them one at a time into a server. This took little more than typing the words CD Conversion into Google and taking my pick from dozens of services that would pick up my CDs and deliver them back to me on a hard drive ready to go.
The only fly in my ointment was the collection of music my children had acquired from iTunes which because of the complex and frustrating DRM system couldn’t be played through the Sonos System. Now being the geek I am I was able to find a number of shady ways one could if one wanted, to achieve this goal. But I was affronted that Apple felt that they had the right to define and indeed sell me less rights to my music than I already had when I purchased a physical CD.
My third goal was to discover new music on impulse that I might like. Web sites have sprung up trying to deliver this kind of experience. Two in particular are worth noting: Last.FM and Pandora.com. These sites work on a similar premise: type in songs or artists that you already like and they will create a streaming radio station comprising artists and songs you might like based on the ones you know you like. How they go about it is very different. Last.FM looks at the tastes of all of its users and at the songs you currently play on your computer and matches them with the likes of other users. It’s sort of the Jungian approach to the question. If other people like what you like, then you might like what they like. Pandora represents the other extreme. It uses some snappy algorithms to deconstruct the artist and song and match it to similar artists and songs.
My own experience is that both represent a mixed experience. I am less surprised by the Last choices but they more often match my taste. Pandora is more hit and miss but it delivers more unique surprises.
Much to my delight by treating my computer as a music source, I can feed either back into my Sonos and thus receive custom-built playlists, or radio stations if you like, around my house.
As I said when I started, sometimes it’s not the cost of the thing that gets you what you want. I’ve spent thousands of pounds between Sonos, CD conversion, and other bits of new kit; but the joy of music on demand and the ability to have new music I might never have otherwise discovered has been priceless.