My music library consists of about 46,237 “tracks” (which can be anything from a 30 second song to a 45 minute symphony movement), occupying about 1TB in FLAC (lossless, compressed) encoding.
That sort of music library does not fit on any portable music player of my acquaintance!
I probably listen to most of my music on the train of a morning and afternoon, using my Android phone as the player. If you are lucky enough to have a phone that accepts removable micro SD cards, you can do as I recently did and invest in a 128GB card (for around AUD$70); encode a copy of your music library in 160Kbps MP3 format, and you might be lucky to squeeze about a quarter of your music library onto it. On an exceptional day, you might be able to buy and use a 200GB SD card, in which case, you might be able to carry around half your music with you on your travels.
In any event, useful, portable storage for all or a very substantial part of my music library doesn’t physically exist at the moment (half my music isn’t a substantial part of it where I come from!).
This means I’m periodically reduced to selecting a goodly chunk of it, bunging it on an SD card and then living with it for several months on end until I get bored with it, at which point I rinse and repeat, this time selecting a different chunk of the entire library as my new portable music selection. It works, but it’s not ideal for dealing with the ‘listen on a whim to something obscure’ situation that sometimes crops up.
Which is why I’ve recently begun investigating the Google Play Music service.
It’s been around since 2011, though initially only for US residents. It arrived in Australia in 2013. I hadn’t previously bothered with it, simply because my Internet connection has always been a stonkingly-expensive and very much Gigabyte-restricted mobile one: I haven’t actually had wired Internet access since 2003, when I was using a 56K modem to do the connecting! Such are the drawbacks of living out in the remote parts of Australia. Recently, however, we sold up and moved into something more closely resembling civilization and I suddenly have access to a 100GB-a-month fibre-to-the-premises Internet plan -and that makes services like Google’s look a lot more feasible. So, three years late to the party, I started seeing if Google Play Music could scratch my music itches -and the short version of this piece is that, on the whole, I think it can do.
The first thing to say about it is that it comes in two quite distinct parts.
First, there is a ‘music subscription service’, which is much like Spotify or Apple Music: you pay a subscription (not what I’d call cheap at AUD$12 per month) and then can stream as much music on-the-fly from Google’s collection of 35 million music ‘tracks’ as you like. Naturally, like Spotify and any other streaming music service you care to mention, the majority of those 35 million tracks are the latest pop, rock, hip-hop and other genres of music in which I have precisely zero interest. On the Classical music front, too, they tend to specialize in “The Best of Bach” or “The Essential Vaughan Williams” types of collection, which are similarly of little or no interest to me.
But, as a test, I did a search for anything by that relatively obscure Belgian composer, Marcel Poot:
It annoys me to see his symphonies 3, 5 and 7 labelled “songs”, but I’ll let it pass for now: that’s not actually a bad selection of a not-terribly-popular corner of the orchestral repertory. So: it seems to me that you are likely to be able to stream pretty much anything you can conceivably want to hear of classical music, if you hunt around a bit.
I still think AUD$12 per month is a bit much for a classical music buff: I don’t think we tend to overdose on symphonies or choral masses sufficient to warrant that sort of outlay… but I have signed up for the 1 month free trial of the streaming service to see how I get on, and maybe that will change my mind as to its utility! I already quite like their choice of classical ‘radio’ stations, which play pre-curated selections of music in the style of light-classical FM radio stations the world over. It’s easy listening (not usually my thing), but not bad background stuff to work to.
Which brings me to the second main part of the Google Music service: its music locker functionality. This is the ability to upload your own music collection to Google’s servers. You’re allowed to upload 50,000 tracks (which can each be up to 300MB in size) of your own music to Google -so my collection just about fits. Once uploaded, Google will then catalogue it and add it to your own music ‘cloud library’, from which you can then stream anything you like at any time you like, provided only you’ve got a device (phone, laptop, PC, tablet etc) that runs Google’s own Music Player.
For this store-and-stream service, Google charges… absolutely nothing at all. The storage itself is free. The streaming is equally free and limitless (subject to the constraints of your mobile Internet plan’s data caps, of course). Specifically, you don’t have to subscribe to the music subscription service to get a music locker and stream from it, either.
So now there’s a real, practical prospect of having my phone loaded with 1/3rd of my collection on its own, local SD card, whilst being able to access the other 2/3rds any time I am in range of a mobile phone tower. I can listen to any part of my music collection on the train. Fair enough: on the plane, I’m only going to have the locally-stored collection to run from, but short of that sort of major connection-deprivation, I can listen to anything I own on the move, for pretty much the first time in my life… and that sort of capability impresses and excites me a lot. The fact that it’s all free of charge is then just icing on the cake!
Incidentally, my first expectation of streaming music was, “drop-outs galore” -our mobile networks sometimes get congested, or are simply poor, and I fully expected music playback to halt frequently at just the most important parts of a piece… but it hasn’t happened yet. The Google Music player cunning caches significant chunks of a track or album ahead of time. It means there’s a slight delay in starting to play something, but provided the interruptions to your Internet connection are of relatively short duration, the playback once it begins is usually, in my experience, flawless. Colour me impressed (and a bit surprised), then!
Are there catches? Sure, quite a few.
For a start, my music library is all FLACs. Google’s music manager allows you to upload those to the music locker, but then transparently converts them to 320Kbps MP3s. So this isn’t a way to back up your FLACs in the cloud: your Google files will not be identical copies of the originals and some sound data will have been lost in the conversion. That said, 320Kbps is a pretty high-quality MP3 bitrate (I have been known to convert to 220Kbps at times, but generally live with 160Kbps, so for Google to use 320Kbps shows a commendable commitment to music quality). My own, now-quite-elderly, ears are unlikely to be able to tell the difference between a 320Kbps MP3 and a lossless FLAC, anyway. I certainly wouldn’t convert my local music collection to this quality/format combo, therefore; but I don’t mind Google doing it. I just wish they were slightly more upfront about what it is they are doing: if you weren’t paying attention, you’d think you were making an offline copy of your music, instead of creating a transcoded simulacrum of it.
Out of interest, listening to 1 hour of 320Kbps MP3 uses up about 150MB of my mobile phone’s Internet data allowance. If I listen to about 10 hours of music a week on the train, that’s a very manageable 1.5GB per week. For the month, it’s about 6GB. Quite a chunk out of my 20GB plan, but not unmanageable at all.
Second issue: what you upload is then ‘processed’ by Google and, possibly, replaced by them. That is, if you upload an album that they already have on their system, they may well replace your version of it with theirs, in a de-duplication effort that makes sense from a logistical point of view, but could prove annoying if (as has been known to happen, apparently) they mis-identify your music and replace it their own copy of something quite different. I haven’t personally experienced this happening yet, but I am not looking forward to it when it does.
The third problem is perhaps best explained by this screenshot:
Your music library can be organized by ‘artist’ (i.e., in my case, by composer). But Google automatically assigns an artist image to this view -or doesn’t bother doing anything at all, thus leaving you only with the initial letter of the artist’s name displayed in a circle. When it does auto-assign an artist, it usually gets it wrong: that’s not a picture of Adrian Willaert, for example, as you can tell from the fact that it is repeated later on for another ‘artist’ altogether.
Here’s how I get Windows to display my artists in its own Explorer tool:
I think my way of doing it beats Google’s way of doing it hands down! Hopefully, at some point, Google will offer the ability to change the artist imagery… but there’s no way of doing it at the moment and it’s been that way for years, so any change to this is likely to be a long way off.
Fourth issue: if your FLAC music collection is about 1TB, then uploading all that to Google (and having it converted on-the-fly to MP3) is going to take a very long time. Weeks, probably: my upload has been running for 3 days now and I’ve just almost finished the Bs. So most of Benjamin Britten is now stream-able, but anything from Camille Saint-Saëns to Zoltan Kodaly is not! Some patience is therefore required 🙂 That said, the upload tool is pretty unobtrusive and will pick up from where it left off, so it’s fine to have running in the background on a PC or laptop you routinely shutdown and restart (overnight, for example). All that format re-encoding, though, can take a toll on the CPU: my laptop’s fan has kicked in a lot as a result, and working on it has been a fairly noisy experience for the past few days!
Fifth: scrobbling is iffy. On my desktop, I have download the Google Play Last.fm Scrobbler extension for Chrome and scrobbles to Last.fm therefore at least work. The trouble starts when you listen to Google’s own streams as part of the subscription side of the deal, however: their classical music tagging is awful. Look at the mess I ended up with just today:
It manages to get the Antonio Vivaldi stuff correctly labelled, but pretty much everything else is gibberish. Apparently I now listen to Simon Standage, when I thought I was listening to some George Frideric Handel… who knew?! Someone obviously hasn’t been paying attention to my axioms of classical tagging!
It’s the usual problem of music streaming services being tailored for the non-classical market, of course (and of a lot of music-listening people being classical-music-illiterate, I guess). But whatever the reason, it’s mucking up my listening stats, and I hate it!
Meanwhile, on my phone, I use the official Last.fm scrobbler application… and that very clearly says it will scrobble anything played in the Google Music application… but hasn’t so far. Scrobbling nothing at all is only marginally better than scrobbling attrocious tagging results, so I’m not exactly happy about it! I guess it’s not a complete show-stopper: if I never scrobbled anything to Last.fm again, I would nevertheless cope. But I’ve been routinely scrobbling most of my music listening since 2008, and I kind of resent not being able to do so as the listening technology changes.
Sixth, and significant. Have a look at this:
Can you discern the ordering of these pieces by Benjamin Britten? It certainly can’t be the ‘album’ name: Making… Roman… Tema… God… Jubilate… that’s not an alphabetical ordering I’m familiar with, anyway!
No: I think Google have succumbed to the far-too-common disease of ordering things by their recording date: 2013… 2013… 2012… 2011… 2010… 2010. Brilliant. It means finding “Cantata BWV 76” in the middle of the 200 or so Bach cantatas will be practically impossible, given that conductors (and recording companies) are notoriously inconsiderate and incapable of recording a composer’s works in alphabetical order. This is again a symptom of not aiming your product at classical music consumers. It oughtn’t to be fatal, given that giving a user the ability to order his albums as he likes should be a mere matter of programming detail… but I fear that it’s not going to be fixed any time soon, either.
In the meantime, I could work around the issue by editing each track in turn and removing the recording date from it. Might take a while with 46,000+ edits to perform, though!
I’m sure there are other drawbacks that will catch me out as time passes and my familiarity with the service improves. But for now, I have all my music at my fingertips whenever I need it, plus a one-month trial of having as much other music as I can cope with, and I like it -even if the ordering of ‘works’ within each ‘composer’ page is deplorable.