Musical Musings

I just received an email from the founder of Pandora asking for support in bringing a halt to the RIAA’s attempts to gather more royalties from online music broadcasters at rates which would effectively bring online radio to an end. I’m personally a big fan of online radio and I would be really sad to see it come to an end for no reason other than pure and simple greed. The entertainment industry, especially music is at a very important point. The monopoly held by record and broadcasting companies is gradually being brought to an end by the growing prevalence of technology and the sophistication of media recording and editing tools available to the common man. Of course the industry isn’t about to let go of its major streams of income without fighting tooth and nail for it. The result is the proliferation of techniques and technologies which have no other purpose than restricting how consumers can use the media that they have legally bought.

Apple’s extremely successful online iTunes store uses digital rights management and a patent-licensed, non-free file format to prevent copying music. However the result isn’t really the stopping of privacy, but growing inconvenience for the user. You can’t officially use software other than iTunes to transfer music to your iPod and music bought on the iTunes store can’t be played without iTunes or some sort of unauthorized, unsupported plugin. I feel that DRM is quite simply an injustice to honest paying customers. While I do not support piracy and feel that musicians should be adequately compensated for their work, I don’t think any authority has the right to tell me what I should do with music that I have paid for. The RIAAs claims that storing my music on an online backup system like MP3Tunes or even on multiple CDs is illegal. Excuse me if I disagree.

The strangest part of this whole affair is that it is technologically impossible for any authority to regulate copying the way that the industry wants to. If you can create software to lock down particular media files, it is also possible to create software to open those locks. Of course the easiest thing to do, as a consumer is to simply not buy music or other media that is crippled by DRM or other restrictions. Music CDs are one way to go. However, if you are the type who prefers to buy music in a purely electronic online, you don’t have to turn to Apple’s DRM’d iTunes store any more. The recently launched Amazon MP3 store has a large and growing collection of DRM-free 256Kbps MP3 tracks for download as soon as you have paid. These are plain old MP3 files that can be copied and transferred without limit and loaded onto any MP3 player. I’ve been considering buying music online, and though I would still pay a little extra for a CD, I think Amazon’s store is a much better option than the iTunes store and it’s a great way for conscious consumers to vote with their wallets.

My own music collection is purely MP3, ripped from the CDs. I do use the iTunes/iPod combo, because it works for me. However, I do maintain separate backups of my music (on a separate computer and on DVD). The recent attempts by Apple to prevent the use of the iPod with iTunes MP3 players has disturbed me somewhat, but for the time being, I am content to tolerate it. At the same time, I don’t use the non-free AAC format (which is default for iTunes). Since the MP3 is not actually free or open, I have considered changing my music to something that is, such as Ogg Vorbis. However, I think that at this point that would be rather inconvenient for me. Most importantly, I use my iPod a lot and the iPod doesn’t support the Ogg Vorbis format. The Rockbox firmware for iPods and other players allows playing Ogg Vorbis files, but it only supports older iPods. When it becomes available for newer iPods, I will seriously consider a switch. In fact, I have been looking around for an older iPod that I could get for cheap to try Rockbox on it.

Though I’m content to use the iPod/iTunes combo for the time being, if Apple were to try to lock me in to its proprietary format, I would not hesitate to switch to a less restricted player (and Ogg Vorbis while I’m at it). I suspect that many other people would do the same, especially tech-savvy early-adopters. And it’s probably not a good idea to get the early adopters unhappy.

Edit: I had incorrectly referred to AAC as Apple’s proprietary format. Thanks to the first commenter below for pointing this out.

My computer should stay out of my way

While I am a big supporter of automation and getting tedious, repetitive tasks done by a computer, I also believe that my software should also just stay out of my way and let me do things the way I want. Using a Mac regularly over the last week has made me realize how true this is. I want to use my Mac as a simple media center, which means using the iLife software to manage my music, pictures and a few movies. I’ve used iTunes on Windows and I quite like it, iPhoto was something I was looking forward to, but unfortunately, it isn’t quite what I wanted it to be.

Both iTunes and iPhoto use libraries which keeps the user from having to manually manage and worry about the actual file. While that may be acceptable for the average user, for someone like me who likes knowing where my files and wants to keep everything well organized, the library concept is one abstraction too many. Neither program has a file-manager like view, if something is in your filesystem, but not in your library, you won’t be seeing it. This wouldn’t really be a problem if your filesystem was always well-organized, but considering that yoou may have lots of different media files from lots of different places, chances are, it isn’t organized. Added to that is the fact that even if you take the time to organize your libraries, your files may still be just as disorganized. In this case, your software doesn’t get out of your way and doesn’t make it really easy to do things yourself when you want to.

So what’s the solution? If you want to keep your files well managed you’ll have to do it yourself. The first thing to do is to stop your software from messing with your filesystem in the first place. Turn off copying of files from their actual location to the library directory, that’ll save you quite a bit or disk space and turn off any option to order the files according to the library. That’ll get your software out of your way. Before you start reshaping your files structure, it’s necessary to have a solid idea of how your files are organized. I keep my music organized by artist and album and my photos by date and event. A good naming convention also helps for the times you have to move your files and are stuck without your library. There are AppleScripts that will rename your audio files according to iTunes library information. iPhoto will only rename the files if you export them from the libary. You may want to rename your photos manually with descriptive titles, but if you want to use automated data like the date and time, then try ExifRenamer, which can extract metadata from your photos and renames accordingly.

iPhoto doesn’t allow you to selectively import photos from your camera, and it doesn’t let you choose where to place your photos. My workaround for this is to use the software that came with my camera to move photos into my file structure, rename them with ExifRenamer and only after that import them into iPhoto. Tedious, but it works and it let’s me use the excellent iPhoto export plugins for Picasa Web and Facebook.

While I’ve talked about media files, the same principles apply to other files as well. If your computer won’t play nice and get out of your way, you’ll just have to push. Sometimes using some other software will make things a lot easier (Winamp and Picasa come to mind). But if that is not something you want to do, then some brute force might be needed.