Rdio breaks some bad news
On November 16th, 2015 Rdio announced that they were filing for bankruptcy, and their intellectual property was being purchased by Pandora for $75 million. I had been using Rdio for several years, after a coworker of mine at Twitter informed me that one of the employee perks was a free unlimited subscription.
The signs that Rdio might be in trouble weren’t hard to come by. Each year there were layoffs (not a great sign for a pre-IPO company), and eventually, whatever deal Twitter and Rdio had in place expired and Twitter employees were given the chance to continue with a paid subscription without losing account details and history. I jumped at the chance because I loved the service so much, and had in fact already been paying for several other accounts for my family members to use. I ignored any signs that the company was in trouble because the service provided a very valuable and hard to come by feature for me: If you limit the amount of people you followed to those with very similar musical tastes to your own, Rdio was a wonderful discovery machine. I could see the last thing my friends had been listening to, as well as their most recent history, and there was even a feature that lumped together all the new stuff people across my social graph were listening to. I found this to be just as good if not better than the holy grail of music recommendation, word of mouth. In the last few years I have discovered and enjoyed so many new albums and groups, all thanks to the wonderful work of the team at Rdio.
Apple Music to the rescue?
When Apple Music offered a free 3 month trial in August, I signed up for it because I’m always trying out different services and I figured there is no harm, it’s free! I enjoyed the fact that almost everything I wanted was in the Apple Music catalog, but that one great feature from Rdio was nowhere to be found. In fact, your Apple Music library lives in a bit of a vacuum, and it’s not possible to see what your friends are listening to or what they have recently saved to their own music library. I also had some other issues with Apple Music on iOS. I like to download music for offline listening because I commute by train from my home to San Francisco, and there are several points where the train is underground and my phone loses reception completely. When this happens, the Apple Music play next queue disappears, and becomes inaccessible until you are online again, at which point it will have been zeroed out. A frustrating experience for someone like me who tends to queue up a number of albums I am in the mood to listen to at once, only to discover less than 40 minutes into my commute that my play queue has been erased by some shitty software bug. (At least I hope it’s a bug, because if the development team at Apple decided this was the way such an event should be handled than they can go fuck themselves.)
So after several weeks spending most of my time listening to music through Apple Music, I went back to Rdio, and not long after that was when they made their announcement, leaving me in a lurch.
I knew Apple Music was probably the path of least resistance, since they already had my music library (i.e. I didn’t have to sit there and feed it artists and albums for days, like Spotify) but their software had proven to only make me dislike trying to listen to my music. I did give Spotify an attempt or two, but I really dislike that piece of software, and the service does not treat albums, artists, and tracks as equal entities the way Rdio did, so it became tedious to try and use the service in a way which it wasn’t intended to be used, i.e. listening to whole albums, and queueing several albums at once for listening throughout the day.
One other feature I will dearly miss from Rdio is the ability to keep track of your play queue from any device. For example, when I would complete my work day, I would press pause on the Mac desktop version of Rdio, and then plug my headphones into my phone and continue listening to the queue from the same position. Rdio also gracefully kept the play queue intact when my phone would go in and out of reception during my commute. Spotify claims that this is how it should work, but I found the queue state to change rather frequently, most likely because of failed API calls from my mobile device. Apple Music simply does not provide any context on your computer what you’ve been doing on your phone, aside from a Recently Added section. You can’t access your play queue across devices whatsoever.
So after scratching off Spotify and Apple Music, and a brief attempt at using Tidal (ugh), I decided the best way forward for me is to go back to the days when all I had was one or two CDs in my car with me, and a portable CD player to listen to them with. That is, if I don’t have the music with me physically, I just won’t be able to listen to it.
Keep it local
At first I attempted to do this using Apple Music and the built-in Download option, but for one thing, sometimes the downloads would silently fail, and when I tried to play the failed tracks they would simply load in the player, and then skip to the next track. I often found entire albums in this state, and the only way to fix this issue is to remove the album entirely from your collection, go find it again on Apple Music, and then add it back into your collection, and THEN you can try to download it again and hope it works this time. Considering I have several hundred albums I’d like to carry around on my phone at all times, I got sick of this song and dance very quickly.
At this point, I was also getting really sick of the bugs on the desktop version of iTunes (which is how you access Apple Music on a Mac, why they can’t have consistent naming across all these products that they own, I don’t know). This is when I remembered a little-known developer called Coppertino. They make a music player for Mac and iOS that I have found to be the perfect solution for my problems. Below I am going to describe how I achieved my final setup, and the pros and cons to going this route.
VOX music player
First of all, I’m a huge music fan, I go to shows as much as I can, and I have been a musician since I was 6 years old, went to college for music, and after that played regularly in a rock band for several years, until it was clear I was not going to be able to make a living without doing a SHITLOAD of hustling, which I’m not really good at anyway. All that is to say, I believe artists should be paid for their work, and I put my money directly in to artists’ hands as much as possible. With all that said, it pains me to say that as of today, the best way I have found of capturing and keeping music without relying on some third party to manage my library is by using private torrent trackers to download everything I want. There are never issues where albums go away, or are delayed due to artist’s whims or licensing issues. I download the album as a folder of files, and I never have to worry about finding that album again. I also like to purchase vinyl versions of records as they almost always come with a download code for 320Kbps encoded mp3s. I take these files and store them in Dropbox for safe keeping.
There are many things that I love about the VOX music player. For one, you can use the media keys built into all the latest Macs by downloading a system preferences panel that lets you toggle controlling music playback from the keyboard, headphones, or a paired remote. With every other music player I’ve used on a Mac, including Rdio, when you used the media keys to control playback it always triggered iTunes opening in the background, just taking up resources for no reason. Not so with VOX, however they are capturing the media key input, it does not result in iTunes opening and consuming resources.
I also enjoy the fact that by default VOX has nothing inside of it, you have to provide the media yourself, but there are a number of choices which makes that simpler. Inside the VOX application preferences, there is a panel called sources, which is how you inform the application where to find your music.
As you can see, there are several options here, Collections, iTunes, Last.fm, and SoundCloud. The SoundCloud integration is kind of neat, but I found the notifications SoundCloud pushes out to make it too annoying to use in practice, so I have not enabled it. If you choose to Sync with iTunes Library, and you use Apple Music, anything you’ve “liked” will be present in the player, and it is probably the easiest way to get started with this application, or if you just wanted to try it out without investing too much time in getting your collection loaded up.
I have decided however, that I will forevermore maintain my own local library of files (and I’ve decided to use FLAC, because why not?). So in my case, once VOX was open, I opened a Finder window with a view of my Music directory full of FLAC files, and just drag and dropped the entire collection into the VOX player.
VOX supports the ability to upload all your music into their cloud locker service known as LOOP. For $5 a month, you can store all your FLAC files or any other type of media VOX recognizes (and it recognizes a lot!) and then these files become accessible to other computers and devices using the VOX media player app.
This means that I only need to maintain one single music library on a Mac which will be treated as the master, and then I can load music onto my work laptop or phone at will. By default, simply choosing music to play and listening to it on the other non-master devices will result in the track being streamed. If I choose to, there is a download option available on the iOS app, as well as from the Mac desktop app.
The desktop app is also very nice looking, and provides a plethora of information in a nice, compact design. I love that it includes details about the encoding of the file you are currently listening to.
By default, the player takes up very little space, and of course you have several options about how the player should behave such as keeping it on top of all other windows, in all spaces (Mac’s term for desktops), etc. when you’re curious to see what’s coming up next in your play queue, clicking the ellipse (sometimes called a ‘More’ button) the player expands to show details of the play queue:
From there you can manage your queue, jump forward in the queue, etc. To the left of the queue tab is your library tab. In there is all the music you have fed into VOX. There are sub tabs for various sources like Loop, iTunes, etc.
Overall, it’s a great experience to use on the desktop and on iOS, and it provides all the same features across both operating systems.
VOX for iOS
The best part of this new setup is by FAR the iOS app. Because VOX provides the LOOP cloud storage service, when you open up VOX on iOS, you can see all of your content and listen to anything from your collection immediately, without having to worry about connecting back to your home computer or deal with your shitty internet service provider. The iOS app provides a beautiful view of all of your albums, and the philosophy behind the app works very well for me, as someone who cares only about albums and artists, as opposed to tracks or playlists.
Just have a look around this gorgeous interface:
Now of course, nothing is perfect. 🙂
The most annoying thing to me is probably the fact that when I attempt to share what I am listening to using the native iOS share sheet to write a tweet, there is text generated for the tweet automatically based on the artist and track which is excellent, but then it also includes a statement and link about the player itself, which is fine if I were allowed to change the default. I understand, the app store market is rough and exponentially so for an indie developer. I’m happy to promote the app as much as possible, and trust me I tell everyone I know about this thing. But I find it tedious to have to edit the pre-filled text in a tweet when all I usually do is take out the link to the app store download.
Share with everyone!
A nice bonus would be if it linked to a service like tape.im, which I believe is private and used only by the developer behind the Mac desktop music player app Simplify, but maybe they could make a deal. It let’s you share one link that displays a page with links to popular streaming services, so you can share to your friends without having to think about which service they’re using.
Big files move slow
I have chosen to use FLAC files. Being that these are lossless audio files, they take up a lot of space. The LOOP uploader can only go so fast, and depending upon your ISP it may throttle uploads meaning it can take quite a few days to upload even a modest collection like mine (About 163GB).
I’ve also had some issues, which I believe are not due to the VOX application itself, when my Mac running the LOOP uploader ran out of disk space on the main disk. However, this left some uploads in a failed state, or albums would be missing some tracks. To be clear, I mean in terms of the playback of files FROM the LOOP service onto another device. I had to go through the library on the master VOX Mac running the LOOP uploads, and comb through each album looking for tracks which I need to upload to LOOP. It would be nice if the application featured a smart playlist of tracks in this state, would at least make repairing issues like this faster.
LOOP works very well for me
That said, once files are pushed up to LOOP, the service is rock solid. I have used it in spotty coverage (2 ‘dots’ of LTE in Clayton, CA) and streaming works beautifully. Of course, since they are just direct copies of your files, the sound quality is identical aside from the fact that I stream over Bluetooth in my car. I could plug a USB directly and the only limitation would be the processing on the internal iPhone audio chip.
I downloaded a ton of stuff back to my phone after uploading to LOOP from the Mac. Now I can carry all the albums I love to hear again and again, and I can get access to my library on demand without using Apple’s service at all. Because let’s face it, Apple makes great hardware, but their online services suck a jaguar’s ass.
I’ve also been playing with an open source project which aims to become a Tivo type of system for your music. The idea is you point the Headphones software to your music folder, and it uses musicbrainz’s API to identify artists and albums/releases, and then you can configure it to utilize NZBs or torrents to automatically download new albums or other releases as they become available. If you’re familiar with SickBeard this is the same thing, but for music. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a fork.
I’ll really miss Rdio for the great music discovery experience they built, but too many services have failed me now, so I’m planning to continue curating my own music library of files and backing it up appropriately, so no matter what service I choose to use or try, I’ve always got a hard copy of my library somewhere.
I’m also hoping that last.fm will come up with a better app on iOS. The new site looks like, but it’s all the same old stuff, just interesting ways to look at your data and see recommendations. I find last.fm’s recommendations to be mostly good, sometimes great. I just wish it was a nicer experience from a phone.
I’m very happy to have all the music I love directly stored on my phone, like it was 2005 and I was carrying around an iPod synced to iTunes at home. Grabbing new music is really easy now, so it’s not hard to jump into something new if someone suggests something to me. I look forward to enjoying this setup for a long time to come, I just hope that the developer of VOX continues to support this software!