There's no viable form of managing and listening to music


Music Privacy

There’s no viable form of managing and listening to to music

Synopsis

This will be a long one, so buckle up, strap yourself in, etc. I love music. I’ve cried listening to music. I’m one of those weird people who sit down and take an hour out of their day to listen to an entire album. So, it only makes sense that I would want a quality music service. I also love Linux, and I care about privacy. These three things create a slew of problems and it makes it hard to acquire music for my personal listening.

Personal History / Experiences

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My parents only listened to Christian music growing up. The first time I heard Nirvana, I was maybe 15, and it was only because my middle school band occasionally played Rock Band. When I first started driving, I discovered plenty of albums that my dad left (possibly tried to hide) in his car - Def Leppard, ACDC, Alice in Chains…and Nirvana. It started me down a path of trying to listen to as much classic rock as I could for the next 4-5 years. Because I only had access to these physical copies, much of my listening was done per album. Very rarely would I skip songs. I found it odd that some of my friends would skip past the last 20 seconds of a song to get to the next one. I would say, “That’s part of the song, man!", even though it could be just silence, building up to the next song.

Anyways, from the start I was already listening to music differently from how most people would be listening to music. Downloadable music changed how people listened to music - it allowed them to listen to whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Streaming services further complicated things. Now, you have music “delivered” to you. It’s “your list”, or “my music”, displayed in series of songs that are personalized “just for you”. For a lot of people I know, music is just background noise - which is kind of sad to me.

I get that people will listen to music however they want, and I don’t think there’s any problem with just listening to it casually. I also don’t think that there’s any “wrong way” to listen to music. But it still makes me think about how people haven’t sat down with a particular song or album and just completely listened to it and tried to understand or feel it - I wish people would do this so they could experience the same emotions that I do when I listen to music like that.

Forms of listening to music

I was a long-time Spotify Premium user. Once I decided to start switching to more privacy-respecting services and products, I cancelled my subscription. I wanted to own my music, and I wanted to find an alternative that made it easy to manage and listen to my music. It’s been over a year of searching, and I still haven’t found anything that really works.

Streaming Services

There are so many streaming services out there. Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, Google Play Music, the list goes on. One thing is certain, however - none of these services respect your privacy. They all collect data to try and recommend you new content, and some of them sell your data to other services (like Google, for ad personalization). Besides that, you also don’t own any of the music. You’re basically just “renting” the songs provided to you by these services. Songs, albums, and artists could disappear from the service at any moment.

The upside to these services is that you get a curated selection of music that revolves around what you listen to (a pro for most people, but a con for me - I just want to listen to what I decide I want to listen to). You also get a service that easily handles music that you add (or favorite, love, whatever). And, most of the time, it “just works”.

Buying digital music

There are some websites that offer an alternative - purchasing digital copies of individual albums or songs.

DRM

Websites such as iTunes and Amazon are examples of music that is restricted by DRM, or Digital Rights Management. Basically, this means that in order to use (or listen to) purchases made, you must use their software applications. If I buy a song on iTunes, I must use iTunes in order to listen to it. This is obviously something that I want to avoid, because I want to be able to play music anywhere, and on any device.

DRM-Free sites

There are some websites that offer music DRM-free - that is, music you can download and listen to anywhere, on any device that supports the format. Bandcamp and 7Digital were the only websites I found that had music relevant to my tastes and had artists that were relatively popular. When I found these, I thought “this is it! This is my perfect solution!” - just download the music, upload it to a self-hosted instance of FOSS software or similar, and I would be set. Problems arise…

The biggest issue with these websites is that they have no control over the content - which means neither do you. In their terms and conditions, they specifically mention that any content on their website that is purchasable could be removed at any time. This makes it possible for you to buy an album or song, and, in the time it takes to load the web page that displays the download button, it could be removed. I have personally had 4 albums removed from my account because the label or artist decided to stop selling there. Furthermore, according to their terms and conditions, you cannot receive refunds for this particular situation. This brings up the question of if you actually own what you buy. If you can no longer access the media you paid for, do you really own it? If it can be removed at any time, shouldn’t they at least offer refunds for it? Or, at the very least, they should be totally transparent about it and not hide it 65% of the way through their terms and conditions.

Self-hosting streaming software

Something that I tried was using FOSS software on a VPS, self-hosting the software to serve my music. I tried a couple of these solutions, but the one I really tried to get working was Funkwhale. Because I was running it off of a VPS, it was slow, and streaming music took a long time to load. It allowed me to upload my purchased DRM-Free music to it, but it was just too slow and I eventually removed it from my VPS.

I could have paid more for a more powerful VPS, but I didn’t see the point as I was trying to move away from subscription services. I also could have built a small home server, but I wanted a solution that would be reliably accessable from anywhere at any time (possible, but a lot of setup and usually involves paying for a VPN service).

Piracy

Piracy is a touchy subject, and is mostly a grey area. I personally am not a fan of it, because I like to pay the creators of the media I want to obtain. I don’t believe it helps people understand that there are people out there (like me) who want a service that respects their privacy and allows them to actually own their purchases. However, because of these conditions I can see why people would eventually resort to it.

Physical copies

Physical copies can be a valid option, and I actually prefer vinyl copies of music. However, I don’t always have the ability to play my vinyl music - it’s in a different room than my workspace. Besides that, records can get expensive, and you’d be hard-pressed (ha) to find records that contain a list of curated music - most of them are albums.

CDs can also be a good choice, but what if I want a higher quality, like FLAC? There are also laws (in the USA) against making digital copies of CDs, and CD players are quite uncommon nowadays (most computers don’t even have physical disk drives anymore).

What if I want my money to go to the artists I like?

Your subscription to Spotify or Apple Music certainly isn’t helping them. The best thing you can do to support artists you like is to go see them - buy tickets, buy merchandise, etc. Some artists and labels have websites where you can buy physical or digital copies of their music, along with merchandise. Buying directly from the label or artist website makes sure that most of your money goes towards the artist.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, there’s not a viable way of easily accessing digital music purchased from online vendors. Fortunately, you can purchase DRM-Free copies of music from websites like Bandcamp and 7Digital, or buying them outright from the label or artist website. However, these albums or songs may be removed at any time, making your purchase invalid (you can’t access the files anymore). Furthermore, you can self-host your DRM-Free music, but that comes with it’s own issues - you must set up your own software, and you will likely have to pay for a VPS or a VPN service.

I hope that a solution will eventually present itself, but I’m not sure if that will ever happen. For now, I guess I may grab a subscription to Spotify or similar just to have chill-out tunes to listen to at work, privacy be damned. Vinyl for the rest.