On Getting the Bands Back Together

Posted by Jack on 2020-08-09 at 17:38
Tagged: personal , music

Recently, Google forced my family from Google Music onto YouTube Music. It wasn't a huge deal, our playlists made it over, the selection seems the same. Aside from some housekeeping (clearing up the billing, switching apps etc.) it was almost painless.

That said, my opinion of Google has been pretty low for a few years. Maybe since the move to "Alphabet", maybe since "Don't be Evil" was removed as their motto back in 2018. They've fallen a long way since the heady days of adopting Android when we in the Linux community looked at them as a savior of sorts.

A year or two ago, we started trying to "divest" from Google. We started using DuckDuckGo as our primary search, I shifted my personal email from being a redirect to my GMail account, to being a ProtonMail with my old GMail redirected to it (as an aside, if you can ever get out of running your own mail server do it, it does wonders for peace of mind). But of course this movement was incomplete. We have three Android devices in the house crammed with Google software, two Chromecasts, we still regularly use Maps (or would if we had anywhere to go during COVID-19), pay for YouTube Music / Premium etc. The idea was to become less reliant, rather than cutting it out completely (like we have done with Amazon and, long ago, Facebook).

The forced march to YouTube Music had me pining for something that I lost... my meticulously curated FLAC collection. It was the product of years of effort in college, either downloaded from private torrent trackers Oink and Waffles, or ripped from CDs of my own childhood collection and the Rolla radio station where I briefly trained as a DJ (circa 2007 KMNR) mostly to get access to their library.

Five or six years ago that FLAC collection was lost in a sudden disk failure along with some modded Minecraft servers that I wish I still had (like the summer camp jungle beach where Scarlett and I set off fireworks on the 4th of July one year). I put the disk on a shelf with the idea of getting it forensically reconstructed ($$$) but mostly I just shrugged, bought a new disk, and moved on. Everything else was backed up, I was paranoid with my source and our family pictures, but the FLAC collection was too large to easily shift elsewhere and… if I'm being honest, I basically didn't use it anymore.

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I got out of the habit of listening to my FLACs for a couple of reasons. The first being that, as soon as we started getting smartphones (2010, I got my first HTC Hero on Sprint) it started feeling cumbersome. Suddenly burning CDs seemed like it was from the Stone Age and an iPod (which was the high-water mark for Apple in our Linux household) was just an extra annoyance. The phone could actually play FLACs, but when you've got like 2.5G of storage, that's maybe 10 albums. I transcoded down to Oggs for a while, but that still didn't come close to getting the whole collection (and let it be a given that when you only have access to 10% of your collection, the music you want to listen to is always in the other 90%). Second, my wife, who loves new music, would have to ask me multiple times for new releases and even though we'd occasionally sit and I'd download a laundry list of albums for her, and she had remote access to the collection, it wasn't exactly a seamless experience and didn't cover the "I'm not sitting at home on my laptop" case she needed a lot more than I did. Even though I tried hard to make it work, having these pristine FLACs stuck on a fileserver just wasn't cutting it anymore.

It wasn't too long after these problems cropped up that Google Music arrived and appeared to be the perfect solution. Suddenly streaming to a phone to play in the car was easy, new releases popped up with zero effort, and it even allowed you to upload your own music to cover any of the rarities (or artists like The Beatles or Tool that didn't sign on for streaming until later). We bought in, and I uploaded my FLAC collection in its entirety because even if it was a little gross to have them transcoded to whatever MP3 format Google would serve, it solved a bunch of problems for us. It didn't take long for my actual FLACs to start collecting virtual dust. Eventually, I even deleted my uploaded copy because Google Music showed double for all of the duplicate albums and hey... I still had the originals... until I didn't.

I took me a while to really miss the FLACs. I'd like to say that I really noticed the downtick in quality, but I didn't. The average 192kbps MP3 is enough to fool most ears, so I'll admit I prefer FLAC purely from a data completeness and open format point of view. The ease of using Google Music, which only increased with the introduction of the Chromecast and the improvement of our phones and mobile connections over the last decade, outweighed pretty much every other concern, but there were still gaps. The Grey Album. Ratatat Remixes. Deltron 3030. Girl Talk's earlier albums. These still aren't there. There are also a handful of places where I had albums from weird releases that I still honestly miss. I had a copy of Tortoise - Millions Living Now Will Never Die that sounds way different from the official release. I don't know if I got some weird JP release, or if the files were just mismatched etc. but whatever the case it's gone.

The intervening years have been nothing but an improvement for the concept of a personal music collection. Phone connectivity and storage has improved, yes, but more importantly cloud storage is now a thing that's cheap and mature. I have more than 1TB of free space on Google Drive at this point, the left over space from the latest iteration of storing our family photos and videos (encrypted with rclone). That's storage I can get to anywhere, even at work or on the road. For the local copy of the collection I've got a similar amount of space on my desktop and a 4TB spinning disk left over from my last torrent box project that I'm not using for anything. Moving, backing up, or accessing a 500GB FLAC collection just doesn't seem as daunting as it did in 2010 or 2011.

The one thing that streaming offers that is impossible to replicate with a personal collection is the appearance of new music automatically. That limitation is inherent because it's not a curated collection if you are merely aggregating all music. Streaming is still too hard to resist as a tool for new music discovery, and it's going to take a while for any collection to even include all the music I already like, much less encompassing all of the new stuff on the horizon. Not to mention the three other members of the streaming plan that I frankly don't want to provide support for again.

Without dropping Google's service what's the point? With their pervasiveness in our lives, in our browsers, in our pockets, attached to our TVs, the idea is to rely on it less. To cultivate alternatives, to look for ways to take greater control of our data footprint. It's the idea that next time I want to listen to an old favorite, I don't have to go to Google, or Spotify, or whoever that will charge me for the pleasure of tightening their web of heuristics.

There's also a component of vanity to any curated collection, and I'll cop to that freely. A music, book, or movie collection in any form is expressing an opinion, a style, a fashion. "I selected each of these. I have taste." When you find something you like it's enshrined, where other candidates just weren't up to your standard. It follows that in some ways losing that collection feels like losing your taste. With my FLAC collection lost, and with Waffles down, I was relegated to buying into someone else's collection. A broad collection, well studied by the ten million previous users feeding the algorithms that helped generate the recommendations you follow or the playlists you enjoy, but no matter how comprehensive or useful it's not yours. You're a visitor in someone else's taste. You're subject to their rules. You don't get to move in and make yourself comfortable.

So, with a bit of trepidation, I successfully interviewed for a new private music tracker, logged on and started the long haul to rebuild my massive collection. Judging from the fact I have exactly 0 bytes uploaded in the last three days, it's going to take a long time before I can feasibly rebuild the whole thing, but it feels good to download albums that have been immaculately ripped from known sources. It might not be a very good collection yet, but it's mine.

To celebrate, I picked up my first ever USB DAC (AudioEngine D1) and a fresh pair of Grado SR80e headphones to see how they compare to my old pair of Sennheiser HD598s (which may have been burnt out with drunken volume boosting and head banging). I bet it will make zero difference, but I'm already salivating at the idea of listening to a 24-bit vinyl rip of Tame Impala - The Slow Rush on pristine hardware. It's good to be back.