For anyone who has music as a part of their life, there is something sacred and special about your music library. It’s perhaps the most unique representation of you as a person in some ways: even with only a few hundred songs, the laws of probability would suggest that your library would be completely unique in the world. Your particular music taste is entirely your own. Managing this representation of yourself is something that many take great care of and pay attention to. Enjoying music, one of the things that you revel in the most, in a way that’s easy and hassle-free should be a delight. At the moment it’s not quite perfect, actually it’s far from it.
In the modern digital age, there is one dominating force in music – and that is Apple. With the iPod they put thousands of songs in your pocket and revolutionised the way in which we listen to music. The iPod is, perhaps after the internet, the best invention of the last thirty years. Even though my iPod Touch’s health is failing rapidly (being cracked, unable to sense movement and running out of memory) I’d still count it as my most prized possession. But iTunes, Apple’s library and music player software, is a product that is unbelievably below par compared to its’ portable partner. As much as it pains me to say it, though, it’s the best of a bad bunch.
iTunes has never been a piece of software that has worked well. It takes a lot of memory to run, causing it to crash more than any other program I use. Almost everyone I know has had some sort of calamity with the program, from losing entire libraries to losing artwork etc. that takes considerable effort to put right. Adding music to your library when you don’t buy from iTunes’ own store can be a burdensome task. There’s never been a view of my library that’s been able to give me all the information I want whilst keeping a nice aesthetic. The search box doesn’t work anywhere near as well as it should. My list of problems with iTunes is longer than I’d care to subject you to. Although it does the basics right, the bells and whistles that should make the program beautiful are rusty at best.
iTunes has always been rather sluggish in dealing with its’ flaws too, and that’s not helped the program’s reputation among users. I’ll concede that iTunes’ latest major update in November 2012 did much to improve the service but it really served more as a wake-up call as to how far behind the needs of its’ users it was beforehand. It was only in the latest iteration that a play queue was available, a feature that I use nigh-on every time I open up the program now. I can’t imagine a world where I’d have to do pick songs one after the other each time. iTunes 11 also removed the god-awful attempt at a social network called Ping, a mix between Facebook, Twitter and iTunes that offered little of the functionality of any of them and even less incentive to use it.
iTunes’ only main rival at the moment is Spotify, and they are still leagues apart in terms of popularity. Spotify allows you to stream songs via the internet or play songs from your hard drive. You can use Spotify’s streaming service from anywhere in the world (if you have internet access) via their web player. Spotify is about a decade ahead of iTunes in terms of integration with the internet. Even their social efforts aren’t half bad, with the ability to “Connect with Facebook” and see some of the songs that your friends are listening to, playlists they’ve shared and other little details. It’s the start of something new and interesting. Spotify’s main downfall though is to do with its’ business model. Because they do not earn money per song bought they force users to pay a subscription or to endure both visual and audio ads whilst listening to their music. This is the only way they can afford to pay even breadcrumbs to labels and artists to provide their music on the platform. Although Spotify does have a few features that trump iTunes’, putting up with pop-up ads and 30-second interludes to my music is far more irritating than living with iTunes’ foibles.
So, there is no real stellar music player out there. There’s so many little features that I’d love to see in music players that would make them much more user-friendly. One example, perhaps because databases are still hard to do in programming even today, is that music players don’t really handle songs having multiple artists or multiple albums very well. Wouldn’t it be great to look up an artist, particularly someone that works with a lot of others on songs, and be able to choose from all the songs they’ve appeared in either as the main artist or as a feature? I’d also like to have songs under a few different albums and genres, but that’s something that current players can’t do either. Being able to tag songs, for example by mood, time you listen to them or style of music, would be a much more elegant solution to group songs than playlists are at the moment. There’s no way of easily showing your favourite songs over a given time, with only so much that user-created “smart” playlists can do in iTunes and Spotify’s attempts at play counts being pitiful. There’s so much more that desktop music players could do but aren’t doing at the moment.
No music player has really handled the social side of music particularly well, to add to their failings. Spotify has had limited success, but isn’t a program that’s used in a social way all that much yet. I think the best chance for a socially-orientated music player would be if Last.fm were to launch a desktop app that can actually play music from users’ hard drives rather than just scrobble played songs. I love Last.fm, as it does a lot of the things that I wish iTunes or Spotify did, but being limited to online use only means that there’s never a time where I’m better off using it over iTunes or my iPod. A desktop version of Last.fm, perhaps with Facebook friend connection to get people on board (even if that means it loses some of its’ soul), would be excellent. Being able to see what your friends were listening to whilst they were would be great. Being able to peruse their libraries and find that hidden gem they were talking about, or find a classic tune in their playlists that you’d forgotten existed would be something that I’d do over and over again. Being able to share songs with friends, if they were streamable of course, would be the ultimate in a social music experience. It almost pains me that these ideas, that I assume would be so simple, haven’t actually been put into action yet.
Music players are one of the most important programs on almost anyone’s computer, but none of them are really fully-fledged or up to anything and everything that’s asked of them. For now, iTunes is my music librarian; but only because a lack of a better alternative. There is so much more that music players could do, but there’s little appetite to bring these new features in. iTunes is not good, but using it is a necessarily evil to get my music fix.