Cloud Music: Google v. Amazon

I know some privacy nuts are very anti-cloud storage, but I’ve seen enough distraught users having just lost all of their data from a failed hard drive, accidental deletion, or stolen computer to know that even though “The Cloud” isn’t for everyone, it’s still good for most people. Most computer users do not make regular backups of their personal files, and most corporations have redundant backups. So is it theoretically conceivable that Amazon or Google might somehow lose your personal files if you store them on a remote server? Sure. But it’s far more likely you’ll lose your files if you store them only locally.

More importantly, cloud storage doesn’t have to be the only storage. I back up to two external hard drives, a second computer, and the cloud. While I do value my privacy to a certain extent, I don’t have a privacy-at-all-costs approach to life, and there are other things I value just as much, if not more (e.g., photos that cannot be retaken, a music collection it’s taken me decades to build), so I was excited when this spring Google and Amazon each decided to release a cloud-based music player. Here are my pros and cons on the two services.

Google Music Beta Pros

  • Storage of up to 20,000 songs. I have only about 6500 in my collection, and that’s my total collection that it’s taken me decades to amass, so I’m highly unlikely to ever go over that storage limit.
  • Relatively fast upload. Given just how many GB of songs I had to upload, it took only a few days to upload. Not bad.
  • Decent-looking interface. It’s no iTunes (and I know there are iTunes haters out there, but I think it’s a great program, except for having no Linux port).

Google Music Beta Cons

  • Right now it’s invite-only. Eventually I did get an invite, and so did my wife, but I don’t really think the invite system is really necessary, considering the program has the word beta in its name.
  • There’s one song that just refuses to upload. It isn’t the wrong format. I’ve tried the workarounds Google and others have suggested. It just won’t upload. And there’s no way to manually upload it.
  • The upload client is Windows or Mac only. Some clever Linux users have found a way to make the Windows client work in Linux using Wine, but Google really should release a Linux native client. Or, better yet, upload straight through the web browser using a cross-platform tool like Java or Flash.
  • This is the real deal-breaker for me: it isn’t really a cloud back-up solution, since you cannot re-download the songs once you’ve uploaded them. You upload them, and then the only thing you can do is stream the songs or delete them. For me, this totally defeats the purpose of cloud storage. And even when, on my Android phone, I marked certain albums as available for off-line use, the actual music file doesn’t show up anywhere on my MicroSD card, so for all practical purposes, it’s still just a streaming service, because I’m cut off from re-downloading my own music.

Amazon Cloud Player Pros

  • You can download songs after you’ve uploaded them.
  • You get free storage for any newly purchased Amazon songs or albums.
  • You get 5 GB of free storage, but you can bump that up to 20 GB if you purchase an Amazon MP3 album once a year.
  • The Amazon MP3 uploader actually shows you the progress of each individual upload. Google Music Beta will show you just the current number out of the total.
  • You can manually select a location (not just all of iTunes) to upload.

Amazon Cloud Player Cons

  • The upload verification process is buggy. I tried to upload only songs from a particular playlist in iTunes. One time it said it was done uploading but only half of the songs had actually uploaded. Another time it was supposed to simply resume uploading where it had left off, but it started again from the beginning and created a bunch of duplicates I had to manually delete.
  • The uploader itself is buggy. It works just fine on my Macbook Pro running Leopard, but it hangs on Loading… on my wife’s Macbook Pro running Snow Leopard. I’ve Googled but haven’t found a solution to this. Uninstalling and reinstalling the uploader doesn’t help, nor does installing the latest version of Adobe Air, quitting all the other programs, or rebooting the computer.
  • Like the Google Music Beta uploader, the Amazon one is for Windows and Mac only. I’m not sure if it’ll work in Linux using Wine or not. Again, why not just use Java or Flash? Why a separate application?

Oh, and for both Google Music Beta and Amazon Cloud Player, why isn’t there a way to display and then purge duplicate songs? The algorithms for detecting duplicates before upload is deficient for both services, so at least they should make an easy way to clean up after upload.

Overall, I’m pleased that Google and Amazon have started down this path. I’m mainly going with Amazon, though, just because it allows the ability to re-download songs, so the cloud storage is real storage (a back-up solution) instead of just a way to stream songs. Perhaps after Google Music comes out of Beta it’ll be a bit more polished. Then again, Amazon’s Cloud Player is not in beta, and it still lacks some of the polish Google Music Beta does.

Christianity Music I Like

I miss Acoustic Shack

I don’t really listen to much contemporary Christian music these days. I’m still in love with some Christian bands from the 90s (Dakoda Motor Co., PFR, Caedmon’s Call). As a matter of fact, even with non-Christian stuff, I’m still in love with the mid-90s (Poe, Portishead, Toad the Wet Sprocket, the Fugees).

I still remember the first time I heard Acoustic Shack. It was after some youth group meeting on a Friday night, and one of our youth group counselors was going to give me a ride home. Before we drove off from church, though, he asked me to listen to something. I liked what I’d heard, and when he told me it was a Christian band, I was like, “What?!” (At this time, Michael W. Smith, DC Talk, and Amy Grant were pretty big; and Petra and all the Christian “heavy metal” bands were just cheesy).

So I got the CD (Fret Buzz) from the nearest Christian bookstore (which was 45 minutes from my house), and I loved the whole CD. When a friend of mine lent me a tape (yeah, what we had before CDs and right after records) of Acoustic Shack’s first album (which was self-titled), I loved them even more. Yes, the drums were all pre-programmed on the first album, but I liked the guitar solos and melodies a lot better than on the second one.

For years I listened to those two albums over and over again. I wasn’t too impressed with the third album A Distant Bell, and I never got to hear the fourth album.

Recently, I got nostalgic for Acoustic Shack and tried to track down more information about them. I found out that Michael Misiuk formed some band called The Kreepdowns, and I wasn’t able to find much about it at all online, so I gave it a shot.

I found a used copy of it for sale on Amazon (clearly no one else cares about The Kreepdowns, because the CD was less than the price of shipping, and the shipping was only a couple of dollars).

Well, I finally got the CD today, and it’s okay. It’s no early Acoustic Shack. It’s actually quite a bit heavier (a lot more electric guitar and screaming). I just gave it a quick listen, and so far “Cello” (the second track) is the only one that’s half-way decent.

If, like me, you’re nolstagic for a bit of good mid-90s Christian rock, there are a couple of YouTube “videos” (watch the album cover while you listen to the music) of Acoustic Shack:

“Radio Play”
I love the little multiple-guitar dance that happens between 2:10 and 2:50.

“It’s Good to Know”
2:15 to 2:50 on this song has a nice little acoustic guitar solo.

“Torment Party”
No real guitar solo here, but the song just has a nice sound to it overall.

Too bad Lisa and Michael Misiuk aren’t making any more music. I wonder what they’re doing these days.

Music I Like Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Gender in bands

It doesn’t really surprise me when I see this in Christian churches, but the phenomenon also spills out into secular society as well, and that does surprise me. I’ve seen a lot of bands with a woman lead singer who sings and plays no instrument (except maybe a tamborine) supported by men playing bass, guitar, and drums. This gender dynamic is odd.

Of course, there’s nothing terrible about being the lead singer. I don’t want to make it sound as if that’s an example of gender oppression, to be in the spotlight, but why aren’t there more women guitarists, bassists, and drummers? I know they exist. I’ve seen them before—just not in great numbers.

When my wife and I saw Sara Bareilles in concert, the opening act was a band called Raining Jane. They weren’t bad. They weren’t amazing. But she and I both agreed that it was pretty cool to see an all-female band—vocals, sitar, guitars, drums, bass. I also saw only once an all-female worship team at a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts (don’t know if they’re still there). Doubt I’ll ever see that again.

I wonder what the sociological factors are that go into band gender dynamics. If women do play instruments, they’re far more likely, it seems, to play piano and rhythm guitar than solo guitar, bass, or drums. Is there something deemed by the women themselves (or by society discouraging women) supposedly unfeminine about these instruments?

A while ago, I went with two women to see the documentary Girls Rock, about a one-week rock camp for girls. The girls didn’t have to have any previous musical experience, but within the course of one week, they all formed bands, wrote songs, practiced, learned instruments, and gave final performances. Even though there is some musicianship involved in the camp, a one-week camp can’t really train you that much on playing instruments well. A lot of the camp has to do with self-confidence and self-expression. Both women I saw it with loved the film and found it empowering. Neither particularly wanted to follow up by forming a band or learning guitar (or bass or drums) themselves, though.

I’m curious as to what other people’s experiences have been around bands and gender. If you’re a man, do you feel any particular affinity toward guitars, drums, or basses? If you’re a woman, do you feel any particular affinity toward singing, piano, and guitar? What messages of encouragement or discouragement in the realm of instrument-learning and musicality have you experienced?

Life Music I Like

Celebrity Performers

I’ve been to a few rock/pop concerts over the years, and I find the celebrity performer phenomenon intriguing. The word celebrity I’m using rather loosely here to refer to anyone the audience is a big fan of. So, for example, at a Dance Hall Crashers or Hoi Polloi concert, the performers are “celebrities”—even though most people have never heard of either group—just because the audiences attending the concerts are fans of the group. It’s usually the opening act that is the group of non-celebrity performers.

With audiences and celebrity performances, the energy and gratitude and applause are mainly for celebrity, not musicianship. If the opening act is unknown to the audience and walks on stage, there will be courtesy applause and clapping, and the opening act really has to prove itself with musicianship and showmanship. If it makes reference to the headliner, that’s a sure way to get the audience riled up (Thank you. We’re so grateful to be touring with [name of headlining act] tonight). I love, though, seeing the audience get won over by an opening act. I love it when the audience starts off thinking Who are these people? and ends up thinking Oh, my God! I love these people!.

The converse reaction for a headlining act is sad, however. I love Liz Phair’s studio work, but her live performance left much to be desired (she’s also openly admitted to having stage fright, and it shows!). When she came on stage, the audience was really excited and, naturally, cheered her walking on stage, even before she played any music. When she walked off stage, the audience was still cheering (I guess for the honor of being in her presence?).

Recently, I saw Sara Bareilles in concert, and she was good. She was good at playing music and singing, but she knew how to play that crowd, too. Every mention of San Francisco (or even the much-reviled abbreviation ‘frisco in her cover of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ by the) Dock of the Bay”) whipped the audience into a frenzy. She kept thanking all of her fans, and while she needs her fans more than her fans want her, she’s definitely the one, as the celebrity performer, with the power in the relationship. She could suck as a musician and probably still work the crowd. The mere mention of her name at that event got people excited. It’s all about her. When she said, “I want to give you all a hug,” some random guy in the audience screamed, “Hug me, Sara!”

This is in direct opposition to the non-celebrity performer who walks on stage nervous and with absolutely no power. The non-celebrity performer—unproven, unknown—gets no whoops and hollers for merely walking on stage or having her name mentioned. She has to start from scratch and hope her musicianship and showmanship alone can win the crowd over.

I will say as an audience member, my most satisfying concert experiences have always been from watching a non-celebrity performer become a celebrity performer for several hundred people in the course of half an hour. The least satisfying experiences are, of course, when my own personal celebrities fall from grace… apparently tone-deaf and lacking in showmanship. If you can’t sing in tune, at least know how to work that crowd.