Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Enablers

Everyone has a vice. Mine is music.

Like any irresponsible addict, that which I already have already is never enough. I have an absurd amount of music in my collection,1 but I always ache for something else to listen to; I imagine most people who have an affinity for music beyond their local top-forty radio station have similar urges.

For a long time, the discovery process was simple: you headed down to your local record store, and asked the grizzled guy behind the counter wearing a Dead Kennedys tee of any bands similar to those that you liked already. Since the replacement of sweet local record stores with HMV locations and the roughly-coincidental birth of the digital music store,2 this became less of a viable option, especially when the teenager behind the cash register doesn’t know the difference between The Smiths and The Strokes.

But now, we’re spoiled for choice. Pure discovery requires just a few clicks to create a free Spotify or Rdio account. If you live in the United States, Australia, or New Zealand, you’ve had access to Pandora since 2005. And — just a reminder — Last.fm still exists. All of these are perfectly viable ways of discovering new music and, depending on geography, are excellent options.

Apple’s been trying to solve the discovery issue as well. In 2006, they added an iTunes MiniStore to the library, which provided purchasing suggestions based on the currently-selected track in the library. Despite a minor uproar, the MiniStore lingered in the bottom of the window until 2008, when iTunes 8 introduced Genius, both in playlist and sidebar form. Genius playlists solved the discovery issue for music you already own; Genius suggestions allowed for discovery of music you might want to own.

And then there was Ping, the music social network Apple added to iTunes 10. It was like all your other social networks, except it only showed music purchases from the iTunes Store or music you “liked” from within your library, and it was completely antisocial. It was unceremoniously shit-canned with the release of iTunes 11 and iOS 6 because nobody used it. Ever.

Which brings me neatly to iTunes Radio. Unlike Spotify or Rdio, it is not a full-catalogue on-demand streaming service. It’s similar to Pandora, but with the advantage of a user’s library information, producing something like a Genius radio station. The seed for this station can be a song in your library, anything in Apple’s catalogue, or a genre; the songs played are a mix of songs you own with others not in your library.

In theory, then, this sounds promising: it’s based on technology consumers already know how to use, coupled to an expansive catalogue of music (and it isn’t a social network). It’s just the price of an iTunes Match subscription, or free, if you don’t mind ads. It will launch first in the US, much to my chagrin, and roll out to other countries.

All of these discovery services obviously don’t exist for purely artistic, benign reasons. But they are the contemporary approximation of the grizzly record store guy, and that’s exciting.


  1. Surprisingly, however, an insignificant amount. I have no Springsteen, nor anything from the Eagles. I do have an excellent live Tool bootleg, though. ↩︎

  2. Feel free to mentally replace this with “Napster”. ↩︎