TV a la carte? I’ll Buy That For A Dollar!

According to anonymous sources via The Wall Street Journal, Apple is possibly in the process of wooing at least CBS and Disney into a subscription service for streaming television.  The basic rundown is that the customer could subscribe to a program stream without having to deal with those messy, customer-unfriendly cable companies that everyone I know loathes and despises in a vein similar to their affections for Terrorists and Nazi Zombies.

I, for one, am ecstatic about the prospect of only having to pay for the small handful of channels I watch (when I actually sit down and watch television).  If I want The Military History Channel, I don’t want to have to purchase Golf TV, BET, Lifetime, etc. when I will practically never find myself actively watching such tripe.  Of course, this is something we’ve all been subjected to since the advent and explosion of the format since the 1980’s.  I remember talk during the late 90’s about the FCC kicking around the idea of “TV a la carte” wherein, thanks to programmable receivers, consumers would be able to purchase subscriptions only for networks they actually watch.  Lobbies representing the cable providers (namely Comcast and Verizon, if memory serves correctly) immediately went into action championing the plight of the niche-market TV networks–small, usually locally-oriented, stations that have little to no widespread appeal (think low-power UHF stations of old)–saying they would inevitably be destroyed if no one had the opportunity to stumble upon them.  Thankfully, we now have Web 2.0.  With its proliferation of on-demand services such as RSS, YouTube, Twitter, etc., the “no one will ever see this” excuse is practically eliminated.

I think this is certainly the start of something new and necessary for the growth of entertainment, information, and technology.  With seemingly limitless options provided by the Interweb, television doesn’t have to be held hostage to timeslots…or location-specific receivers, for that matter.  My only concern is the fact that Apple might keep a stranglehold on the market–is there a way to make sure that the receiver software stays open?  I don’t want to have to deal with iTunes just to keep up with 24 or Doctor Who.  Frankly, I don’t want to have to deal with iTunes, period, but that’s a subject for another time.

In the meantime:  Streaming media to your set-top box, laptop, or phone?  Yes, please.

How Well Does TuneUp Really Clean Your ITunes Library?

Keeping your music collection organised is a rather daunting task if you’re a bit of a musicophile. It’s even more daunting if you happen to be borderline obsessive-compulsive. I happen to be both.

The biggest problems that I run across are inconsistency in capitalisation, missing artwork, and improperly tagged files. These would not be much in and of themselves, but I have a collection nearing twenty thousand individual tracks, and I require some automation to do the heavy lifting.

Enter TuneUp, a music cataloguing application designed around iTunes. Now, I’m not much of a fan of Apple’s preeminent media player (it’s never seemed to give me the same level of control in a simple UX that I could get from various options on Linux), but considering its market ubiquity, the integration seems a small price to pay for a pristine library. TuneUp will scan your existing library, identify tracks, and attempt to fit them into the correct albums before filling in all the missing ID3 tag information. The developers promise an “automagic” experience, but with my eclectic tastes, that has proven impossible.

The program can only hold 1000 entries at a time so I am forced to break my collection down by artist name–doing all the A’s, followed by the B’s, etc. So far, this has been a slow process. Although many of the albums are shown correctly, roughly 70% of them are so-called “likely matches” which means that I have to at least check the file against its listing in iTunes, a process that is surprisingly streamlined thanks to the aforementioned integration. Thankfully, the learning curve is shallow: the interface, like everything else in OSX is all drag-and-drop. Even the “undo” command is drag-and-drop, prompting you to simple drag the offending files into a special window. This has come in handy a few times as I have learned that large collections of a single artist (so far AC/DC and The Beatles) tend to flag as duplicate tracks or wrong albums. These anthologies may take a few revisions.

So far, I’ve spent over a week working on my library. The Gracenote library that powers TuneUp is severely limited in its selection of cover art for much of my collection. Even my more mainstream classic rock selections such as The Blues Brothers Definitive Collection or The Who’s Greatest Hits were running against a brick wall to get all the correct information!

On the bright side, adding new albums to iTunes via TuneUp seems to be a better experience–mostly because of the smaller volume of tracks. This strategy of checking my information by only scanning one album at a time has been slower, but has provided me with fewer erroneous results.

My biggest gripe with TuneUp is its lack of selection when attempting to match tracks to an album. Instead of giving a selection of possible matches, it populates with a list of “likely matches” and assigns tracks to those albums. These are often the wrong artist, album, or even track name! To wit, I have to manually move all the incorrect matches to the appropriate position in the correct album–taking far more time than should ever have been dedicated to such a project. God help you if the album isn’t in Gracenote’s database or it’s the wrong version (I have a lot of ripped vinyl that doesn’t match track lists for the CD remaster); you will get a list of 8-10 albums that are wildly different, one track mated to each one, then the app simply gives up and lists the balance under “no matches”.

Don’t believe the hype around TuneUp; It’s a great idea, but executed poorly. It is certainly not worth the $40 to purchase, especially if your music collection is gathered from legitimate sources such as the iTunes, Amazon, or Google Play stores. The better CD ripping applications will fill in the ID3 tags for you as you go, and vinyl titles aren’t supported very well. However, if you were a hardcore Napster user back in the day, you might find the one-time purchase option to be just enough automation to take out part of the headache surrounding manual data entry on those bootleg Apoptygma Berzerk albums you downloaded.

Swinsian Is The iTunes Killer You’ve Been Looking For

Remember, once upon a time, when iTunes was the end-all, beat-all music library organizer and MP3 player for Macintosh? (Yes, I am solidly in the “WinAmp was the best fucking MP3 player application ever written and don’t you fucking forget it” camp, but we’re not talking about Windows right now). I think it was about the time version 11 came out (maybe 12, I’m not terribly certain) that iTunes just started to feel…stale. Many of the features that I came to know and love just fizzled away for the sake of pushing the store and streaming music.

Now, I’m not against streaming music in the least (I used to while away many, many hours on the road listening to Pandora and Slacker Radio on my Blackberry Storm), but I find it offensive when the mission of a particular piece of software that I have used for years flips from curating and organizing my thousands upon thousands of audio files to selling me a streaming and cloud storage service that I don’t want or need! As Apple has moved more into the streaming game, I have started looking for a suitable alternative to organize and play my local library.

My criteria are as follows:

  • The software must automatically organize the file structure in the library folder based on changes to the ID3 tags.
  • The software must edit universal ID3 tags.
  • The software should look pretty good.
  • The software must catalogue and be searchable.

You would think that these could be simple criteria to fill on any operating system–and on Linux or Windows, you would be right–but it seems that the Coop has a chokehold on media management for MacOS as there are no solid applications that mimic iTunes without the headaches of iTunes. At least, there are no free ones.

James Burton has suffered the same problems with iTunes that I have and took that as an opportunity to develop his own application, Swinsian. Swinsian is classic iTunes, focused on cataloguing and organization, with none of the bloat that has crept into Apple’s application over the past few years. The cool thing about Swinsian (and something sure to impress those FLAC-loving weirdo audiophiles and OGG-hearted die-hard open sourcers) is that it supports almost all major formats! It’ll even play WMA files (good luck doing that natively on a Mac now that Perian is dead)!

I’ve been using Swinsian to manage my library for almost a year now, and I’ve gladly given up the sales-oriented nonsense that is iTunes. I can easily edit my ID3 tags and have those changes reflected in the file structure of the library; I can easily catalogue and search my library; and the application has a great visual aesthetic that emphasizes the album art that I gave up when I moved to digital.

Yes, you will need to pay for Swinsian (at time of writing, it’s $20US), but as Andrew Lewis observed: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” While this isn’t a universal truth, it is often the case in walled gardens like post-Jobs Apple. If you’re a collector of digital music (as most audio junkies from the 1990s are), Swinsian is a Jackson well spent!