Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Where Do You Think You're Going?

Hello, out there in the world of blogs that no one at all in the entire world is looking at, since I abandoned this one some time ago in favour of my new one!

This doesn't belong there, but deserves a bit more space than any social environment will directly allow, mostly because of the visual aspect.

I've spent some time lately developing a list of difficult to acquire tracks from a number of artists I find fascinating enough to allow for such pedantry. It means learning there are a lot of songs on compilations, split singles and the like that I do not otherwise see, and often of covers and oddities otherwise unnoticed. As I very rarely acquire music through illicit means anymore, I now spend a fair bit of time finding these things in places like Google Play's music store, Amazon MP3, and bandcamp

Bandcamp is the ideal: it's assembled by the artist directly in many cases (and thus often means they get most of the money), and often used for things like exactly what I want (Converge, for example, aim for exactly that: "Get rare, self released, and out of print digital music, direct from the band."). It's a mess, though. Not everyone bothers, some only provide limited discographies, and plenty are actually labels acting on behalf of the bands². Add that the mix of label and band providers means an artist's work can be split all over the place and difficult to track, too--well, it's just the flaw of anything collaboratively assembled.

Next we have Amazon MP3, which is where I first started doing things this way--a few free $.99 credits meant a few free tracks, and, since I can get most stuff on a nice, physical CD with art and physical longevity and such, I chose to use those credits for exceptional items where it is unavailable on CD, or would necessitate the purchase of an entire compilation (often out of print, and not definitively interesting for any other artists). I've built up a small collection there, but nothing ridiculous--plenty of it just part of Amazon's "AutoRip" feature of providing the tracks from an album you purchase there.

When Davenport Cabinet released their Risks in Magic EP (digitally only!), I first checked Amazon out of habit and had difficulty making the purchase before work that day. So, instead, I went to Google Play on a whim (I already took advantage of the 10,000 track free upload, so the idea was thre)--there it was. And I discovered Google Play actually provides tracks at a higher bitrate than Amazon: 320kbps vs. 192kbps (bandcamp also covers FLAC, VBR, ALAC, etc, for the record).

Suddenly I found myself using Google Play as my primary source now--or trying to.

When my current project struck me, I started with a nice Google Doc and as I went through it, decided to find out what I could get digitally. I suddenly learned that, somewhat ironically, Google Play Music has a terrible search methodology, which is incredibly inferior to the one I'd been using via Amazon to find all of these obscure tracks. That's the focus of what we're here today to look at!

Here's the original searching I was used to, using the search term "Snapcase" (the name of the artist I was then looking at):
You can click that to enlarge and see the notes I added, but overall what you are seeing is album covers for album-matches, and then a list of track-matches. You can actually sort the track results by most of the provided fields--"Title", "Artist", "Album", and "Time" (track length). You can add multiple tracks to a cart for a "packaged" purchase, as well as purchase the tracks individually. While this is not really ideal for mobile usage, this is also not the mobile version of Amazon's page. It means that if you are searching for a song title and can't remember the artist, or any of those three primary pieces and can't remember the others, you can use the sorting to attempt to decipher what it is your brain is vaguely remembering. If you knew it was an artist or title, you can click on the artist or title as it appears and be narrowed to those specifically.

Here are the results from the same search on Google Play:

We get an artist result, which is new, and we get purely pictographic results for the search, with an image chosen for the artist results. Below this, all album releases that match are pictured (including albums which contain a track with a name matching the keyword search). Below this, the tracks are listed with album covers, making the results mildly confusing at first glance, and then confusing and difficult to glance at--the focus is on the album art, which isn't helpful in results based purely on track-matches. The differing results are somewhat interesting in this case--Amazon pulled the Julie Miller track in its "track" results, while Google shows it only immediately under "Albums", which is a strange way to match an album (by a track name alone). Indeed, the track doesn't appear under the "Tracks - See More" page until nearly the end.

Now, if you open an artist page on Amazon MP3, you see something like this:

 We have the artist-matching album results at the top shown via album covers, and then a list of tracks below this. That tracklist down there is my favourite thing: it shows all tracks available on Amazon MP3 by the artist whose page you are looking at. I chose this page of results to illustrate this: you can see that none of the Album Titles in those results match the albums above. Those tracks are indeed the same artist, but are on compilations. You can sort this way to discover things like which track is actually a 10 minute dance remix (sort by "Time"), which is from the actual album (if you're a pedant, and want the exact crossfades, mixes, tracktimes, etc--sort by "Album") and look for that song you kind of remember the name of (sort by "Title"). My one complaint is that, unlike your original search results, you are limited to 10 results per "page" of the track-matches. There's no option to expand the list, and it can be tedious to page through them. That the original search results allow for a more code-complicated (some mouseover popups, highlighting, the mp3 "cart" option, etc) results leaves me really just confused as to why the option is not there.

 Open a Google Play Artist result, and you get something like this:
 You get a biography (if there's one written--I'm guessing pulled from somewhere, but I don't recognize it immediately. It tends to strongly resemble the iTunes ones, based on what I've seen of those excerpted in normal-Google search results), top 10 tracks, and albums. And here's where Google Play really becomes baffling: that top 10 tracks list is all you get for tracks. Top 10. There's no "see more" or way to sort it, or anything. Just 10 most popular tracks. Below that, albums. What is definitively missing is any way to sort results, any way to find the tracks that are on compilations Google Play also provides access to (and they do exist!³). They are tracks by this artist, but there's no way of knowing from this page that they exist. Following any links here, too, will not help. So far as Google Play is concerned, those albums and the top 10 purchased/downloaded tracks are the only ones that exist and/or anyone cares about.

It's a nice layout, and, again, more mobile-friendly, but it's pretty terrible for actually looking comprehensively for an artist's work. And even more popular artists do, on occasion, have those strange tracks that weren't on an album, but you know and love, because they got radio play from that soundtrack, or that weird compilation that somehow broke through.

But if you click "See more" under the original search, next to "Tracks", you get this:

And here we start to see glimpses of those mystery tracks--down at the bottom there, fourth from the right, you see "Filter", which is a live version of a track from Lookinglasself (the sort of navy album you see three times there), released on a live compilation called California Takeover. Keep scrolling through those results and you'll find those tracks from Victory Singles, Vol. 2, Victory Style 5, and so on. But they're just mixed in--you can't sort those results, filter them, or anything. You just get a big messy page that draws your eyes to album covers, which are repeated for every track from each release. It's mobile-friendly as always, but pretty useless overall. Track results kind of demand at least sorting, if not text-based listing. You can't immediately tap an album cover knowing that was the right track, you have to look at the text.

But, probably worst of all, we have this:

I actually did this search for myself, while trying to find some digital-only (or at least, non-CD) tracks by the band Transit. "Stay Home" can be seen in the album results, and is one of the results I was looking for, but there are four (!) results for the artist name "Transit"--not inconceivable, as Discogs illustrates (there are 25 of them!). So, in-and-of itself, this is not problematic. Unfortunately, the Boston, MA Transit I was looking for released both Keep This to Yourself (pictured first) and Young New England (pictured third)--displayed as if they are two different artists! The problem only gets worse if you actually look at them, too. The first artist has a mix of Transits--some of them are the Boston, MA band, some aren't. The second, which doesn't appear to refer to the Boston band actually does contain some of them. And the third, well, it contains only Young New England (which is just mind-boggling, as Listen & Forgive, which appears under "Transit #2" up there, was on the same label!).

To make matters worse, a friend asked the name of the band playing recently, and it was Transit--he proceeded to look on Google Play, and I had to point out that narrowing their material was nearly impossible without already knowing it (the alternative being research!).

So, as it is, I use Amazon to find the tracks I want, then go and figure out how to find them on Google Play for the superior bitrate. Of course, I can also use some phrase-based google searching (eg "google play" snapcase "crown of thorns"), but it's entirely too much effort for what it should be.

This may not affect you, or may even be useless information--but for some folks, there are important takeaways. If you really want bullet points, they are these:

  • Google play has superior quality (higher bitrate) digital music.
  • Amazon has superior searching, sorting, and exploration options.

¹Obviously, that's my own collection on bandcamp, and it readily betrays the nature of my purchases there. Scattered curiosities, single tracks, cassette and vinyl-only releases, and plenty of digital-only releases.

²Click the artist name ("These Arms Are Snakes") and suddenly find yourself at the Suicide Squeeze--label--bandcamp. Whoops!

³I can currently think of few exceptions, if any--largely, Amazon and Google host the same titles.

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