Why I’ve made the snap judgment that Apple Music is crap

First, let’s begin with several paragraphs of me explaining, in general, why I make snap judgments

As I’ve gotten older, my life seems to be more and more about resisting complexity. I want things to be simple. Part of that comes out of the aesthetics and principles of my job. The web has a tendency towards over-complication, and it’s my job to fight that.

Also, more generally, as you get older there are more and more decisions to be made in a day. Every hour, every minute, every second, you have to make a decision about something. It’s overwhelming and drains your soul. I have to prioritize the things that matter to me, and, more and more, cast the rest aside.

When something new comes along, I have to make a snap judgment. Not necessarily a permanent judgment. That would be foolish and self-defeating. But I do need to make that initial choice: whether or not to let this new thing occupy more of my time right now. Essentially, whether or not to give it a chance.

Sometimes I revisit things I never gave a chance the first time around. On rare occasions I discover that I missed out on something good, and I welcome it in. Most of the time, though, I just confirm that I was right to dismiss it in the first place.

Enter, Apple Music

This week’s biggest choice has been whether or not to embrace Apple Music. On the surface, it sounds like a no-brainer. Apple and Music are two of the biggest parts of my life. I have gulped down my glass of Apple Kool-Aid and asked for a refill, please and thank you. I was a music major in college. I make music, I listen to music. Over a span of 30+ years I have collected and pored over and obsessively thought about music.

Come to think of it, that’s probably the problem.

Apple Music seems like it’s for people who don’t already own a lot of music. I suppose all of the streaming music services are. After all, if you owned it, why would you stream it, other than convenience? But even then, you’d probably just stream it from your iTunes or Amazon library (both of which I have done, often).

From my perspective, owning a music library of over 23,000 songs (enough to play for 75 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes straight, 24 hours a day, without repeating a track), the subscription streaming services have never had much appeal, so I’ve never even tried Spotify, Rdio, etc. But, being an Apple fan, I somehow thought their service might be different. Might be for me. But I guess not.

What would a post like this be without a bullet list?

So what is it about Apple Music that has turned me off? It’s many things, actually:

  • The initial experience of picking, by tapping on hovering bubbles, your favorite genres (from a very narrow and mainstream set), and then favorite artists (from suggestions it pulled in from the selected genres), is basically the same as it was in the old Beats Music service, which I had also already tried and abandoned within 24 hours when it first appeared. This process did quickly home in on many artists that I like, but I reloaded at least a dozen times trying to get it to refine the selections further. Even then, the best it came up with were only what I’d really call “second-tier favorites.” (Also, the UX with the bubbles sucks and needs to be fixed.)
  • Once everything was set up, the “For You” screen did offer me a lot of music I like. But, guess what. Almost all of it was music I already own. And of the 2 or 3 selections it offered that I don’t already own, I was either mildly disinterested or they were musicians I actively loathe.
  • Beats 1. What the hell is this? I mean, OK. The chance that I would actually like what they play on a single, worldwide “radio” station that Jimmy Iovine has anything to do with was already less than zero. But I have actually given it a chance 3 or 4 times, and every time I turn it on, it’s the same “underground” alternative hip hop vibe. This is music I do not dislike. I mean, I wasn’t repulsed by it. It wasn’t Celine Dion or Kenny G. But it’s just not what I’m into, and maybe I just didn’t listen long enough but there was no variety in styles. (Granted, other than the one time I listened to it in the car, I haven’t bothered to leave it on for more than one song. But the first song that’s playing when I turn it on is always in this style.)
  • The return of DRM. I can’t say it any better than this, so I won’t even try.

All of that led me to one simple conclusion, and my snap judgment. I do not want to give Apple Music any more time or attention, at least right now. I just want the same convenient access to my own extensive music library that I’ve come to appreciate with iTunes Match. So I’ve turned off auto-renew on my Apple Music subscription. I’m going to make sure I don’t cancel iTunes Match. And, just to be safe, I’m going to re-download and back up my entire library from iTunes Match just in case… you know… someday.

I love Apple’s hardware and, usually, their OS software. But cripes, they just cannot get online services right, can they?

But see, here’s the thing. Remember how I said I sometimes revisit things I hadn’t given a chance the first time around? I feel like here I am revisiting something. I’ll admit I don’t have extremely vivid or extensive memories of it, since I had only initially looked at it so briefly, but to me Apple Music feels very, very much like Beats Music was. To the point where I find it hard to believe they spent much time at all changing anything about it other than simply fusing it into the iTunes ecosystem. Oh, and adding that pointless radio station.

I may still give it another try at some point before the free trial period ends. Maybe I’ll change my mind. But I doubt it.

Follow the money

One last thought, as I try to make sense of what this is really all about. Apple is a big company, and so are the record labels they had to negotiate with to get permission to offer all of this “content.” My very brief experience listening to music through Apple Music consisted mostly (and, rather strangely, if you think about it) of listening to music that I already had in my library. But because I was listening to these songs through an Apple Music subscription instead of playing them directly from my library, Apple was making micropayments to the record labels for the streams.

So, yes, indirectly, I was paying again for music I already purchased. Just a few fractions of a cent really, but still. That’s the business model here. Especially with the concern I mentioned above (this, if you weren’t paying attention) over Apple Music replacing iTunes Match’s “matched” files with DRM-restricted ones (only if you’ve canceled iTunes Match, apparently), I am left feeling pretty cynical over this whole enterprise, and disappointed that Apple would take things in this direction.

But, then again, they bought Beats, so I shouldn’t be too surprised.

Update: HEY, WAIT! Don’t go. This is important.

I’ve discovered a small change in the new version of iTunes for the Mac (version 12.2) that has a huge impact on all of this. This is the version that introduces Apple Music and changes the icon from red to white.

The ability to tell iTunes to download multiple songs at once is gone. It used to be, if you selected multiple songs in your library — like, all of them — and right-clicked (Ctrl-click), the contextual menu had a Download option, right at the top. Click that, and it starts downloading all of the selected songs.

Um, yeah. That’s gone.

The little icon of the cloud with an arrow is still there. You can click it. You can still download songs. ONE. AT. A. TIME. Good luck with that. So, here’s the important thing: If you haven’t upgraded to iTunes 12.2 yet, DON’T. At least, download all of your music first.

Lucky for me, I have access to multiple Macs, and one of them hadn’t been updated yet. Even as I type this I have my external hard drive hooked up to it, and I’ve begun the process of downloading all 23,000+ songs. Should only take a week or so. (Thanks, CenturyLink!)

In light of the above considerations about money and playing ball with the record labels, I can only interpret the removal of this feature in one way.

Chris Squire, 1948-2015

Chris+Squire+YesChrisSquireIn the summer of 1984, I was 10 years old. I spent most of that summer the way I had spent the two previous summers: playing a lot of Atari, and watching a lot of MTV. My ultimate favorite band at the time was, without a doubt, Duran Duran, and “The Reflex” was my favorite song. (My family had just gotten a VCR, and I had a tape that was the video for “The Reflex” over and over, filling up the entire tape. I had sat for days watching MTV with the VCR paused, ready to record as soon as it came on.)

The “Fab Five” aside, I had two other favorite songs that I had seen on MTV but that were a lot harder to find, by two “new” bands I’d never heard of before. The first was “That’s All” by Genesis. The other, and my new elusive favorite that threatened to nudge out “The Reflex” — if only I’d gotten to hear it more often — was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. The video was surreal and the song was the most amazing thing I had ever heard.

It’s funny that, at the time, I thought Yes and Genesis were “new” bands, and “progressive rock” was a term I’d never even heard. At some point over the next couple of years I saw the Rush Grace Under Pressure concert video (on MTV or HBO; I can’t remember which), and then my mind was really blown when (again, on MTV or HBO) I saw a Genesis documentary that revealed to me how, in the 1970s, Genesis (which had existed in the ’70s!) had been fronted by Peter Gabriel (seriously?!) and they had performed insanely complex 20-minute songs with Gabriel acting out characters while wearing bizarre costumes. It was all too much for my young mind to take. But I had no idea what was just around the corner.

In 1988, when I was a freshman in high school, U2 and R.E.M. were my favorite bands. That is until one night at a sleepover when my friend Mark played me a tape of A Show of Hands, the new live album by Rush. This. Changed. Everything.

The next summer, now firmly ensconced as a hardcore Rush fan, Mark played me another tape. This time it was Classic Yes. I will admit I couldn’t get past the second track, “Wonderous Stories,” to hear the rest of the album, but it didn’t matter. “Heart of the Sunrise” was the most beautiful, bewildering, mesmerizing piece of music I had ever heard, and it immediately became my favorite song of all time.

It still is.

As amazing as I found that song to be in almost every way, the part that was most compelling to me was Chris Squire’s bass. I had already started developing a fascination with the electric bass from listening to Geddy Lee with Rush, but Chris Squire took it to a whole new level for me.

I had been playing clarinet since 5th grade, but I almost quit band before I started high school. My mom convinced me to give it one more year. That was the year that changed everything. My high school band teacher inspired me, and I became obsessed with music. That year he let me borrow a saxophone from the school (a soprano, of all things, but that’s all that was available), and I taught myself to play it so I could join the jazz band. The following year (now doubling on clarinet in concert band and tenor sax in jazz), I branched out yet again and borrowed another unused school instrument, a sickly green colored Fender Precision Bass. I didn’t have an amp, but that was no problem, because I learned to pluck the strings hard enough that I could hear it as I played along and learned the bass parts to songs like “Cygnus X-1″ by Rush and “Perpetual Change” by Yes. That hard plucking style worked perfectly for someone trying to imitate Geddy or Chris.

As high school wore on, Mark and I explored the Yes catalog about as thoroughly as our limited budgets (and the limited availability of “obscure” CDs in a town with one small Musicland outpost as its only record store) would allow. I special ordered the mysterious Tales from Topographic Oceans album and called Mark to come over for a special listening when it arrived.

He later did the same for me, when he acquired Relayer.

This was seriously weird music. And finding it on our own felt like exploring an alien world. Roger Dean’s phantasmagorical cover art only increased the sense that we were tampering with forces of nature that the straitlaced world we were growing up in didn’t want us to know about.

Then came Yesyears. A huge boxed set and documentary video that peeled back the layers of mystery and wonder shrouding the 5, 6, 7, 12 37? people who had been in this band. They became real, and messy, and mockable. The real life Spinal Tap. Mark and I still loved them; if anything we loved them even more. And we watched the video again and again, cracking jokes like our own rockumentary version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, much to the dismay and confusion of Mark’s girlfriend who was unfortunate enough to sit through one of the viewings with us.

Mark and I went to separate colleges, but we kept in touch over the nascent Internet, discovering new prog bands — and new prog fans — via the alt.music.progressive Usenet newsgroup. We even made our own music, bizarre and inept but occasionally inspired free-form improvisations, with Mark on organ and me on electric bass. We called ourselves Bassius-O-Phelius, after the instrument Rockette Morton was credited as playing on a couple of Beefheart albums.

But always I kept coming back to Yes, and to Chris Squire and his punchy, in-your-face “lead bass” playing style. Although I was a music major in college, the web hit in a big way during my years there (I graduated in 1996), so I ended up pursuing a career as a web developer. But music never left my life, and though my interest in prog rock waned, I never lost my love for Yes, even as their off-stage drama continued to become more absurd and mockable.

In 1997, while living in Southern California, I got to hear Yes live for the first time, on the Open Your Eyes tour. I saw them in Los Angeles, and was so blown away that I immediately got a ticket for their next show in San Diego and drove down there two nights later to hear them again. (Interesting side note: the audience at a rock show in San Diego is way different than in Los Angeles, something that Jon Anderson made note of from the stage. Specifically, he mentioned how… “aromatic”… shows in San Diego always were.)

I saw Yes again the next summer in Las Vegas. At least, part of the show. I was seated in the balcony for their show at the Hard Rock Hotel, with a great view for the opening act — Alan Parsons Project. But when Yes took the stage, their lighting guy came into the booth that I hadn’t noticed was right in front of me, and completely blocked my view. I stood up, which led to an argument with an usher over the fact that I was supposed to be in the SRO area (even though I had a ticket for the seat), and after bickering futilely with him for a few minutes, I ended up leaving early. Walking back in the dark from the Hard Rock Hotel (which is, emphatically, not on the Strip) to where I had parked by Caesar’s Palace was harrowing, to say the least. This was in the days before smartphones with GPS. I had relied on a tiny Las Vegas city map in my road atlas that made it look like the Hard Rock was on an adjacent road to the Strip, whereas in reality there are about two miles of desolate wasteland between them.

Around this time, in the spirit of “lovingly mocking” this lovable, mockable band, I started a website wherein I attempted to review their entire catalog, album by album, song by song, in a somewhat sardonic tone. I was surprised by how many people the humor was lost on, but it didn’t stop the band’s fan club from approaching me at the time, asking me if I would be interested in becoming the “webmaster” (as we were called back then) of the band’s official site, yesworld.com. I politely declined, in part because I felt it would only be fair to take down my own website, but more because it sounded like it was going to be a lot of work for the foreseeable future, and I would only be compensated in VIP passes and band merch. Do I regret the decision? Somewhat. But although it meant I never got to meet the band or become involved with them in an official way, it probably would have been a lot of work that I would have come to resent. C’est la vie. I eat at Chez Nous.

I saw Yes live three more times in subsequent years, after moving back to Minneapolis. A highlight was definitely getting to see them with the classic lineup including Rick Wakeman reunited, and hearing that lineup perform a song I never thought I’d hear live: “South Side of the Sky.”

But although I had endured many tribulations of the band over the years, I vowed never to see them live again after they unceremoniously kicked Jon Anderson out in the late 2000s over his respiratory health problems. Yes with a cover band impersonator of Jon Anderson singing lead vocals is not really Yes, even if the other four guys on stage are long-time (or not-so-long-time but long-ago) members of the band.

Refusing to see them live didn’t stop me from buying their new music though, and I have to say, I was actually somewhat impressed with Fly from Here, the album the band released in 2011 sans Jon Anderson. They even released a music video that seemed to be in much the same spirit as that of “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which was what drew me to the band in the first place, so many years earlier.

Unfortunately I can’t offer similar praise for last year’s Heaven and Earth, which sadly now will be the final new Yes studio album to feature Chris Squire. What can I say? It’s really, really awful. Oh wait, I already said that. But, when you’ve followed Yes for as long as I have, you realize that there’s at least as much bad as good, and being along for the ride is part of what it’s all about.

Lately my Yes fandom has taken another unexpected turn, as I’ve become most intrigued with a couple of albums that, while I have certainly listened to them plenty of times (after all, I’ve listened to everything they released up through 1999’s The Ladder plenty of times), have never been favorites that commanded a lot of my attention: 1980’s Drama and 1983’s 90125.

Yes, 90125. The album that introduced me to the band. Although I loved that one song, for whatever reason I never owned the album as a kid. And by the time I was in high school and approached the Yes catalog from the other direction, the Trevor Rabin years were to be ignored at best, ridiculed mercilessly at worst.

But life throws unexpected surprises at you. And in this case it comes in a very convoluted fashion. I have a Raspberry Pi-powered arcade cabinet at the Room 34 studio. A couple months ago, I reprogrammed it to also be a jukebox. It was originally just playing ’80s music, to go with the era of the games it runs, but eventually I loaded it up with all of the MP3s in my music library. The thing is, I don’t have many MP3s in my music library. Most of my music lives today in my iTunes Match account, so even if it originally came from a ripped CD (which I always do in MP3 format), I now only have ready access to most of those songs in Apple’s AAC format. But any albums I’ve purchased on Amazon (CD or MP3) are available to download through Amazon Music Player as MP3s. So naturally, I downloaded everything I could from my Amazon account and loaded it up on the arcade cabinet. As it happens, for Yes that means Drama and 90125, which are apparently the only studio albums by Yes that I bought on CD through Amazon.

Anyway, I’ve been hearing those two albums a lot lately.

In fact, last month I ran in a 10-mile race, and I decided to set up a playlist that just “felt right” to me that day. It was three full albums. The first was my own 5mi. (Yes, I listen to my own music a lot when I run. Don’t ask.) The second was Drama. The third was Van Halen’s 1984. The playlist was awesome, and now I have vivid memories of running along the banks of Lake Waconia in the western exurbs while listening to “Tempus Fugit.”

I was deeply saddened to learn last month that Chris Squire had leukemia, and I knew from that point that his prognosis was not good. Michael Brecker (the jazz saxophonist who inspired me to play, in much the same way as Chris Squire had with the bass) succumbed at a relatively early age from the disease, as had a coworker and friend from my time in Atlanta.

So it was with sadness, but not surprise, that I learned this morning of Chris Squire’s passing. I may have poked fun at him and the band over the years, but I loved his bass playing, and I loved their music. This digressive personal recollection of my life through his music is, in my own weird way, a tribute to Chris Squire and the music that he made, in his own weird way. It has meant more to my life than I can say. So, after all of the above, I’ll just say: thank you, Chris.

Rolling Stone obituary
Tweet by bandmate, keyboardist Geoff Downes

I found the photo of Chris in the late ’70s with his (in)famous triple-neck bass here. If anyone has a proper photo credit, please let me know.

A few thoughts on David Letterman’s final show

Last night was the end of an era, David Letterman’s final Late Show.

Late Night with David Letterman premiered on NBC when I was 9 years old. I remember quietly staying up well past my bedtime on many school nights in the 1980s to catch Letterman’s crazy antics. It turns out I had a penchant for absurdist humor of a kind that I may never have known existed until I saw David Letterman. Growing up in a rather socially conservative small town in the midwest, Letterman was one of a few key figures in opening my growing mind to the possibilities in a larger world. That sounds a bit overblown, but really, it isn’t. Letterman’s show on CBS has become such an institution over two decades — something that I’ve taken for granted, really, and not watched much in years — that it’s easy for me to forget just how huge David Letterman was to me in my formative years.

All of that came into sharp relief for me last night as I just barely managed to catch Dave’s final show. I knew he was retiring, and I had been reading enough about him lately to know that his final show was coming up sometime soon, but I didn’t know it was going to be last night until about 20 minutes before the show came on the air.

I found out about it because my college jazz band director mentioned it on Facebook.

I was lying in bed a little after 10 PM, idly checking Facebook on my iPhone, intending to set the phone down and settle into a crossword puzzle before going to sleep. Seeing that Letterman’s finale was imminent, however, I quickly changed my plans and turned on the TV. This was probably only the third time our bedroom TV has been turned on since we moved into the house last November.

There’s a lot packed into that last paragraph. The futurism of constant communication and instant access to the world of information via the ubiquitous pocket computers we call smartphones. How old I sound when I think of myself sitting in bed doing a friggin’ crossword puzzle. The shifting (and diminishing) cultural significance of broadcast television.

When Carson retired, it was a momentous event. It seems like from the ’60s to the ’80s, everyone watched — or at least had on the TV — The Tonight Show, on a nightly basis. As much as David Letterman revolutionized late night television and shepherded in a new era, he also came at a time of change he couldn’t control, and was both a victim and agent of a cultural shift that ensured his legacy would never be as great as that of his hero and mentor.

And yet, Letterman is the Carson of his generation, at least as much as anyone could have been. (Leno? Give me a break!)

Without a doubt my most vivid memory of Letterman, and honestly one of the most vivid memories of my youth, altogether, was Crispin Glover’s notorious, possibly drug-fueled, appearance in 1987 when he tried to kick Dave in the face.

I was delighted to see that moment in the rapid-fire montage of stills from 33 years of Dave’s show at the end of last night’s finale. It just wouldn’t have been complete without it.

That montage was a nearly perfect conclusion to a lifetime of late night TV. According to some reviews I’ve read this morning, it was the main portion of the show that Letterman had direct involvement in producing. And it was apparently Dave’s personal wish to have the Foo Fighters perform “Everlong” behind the slideshow, because that song touched him personally in his recovery from open heart surgery 15 years ago. (Fifteen years ago!) It occurred to me that this conclusion was almost like Dave’s life — his television life — flashing before his eyes. But not just Dave’s life, our lives, as his audience. Even though I haven’t watched his show regularly since I was in college in the mid-’90s, there were so many familiar sights in these final few moments that I realized that in a way, this was all of our lives. For 33 years millions of Americans have invited this weird guy into their homes on a nightly basis, and he has shared moments of absurd delight with all of us.

Thanks, Dave.

How to REALLY check if the content is empty in WordPress

Problem: You want to check if the content in a WordPress post is empty. Seems easy, but do a Google search on the topic and you’ll see the question asked and — incorrectly — answered several times.

The fact is, I know how to do this. I was just hoping there was a built-in function in WordPress that I didn’t know about. Apparently not, so I wrote my own.

Why isn’t it easy and obvious how to check for the content being empty? Well, you could do this:

if ($post->post_content == '') { ... }

That will work. If the content is really empty. That means a zero-length string. As in strlen($post->post_content) == 0. Which it might be. But probably not.

If you’ve worked with real world site content, or even someone else’s Word documents before, you know that blank space is invisible, and a lot of times there’s a lot of blank space in a document that is not truly “empty.” Spaces, line breaks, HTML paragraphs with nothing but a non-breaking space in them. It all takes up space, and makes the content look empty, even when it’s not.

That last example is the critical one here. A WordPress post may look like it has no content, but if someone pressed Enter while the cursor was in the content box and then saved the page, it most likely has at least one <p>&nbsp;</p> in it.

So what you need is a function that takes all of that invisible cruft into account. Since it doesn’t seem like WordPress has such a function built in, I wrote my own, which I have made as compact as possible:

function empty_content($str) {
    return trim(str_replace('&nbsp;','',strip_tags($str))) == '';
}

This function takes the string you pass into it, strips out all HTML tags, then removes any non-breaking space entities, and then trims all whitespace. If there’s nothing but that stuff, then it becomes an empty string. If there’s any “real” content, the string won’t be empty. Then it just compares whatever it has left against an actual empty string, and returns the boolean result.

So now if you want to check if the WordPress content is really empty, you can do this:

if (empty_content($post->post_content)) { ... }

This will return true if the content is empty; false if it’s not.

How to really exclude the home page in the WordPress wp_page_menu() function

I’m posting this little tip for my future self as much as for anyone else.

The problem: It seems that in recent years WordPress has all-but-deprecated the wp_page_menu() function in favor of the wp_nav_menu() function, but the latter is primarily intended for Custom Menus, and there are some cases where Custom Menus aren’t what you want.

I’m working on a couple of sites right now that have a lot of pages, and I don’t want their editors to have to go over to Appearance > Menus every time they add or move a page. I’m relying on the CMS Tree Page View plugin on these sites to allow the clients to leverage the built in Parent / Order settings on pages to manage their primary navigation, rather than managing a separate Custom Menu.

Since I’m not using a Custom Menu, I don’t want to use wp_nav_menu() at all; I pretty much have to use wp_page_menu(). Which is fine. Except for the fact that the site designs do not call for having Home in the navigation.

No problem, right? After all, I can just add 'show_home' => false to the arguments passed to the function, and it will remove the home page.

But it doesn’t.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in the WordPress core here, but I suspect that show_home only works if you’re using the old school default configuration of WordPress that calls for the home page being the main “posts” page. And who does that anymore? If you’ve created a custom home page, even if you’ve configured WordPress properly to display it as the main page, this function doesn’t care. (Do functions “care” about anything? But I digress…)

Remember also that there’s an exclude argument, to which you can pass a comma-delimited string of post IDs to exclude. That works, but… ugh. You mean I really have to hardcode the post ID of the home page right into my header.php file?

Of course not. Use this: get_option('page_on_front') and it will automatically find the home page. This is great if you want to be able to reuse a theme or custom function on multiple sites or just not commit the transgression of hardcoding something that really doesn’t need to be hardcoded.

Here’s the complete code sample. Note there’s no need to bother with show_home at all.

wp_page_menu(array(
    'exclude' => get_option('page_on_front'),
));