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Sonos Service’s Little Secret

Sonos Banner Slacker Out

I learned something new about my Sonos music players this morning that I REALLY don’t like.

EVERYTHING you do with Sonos is handled through a centralized Sonos server.   

Want to play your Slacker music?  Sonos servers manage that for you.    Pandora?   Amazon Music?   ANY music that you thought was on YOUR account at the music service provider?  Sonos gets in the middle.

My assumption, which is clearly incorrect, was that once you set up your Sonos controller app on your tablet and paired it to a Sonos speaker and added your favorite music service, Sonos got out of the way.  I figured they maintained an account profile on a Sonos server that keeps what music services and stations you like, but after the “initial handshake” to share those details with your mobile app the Sonos servers handed everything off.    Sure, if you add a new station or add a new service the app talk to the Sonos server, but when playing music… that must be between the app itself and the music service only, right?

Wrong.

That is so wrong.

Sonos Servers In The Middle

EVERYTHING you do with Sonos goes through their server.   Skip a song?  Your Sonos controller sends that command to a centralized Sonos server which in turn relays the command to Slacker and then returns the Slacker response to your app and all the Sonos components in your house.

Not a big deal, right?

Well, it sort of is a big deal.

Slacker Offline at Sonos
Slacker Offline at Sonos

The BIGGEST issue is that any time Sonos servers crash you cannot play your music.    How often does THAT happen?   Servers NEVER crash these days, right?  WRONG.    Today Sonos servers are broken.  They cannot talk to the Slacker servers.   That means NOT A SINGLE SONOS PLAYER IN THE WORLD can play Slacker music.   Slacker from ANY OTHER DEVICE?  No problem.    Your $300 Sonos Play 3? Nope?  The $500 Play 5?  Nope.    The $2000 worth of paired speakers from Sonos… NO SLACKER.   Sorry.   Someone at Sonos messed up, or one of their vendors, or someone that manages the Sonos account at Slacker… regardless of whom is to blame… if you own Sonos equipment you cannot access your Slacker stations.

That sucks.  Especially since Slacker is my go-to premium music service and all this Sonos equipment + Slacker premium music channels with thousands of rated and custom-curated stations is now useless to me.

 

Sonos Problems Are Your Problems

Even more important are the revelations of what this means:

– If Sonos goes out of business your Sonos hardware is useless.

– If Sonos screws up and writes bad server software your Sonos controller and hardware apps will break.

– If the people managing the Sonos servers, whether in the cloud of self-hosted, mess up and the servers crash your Sonos system is unusable.

– If the vendor that provides the network connections cuts a line and the network goes down at Sonos your equipment is a very expensive paper weight.

In other words, if ANYTHING goes wrong over in “Sonos Server World” your costly music hardware suddenly looks like a bad investment.

 

Music Privacy?

We don’t even need to discuss privacy issues, do we?    Not that I listen to anything that would raise and eyebrow of even the most prudish conservative listeners out there… OK, well maybe that is not QUITE true with thins like Eminem on my playlists, BUT I certainly am not listening to things like “live sex talk” on Sonos…. BUT…. if I were to do so guess who would be able to keep a record of all that?  Sonos.   Yup, that’s right.    Sonos is listening… and it only takes on hack from the our government friends over at the NSA for them to be seeing EVERYTHING YOU LISTEN TO thanks to the centralized Sonos servers.

Welcome To The NSA
Welcome To The NSA

I don’t ever recall being notified that Sonos has access to my bans or favorites, what stations I listen to, when I listen to them… but they do it.    Did I accept that intrusion in some privacy policy somewhere?  One of those “click if you agree” boxes I NEVER READ (trust me, if you did you’d NEVER accept ANY OF THEM and you’d have ZERO access to technology… go read the Android release, or FaceBook, or Twitter, or Google… to paraphrase all of them “we can do whatever the hell we damn like, if you don’t like it… leave”)…

Yup, it sucks.   I can’t use Slacker today because someone over at Sonos or at one of their vendors screwed up.

Yes, Sonos is very likely tracking all of my likes and dislikes without my knowledge or consent.

But I still like the system and my techno-geek DNA will not let me STOP using the service because of it.

Now I just have to sit-and-wait until someone over as Sonos fixes this mess.

In the meantime, at least I can feel good about at least telling SOMEONE that Sonos is “listening” to you… so now you are at least a little more informed than I was up until a few hours ago.

 

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Music : Last.fm

Last.FM Banner

I listen to a LOT of music.   Typically 10 hours in a day.    I listen whenever I am coding, in my car running around town, and especially when on long road trips.    In the past I had been happy streaming just about anything and everything to my home system, PC, or mobile apps.  These days, however, the dynamic is different.    These days, especially during the summer, I have my 6-year-old son running around the house.   He also likes listening to music and often cranks up the Sonos living room speakers when I’m jamming to something.     That brings a whole new dynamic to the experience.

About 99.8% of songs today apparently have a different definition of what explicit lyrics are.   Maybe it is just me and my old age, but anything that drops the words f@ck,sh!t, n!gger, b!itch, or @ss are  a definite  candidate for the explicit list when my son is around.   As are some other words that I can see not being considered explicit but definitely not kid friendly.   Then there are the topical issues which often are accompanied by explicit lyrics.    It is funny to hear a radio edit of  a Lil’ Wayne song.    It is nothing more than a beat with a bunch of half-pronounced words and a synthesized fades on every-other syllable.

The issue, as I’ve been learning over the past few months, is that there is NOT A SINGLE GOOD ONLINE SERVICE FOR KID FRIENDLY MUSIC!

I started with Pandora.  After 5 years of listening I had rated over 4,000 songs and built FOUR kid friendly stations that had MOSTLY filtered out the questionable content.   Then they started having issues.   For no reason whatsoever they suddenly started having technical problems.   Songs would stop halfway through, or hang, or come out garbled.   After spending 2 months with the completely useless customer service folks whose ONLY answer is “reboot the computer”, I moved on.    Sadly they could not comprehend it was a service issue which is why the reboots and reloads never worked.   As I told them, which was clearly not on their script in the Mexico City call center, the same exact issues manifested themselves on two different computers, my tablet, my cell phone, the TiVo, the Internet-ready TV, and the RoKu box (yeah, I’m an uber tech junkie).    Besides not having a great explicit lyrics filter for my needs, they also would often “run off the reservation” and suddenly play something like a blue grass stomp in the middle of a pop station.  That sucked.

Then came Slacker.  They have the absolute worst explicit filter going.

When I got the Sonos setup I started exploring new services and re-exploring old.    Many have NO WAY to filter explicit content.  Others have a favorite song marker, but no “ban song” marker.  Combined with streaming explicit lyrics it was a non-starter given the insatiable appetite of today’s musicians to randomly drop a completely unnecessary f-bomb or beeeyaaacchhh into the middle of  as song.

The, last night, late at night while hacking SLP4 code, I randomly chose another service on the Sonos system that I had purposefully ignored.    Last.FM.     I am familiar with the service having used it on-and-off, mostly off, for years.   I even started and still have a custom FM station running from an old account.   They even send me a few pennies every month for the service But last night I revisited purely as a music listener looking for a good home.     I may have found it.

While the interface is much better than it used to be, having clearly been developed by code geeks with no design experience what-so-ever (like myself), it was far behind the norm even 5 years ago.     Today it is better, finally catching up with user interface design from 5 years ago, but we are 5 years in the future.    At least the interface is usable, if not very pretty.

However the BIG thing with online streaming is content.    Here, Last.FM is ahead of the curve IMO.    Maybe I haven’t listened enough but in 8 hours of listening last night I did not hear a single repeat even after staying on one “station” for hours.    No other music service, other than the “playlist cycling” services can do this.   Pandora is a big “repeats offender”.  Slacker is worse.   Last.FM, at least so far, keeps the music fresh and does not seem to center around the “choice 200” for each genre.    Nice.

Then there is the content and explicit filters issue.  I was concerned at first because I cannot find any way to ban explicit lyrics in the 27 different setup and profile settings screens.    I easily could have missed it, but I don’t think they have one.    What I did find, however, is that at least 80% of the time the songs that did stream were the proper radio edit versions.    Not Slacker’s lame excuses of why they stream explicit lyrics when you have the “do not stream explicit lyrics” setting enabled.   Slacker claims “the record company did not mark the song properly” or “it is a radio edit they sang SHIP , you are hearing things” (which I am certainly not).     So here, even without an explicit filter, Last.FM does pretty darn good.  At least as good as Pandora and Slacker with the percentage of songs that come out of my speakers and drop and F-bomb on the living room floor right in front of my son.

However the thing that really has my attention with Last.FM at the moment is the ability to self-tag any song that streams.   You can ban and favorite any song, but the tagging is HUGE.   I’m not aware of any other curated service that allows you to self-tag songs and then build radio stations based heavily (exclusively) on those tags.    Just gather 45 songs from any of the stations with a tag like “nicsafe” and you can start a new station.   SWEEEET.       I’ll see how that works over the course of the next week but this could be the perfect way to create several truly safe stations for my son to listen to that I actually enjoy.

Another thing Last.FM got right that all the other services could emulate is the new user process.    They walk you through a few steps, that you can easily skip, that will help create a better starting experience for a new user.     To “seed” the stations and start playing music you like they start with a “select your artists” section.  It is one of the best, actually it is THE BEST, method of doing this that I have seen yet.  The display an array of 16 tiles with an artists photo & name on the screen.   As you click on those you like they are immediately replaced with a new artist in that slot.   All 16 are “lame”?   Click the reload more artists button and a new array of 16 appear.    I quickly loaded up 51 different artists before I tired of the setup.    It was fun, but 5 minutes into it  I decided I had enough to get started and moved on.   Turns out that was a great move as I immediately started with the “artists I like” station and listened for over an hour to mostly songs I truly enjoy and some I’ve not heard in years.

Thus far the Last.FM experience has been great.  It is SIGNIFICANTLY improved from my last experience with them just 18 months ago.

If you’ve not been to Last.FM lately, I encourage you to check it out.   It won’t be for everyone, but it certainly has moved way up the competition ladder and can compete with the “big boys”  including my current favorites of Pandora, Slacker, and Spotify.

Rock on Last.FM, rock on!

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Amazon Autorip : How Is That Legal?

For those people that know me, there are three things that I count as my favorite past-times: coding, music, and travel.   The intersection of the first two elements has me always interested in anything to do with technology and the intersection with the music industry.

One of those intersections happens to occur right near home, both physically and in a business sense.   Charleston based AbundaTrade, whom I have consulted for on multiple occasions, has been talking about taking care of your music CDs while turning them into a cloud based MP3 file.    However there have been a lot of bumps in that road.  Most notably the “recording industry lawyers” making it clear that moving physical CDs into a digital format was illegal as it “changes the format of the music”.

Odd argument since CDs are inherently digital.  Even more odd since Amazon is now doing EXACTLY THAT with their new “Autorip” service.   But just how did Amazon get away with this?

Turns out there is a back door to copyright law that Amazon has leveraged.   Lucky for Amazon, they are a big enough brand to actually fight off the billion-dollar lawyers that the music industry uses to squash just about everyone.   Thanks to Amazon, this “little gap” in copyright law is probably going to be exploited.  Often.   At least until the “big time lawyers”, you know… the guys that almost got SOPA shoved down our throats… find  a way to close the hole through their political puppets.   But until then, the hole is there.

Amazon is basing their legitimacy of the Autorip service on this part of copyright law:

You can make copies of a music CD for your own personal use BUT you must own the physical medium.

Courts have repeatedly deemed this fair use and permissible under law.

Amazon leans on things like “best effort” and “reasonable doubt” by making some very basic rules about this service.   They will add the songs from any physical CD you purchase to your online cloud account only AFTER the CD has been shipped and is on its way to you.

Obviously there are a lot of issues from there, but that is for the customer, the record labels, and Amazon t sort out later.  Amazon’s legal team clearly thinks that they are off the hook when it comes to the “nitty gritty”.  Like, what if the user never gets the CD?  What if they sell it?   What if they throw it in the trash?  Or give it to a friend never to see it again.    I guess as long as Amazon can say “hey, we told them they have to delete the songs if they CD goes away and WE KNOW we shipped them the CD” then they are good in the eyes of the law.

Lesser companies may not have the deep pockets it will take to fend off the billion-dollar law firms of the record labels and thus may have a more difficult battle. Frivolous legal action coming from billion-dollar firms can just as easily bankrupt a small company as legitimate claims.   So whether or not a company like AbundaTrade can afford to take the same gamble Amazon has taken has yet to be seen.

Personally, I think more companies need to follow in Amazon’s footsteps.    The record industry has created a travesty of licensing fees while fattening the lawyers and recording industry groups while making MOST artists poor.  The few mega-stars driving around in their Ferrari’s are the exceptions that the industry flaunts as if to say “what do you mean artists are poor”?   Trust me, they are.   More than 90% of  license revenue never gets to the actual song writers of performers.

That is not to say that I think you should just start ripping CDs t oMP3s and handing it off to the next person to do the same.   The artists and song writers deserve to be paid a fair wage for their efforts.    However the archaic laws that the recording industry has pushed through our legislation serve only to make them fat.   They need to be eliminated with newer digital-centric methods for tracking music and getting revenue back to the people that are the creative talent behind what we listen to.

Doing so not only makes sharing and transfer of music easier, it will put significant downward pressure on music pricing while getting MORE revenue to the artists.  Current a 99-cent music track averages 8-or-9 cents back to the artist.    29-cent music tracks with 15-cents back to the artist?   I’m all for that.  First step?  Eliminate most of the archaic-and-overly-fat recording industry middle-men, replace the Performance Rights Organizations with a much leaner and more tech savvy internet-centric organization, and get SoundExchange out of the way so they stop skimming off a large chunk of all Internet music transfers with little-to-no benefit provided to the artists.

In a perfect world we would all be able to rip CDs, download music, send it to friends, share it, and generally “spread the wealth”.  Through the use of technology and by eliminating the “keep us fat” laws that surround this process today, we will all share a better music experience.    Artists will be fairly compensated.  More importantly, what is considered “theft” or “jumping through holes in copyright law” today will become routine practice.

Share the music.  Share the wealth.

I think we are all for that.

Thank you Amazon for opening Pandora’s box.   Hopefully this is another step toward music and technical nirvana.

 

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