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Why iTunes Libraries Look Like CD Collections

Stocks in this article: AAPL AMZN GOOG

The only other way U.S. consumers were buying music didn't give them ownership of anything. Streaming services like Pandora P, Rdio and Spotify, which saw streams jump 32% in 2013 to 118 billion. Why would you stop stockpiling soundfiles at $1 or less for LPs that sell for $15 to $20 a pop or streaming services that take a monthly subscription fee? Because digital libraries and the services used to access them have become unwieldy and, in some cases, unnecessary.

As Apple, Amazon, Google and others tout the merits of cloud-based storage of sound files, there's been some question about how much of that storage space would go to good use. Back in 2011, the music management service Music With Me took a look at anonymous user data and found that their iTunes-based users had an average of 5,409 songs in their libraries, only 19% of which were ever played.

That same year, iTunes library cleanup app TidySongs found that their users' libraries had an average of 7,100 songs, but about 4,230 songs were missing artwork, 490 didn't have an artist name, 1,984 lacked track or year information and 814 were just duplicate versions of other songs. Competitors including TuneUp once charged $40 a year just to fix those shortcomings.

That's how little anyone cares about their vast libraries anymore: They're willing to pay others just to navigate and fix them so they don't have to spend even more time curating than they already have. Unless you're a fastidious fan who's stayed on top filling in missing data, building folders, maintaining playlists, clearing out playlist and unwanted songs or countless other bits of minutiae, just the extremely simple process of moving music over to a device can yield sighs and an overwhelming sense of dread.

As users realize, however, this isn't all their fault. Longtime iTunes users have watched their service morph from a nice, tidy music list to a multi-layered clearinghouse for sound files, podcasts, videos and iOS apps. The user interface has become an unnecessarily complex labyrinth of artist pages, album pages and genre tabs. Updates wipe playlists clean, mess with synchronization and reduce sound quality to that of a middle-school classroom PA system. The Shuffle and Genius features, meanwhile, have become so reductive that they almost guarantee it'll be years before you hear entire pockets of your collection.

Amazon users, meanwhile, are doomed to have nearly every bit of music they purchase immediately added to their cloud account. Did you buy an album of Celtic folk songs for your quilt-clubbing aunt? It's yours now. Did you pick up a copy of Denis Leary's No Cure For Cancer for your abrasive 40-something uncle? Smoke 'em if you've got 'em. That copy of the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack your mom wanted another copy of? It's putting The Heat Is On into your gym mix as we speak.

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