The macOS Now Playing Music Widget Could Do So Much More…

With the new media apps in macOS, one thing I miss is the ability to use a system-wide controller to play and pause music, to skip tracks, and to change volume. There used to be a lot of these, and for many years I used Sizzling Keys, which has been “retired.”

The Now Playing widget in Notification Center’s Today View is a partial replacement, but it only offers limited features. You can pause or play music, skip ahead and back, and drag a playhead, but nothing more.

Now playing

It seems that this widget could easily be improved, at least adding a volume control, or, perhaps, add an Up Next button, like in the MiniPlayer, and allow users to rate/love music as well. (The MiniPlayer’s volume control is behind the AirPlay icon; you can adjust the volume for each device where you are streaming music, or for playback on your computer.)

Mini player

And, no, I don’t want the MiniPlayer visible all the time; with Notification Center, I can just use a hot corner to display it. I have the top-right corner set so when I move my cursor there Notification Center displays.

It’s possible that adding an Up Next button, and the list it displays, wouldn’t work in this location, which is designed for static elements, but there could be at least a volume control in the Now Playing widget. Because when you’re playing music other than through your Mac’s speakers, the volume keys on the keyboard don’t affect music playback.

Time Out: We Don’t Give Music Enough Time to Grow on Us Anymore

I know this dates me, but back in the day… Yes, back in the day, when I would buy new records – vinyl records, and later cassette tapes – a new record was a special occasion. I never had enough disposable income when I was in my teens or twenties to buy all the records I wanted. So when I did go to a record store – with the exception of trawling the used and cut-out bins in the stores in Greenwich Village where you could get a record for a buck – it was important to choose carefully what new albums I bought.

In some cases, the choice would be easy: new records from my favorite bands, records that I had been waiting for, some of which I had already heard at friends’ houses, or on the radio. But for others, I had to weigh the pros and cons. I might not have heard the records I was buying, but was led to them by their personnel, or by reviews. Often in the early 80s, I would buy singles by punk and new-wave bands, and then go on to buy albums. But those singles weren’t that cheap, because many of them were imports.

I read the British music press, and spotted the bands that sounded most interesting, then went in search of their hits. If I liked a hit, I’d buy an album. This is how I discovered bands like The Clash, The Cure, The Durutti Column, Joy Division, and so many more.

Every purchase added a new slice of music to a collection that was small enough that I intimately knew every record I owned; I had played each one a dozen times or more. It could take a while to appreciate some records: an artist who has changed direction, for example, or a new artist in a genre or sub-genre that I was just discovering.

One example I like to cite is Brian Eno’s Nerve Net. This 1992 recording was a departure from the Eno that I knew. I was of course familiar with Music for Airports and Discreet Music; or his four song albums of the 1970s, Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, and Before and After Science. But Nerve Net was a kick in the teeth, a raucous, electronic album, which seemed to have nothing to do with Eno’s previous music. I had found it in a used record store in Tours, France, where I lived in the 1990s, played it once, then shelved it.

Over the years, I would buy every other Brian Eno album, such as his long ambient works like Thursday Afternoon, his collaborations with other musicians, such as Spinner (with Jah Wobble), and Wrong Way Up (with John Cale), but I just didn’t get Nerve Net.

I don’t know when I finally did get that record, but it is now one of my favorites. I appreciated it even more when it was reissued in 2014, along with My Squelchy Life, a record made around the same time that had never been released.

If I had heard that album at the time on a streaming service, I might not have given it another listen. But having the CD meant that every year or so I’d put it in my CD player and try again, until it finally made sense.

With streaming services, we have a smorgasbord of music which allows us to taste a bit here, taste a bit there, but never commit to taking the time to try to appreciate music that doesn’t immediately grab us. I’m as guilty of this as other people. I find that, even if I do discover a new album that I like, and I spin it a few times – I often play a new record that touches me three or four times in a row – I may simply forget it a week later. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I just have so much music, so much that I’ve lived with for a long time, so much music that is reflexive, that just comes to mind when I want to listen to a certain type of music.

(As I write this article, I’m listening to some live recordings by Bill Evans that I discovered around the same time as Nerve Net. This is music that I’ve lived with for more than 25 years, that I turn to at times when I want to feel the mood of late Bill Evans.)

This is a big problem for artists. While the “old” artists – those who made it big pre-streaming – will continue performing reunion tours, and re-re-releasing albums to a legion of fans who want something familiar, new artists will find it hard to reach the same level of critical mass. A few decades ago, you could pretty much keep up to date with every release on all the major labels, and many independents, in your preferred genre. Now, try to scratch the surface of new releases in any genre – and with more genres, and more genre-fluid listeners, the scope is so much broader – and you’ll be submerged.

It’s great that music is so much easier to make, record, and distributed. It’s great that music is easier to hear. But for people who really love music – beyond just listening to the hits – it is frustrating. There is too much music, and we have too little time.

As the new year approaches, perhaps some of us should make a resolution to spend more time with less music; to listen deeply rather than broadly. To discover and internalize new music that will stay with us for longer than the weekly new music playlist that shows up on the streaming services.

macOS Music App Brings Back the Column Browser

Apple has released macOS 10.15.2, and one of the big features in the Music app is the return of the column browser. As I wrote back in August, the loss of the column browser was devastating. It was the best way to navigate large libraries, and without it, it was painful to choose music.

Go to System Preferences > Software Update and get the latest version of macOS. Then, in the Music app, go into Songs view and press Command-B to display the column browser.

This update also fixes the issue where the iTunes Remote app on iOS didn’t work with the Music app.

Thanks, Apple.

The Next Track, Episode #164 – Sid Smith on the Life and Times of King Crimson

Sid Smith is the official biographer of King Crimson. He recently updated his book, In The Court Of King Crimson – An Observation Over 50 Years, that tells the tale of this seminal band. We talk with Sid about everything crimson.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

Hand Off Music from Your iPhone to HomePod; I Also Want to Hand Off from My Mac to My iPhone

New in iOS 13 is the ability to “hand off” music from an iPhone to a HomePod. If you’re playing any audio on your iPhone, just go near your HomePod (or near one HomePod of a stereo pair), and after a few seconds, the audio will switch from the iPhone to the HomePod.

What this essentially does is switch the output from the iPhone via AirPlay to the Home Pod.

HandoffAs you can see here, the iPhone shows all available AirPlay devices that are active in my home. Music that I was playing on the iPhone (top) then started playing in the bedroom.

As you can see in this interface, you can control a number of AirPlay devices from your iPhone or iPad, sending music to each of them, or controlling playback from Apple Music or your music in the cloud.

What I’d like to see in addition to this is the ability to hand music off from my Mac to my iPhone. If I’m listening to something on my Mac then want to go out, it would be great to pass the music over to that device. It wouldn’t be the same as with the iPhone to the HomePod, which is essentially just playing the music via AirPlay, but it would be more like when you open a web page in Safari, and can then load the same page quickly on an iOS device. Naturally, this would only work with Apple Music or with your music library in the cloud, but it would be a useful addition to the web of Apple devices.

Apple Music and Album Release Dates

Slow news day, so here’s a minor rant. When I look at albums on Apple Music, I want to see their original release dates. (This applies to all streaming services, but not to music retailers; if I’m buying an album, I want to know when the specific version was released.) Here’s an example: in For You today, Jethro Tull’s Stand Up stood up. I hadn’t listened to that record in ages, so I put it on. When I started listening, at the very beginning, during A New Day Yesterday, hearing the way the music was split across channels – a very early/mid 60s technique – I wondered what year the original album was released. Because this is what Apple Music tells me:

Stand up

I know the original was not released in 2001; I went to Wikipedia to check, and it was 1969, which is what I had thought. But I consider this part of the essential metadata of an album, especially because there are “Editors’ Notes” here mentioning that it was the band’s second album.

I’d love to see a lot more metadata on Apple Music. While most people don’t care about this, there are times when I want to know more, such as the date of an album, the musicians on it, the producer, etc.

The New Complete Beethoven Box Set Available to Stream on Apple Music

Just two days ago, I asked if it was the end of the big classical box set. Today, I learned that the new Complete Beethoven box set, which was released a few weeks ago, is available to stream on Apple Music. Universal music says:

Apple Music, in collaboration with Deutsche Grammophon, have launched a newly curated Beethoven Room to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary next year. The Beethoven Room offers full access to the composer’s music, listeners can find every note of the composer’s work as well as brand-new releases, and fresh audio and audiovisual content will be added weekly.

Apple Music’s Beethoven Room offers direct access to Deutsche Grammophon’s Beethoven – The New Complete Edition, the most comprehensive and authoritative collection ever produced, which was developed in collaboration with leading scholars at the Beethoven-Haus Bonn. The 16 digital albums from The New Complete Edition include historic landmarks recordings by some of the world’s greatest performers – from Abbado to Argerich, Bernstein to Brendel, Karajan to Kremer, Menuhin to Mutter and Perahia to Pollini – as well as world premieres of recently rediscovered works.

Complete beethoven

This changes things. While I don’t regret buying this set, had I known that it would all be streamable, I certainly would not have purchased it. The complete Bach and Mozart editions that Universal released in recent years are not available to stream, but large parts of them are.

You can access this music on Apple Music. I will point out that it’s not easy to find this page when searching Apple Music. If you search for “Beethoven 2020” you’ll be able to find the albums, but not the page that serves as a portal to this set and other Beethoven recordings and videos.

The Next Track, Episode #163 – Lewis Shiner on His Novel Outside the Gates of Eden

Lewis Shiner’s latest novel Outside the Gates of Eden is a saga that begins at a Dylan concert in 1965, then follows a musician and his friends as they age, up to the present. This novel has a huge scope, with moving scenes about music, and about a generation growing up.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

is This the End of the Big Classical Music Box Set?

In the past couple of decades, classical music listeners have become accustomed to seeing a number of Big Classical Box Sets (or BCBSs) released in the autumn. These sets feature many, most, or all recording- by [composer_name] or [conductor_name] or [artist_name] or [ensemble_name], and are generally sold at prices that make classical music collectors pull out their credit cards quickly.

It’s not easy to date the first BCBS, because, over time, there have been box sets whose size creeped up into Big territory. A complete Wagner Ring cycle was a big box set, or even a complete Beethoven piano sonatas, or Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas, and these were initial big in price. What changed, and led to BCBS status, was when these sets went beyond just collections of works by a single composer.

The first real BCBS didn’t come in a single box: it was the 180-CD Complete Mozart Edition from Philips. Released in 1990-91, in 45 volumes, it was more of a serial edition than a big box set, and the price for the entire set was around $1,000.

Around 2000, with the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, more affordable BCBSs were released. These were much cheaper than the Philips set, and I recall the cost of the various editions from different labels being around $200 – $300. (The Dutch label Brilliant Classics’ Bach Edition sold in the UK for £225.) While the Philips Mozart set was very expensive, the new, cheaper Bach sets allowed collectors to buy 150 or more CDs at around a dollar/euro/pound each.

In 2005, however, everything changed. While Brilliant Classic’s Bach was five years old, it hadn’t sold anywhere near as much as their new Mozart set would. The Brilliant Classics Complete Mozart set, with 170 CDs, sold in France for €99. By the time it was released in the US in 2006, where it listed at $150, it had already sold 300,000 copies. (It would eventually be sold as low as €39, but was more often available for €69. An updated edition from 2014 currently sells for €114 on Amazon France.) Brilliant Classics made a specialty of these big box sets, often with competent yet workmanlike recordings, and single-handedly succeeded in reducing the price of classical CDs.

Once the perceived value of classical CDs had dropped, all the labels had to compete. Hence the plethora of offerings every year. (You can read some of my articles about these box sets here.) The labels have trawled their back catalog, reviving conductors and artists that were formerly known only to a select few, bringing back many recordings that had long been out of print. But also bringing back a lot of dreck. In any artist’s career, there are always duds, and the market kept them hidden, so in many of these sets, you’d have, say, half the discs being Really Good, a third being Okay, and the rest being Meh.

Some artists have been the subject of repeated box sets. Herbert von Karajan, for example, seems to be covered by a new, larger box set every couple of years. Leonard Bernstein has done well, also, in part because of the massive number of recordings he made for Columbia Records (later Sony), then another massive number of recordings for Deutsch Grammophon, often re-recording the same works. And you can’t swing a violin bow without hitting a new edition of Glenn Gould’s recordings, which have been re-re-re-mastered and repackaged so many times it’s hard to keep track.

Even indie labels got into the game, with Hyperion Records assembling two large sets from long series they had released: the first was their Complete Schubert Songs set, on 40 CDs, and the second was their 99-CD set of Liszt’s Complete Piano Music.

Anniversaries are good reasons for box sets, hence the three recent sets from Universal (which encompasses DG, Philips, Decca, and others). 2016 saw a 200-CD set of Mozart’s works; in 2018, they released a 222-CD set of Bach’s works; and this year, it was time for a mere 123 CDs of Beethoven’s complete oeuvre. And this, I believe, is the inflection point. This is peak BCBS.

Most or all of this music is available on demand on all the major streaming services (if you can find it). While I have purchased the Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven sets, these are likely to be the last that I buy. I like the approach in these Universal sets, with lots of different performers, including different performers among a group of works (such as different pianists for the sonatas, different ensembles for the string quartets, etc.), and even different styles of performance (some original performance practice, others in a more standard twentieth-century style). The only two sets that I would consider in the future would be a complete Schubert, if it contained multiple recordings of all his lieder, and a BCBS of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings, even if it only covered his recordings on DG and EMI. (There are lots of others.)

I used to buy a few box sets a year, in part to get recordings by composers or artists I like, but also because of the low price, generally around one dollar/euro/pound per disc. When the only music you could listen to was what was on your shelves, these sets meant that I always had a lot to choose from. But I have recently been selling a lot of them off used, because the music is mostly available to stream, and because they take up a lot of space. I have ripped some of them, but not all, so in many cases I can listen to them without pulling out the CDs. But I do enjoy that nostalgic experience of taking a CD out of its sleeve, admiring its artwork, deftly inserting it into my CD player – yes, I still have one of those – and listening to the pristine sound of vintage digital plastic.

After mining the depths of their catalogs, the record labels have probably overloaded so many classical collections that even the most avid listeners who are not obsessed with having Every Single Recording Ever By [artist_name] will soon have no more room.

It seems as though these past few years have seen the swan song of the classical recording industry, as they dump as much as they can to the last remaining collectors who still want CDs. I’m exaggerating a bit, but there comes a point where it just makes no more sense to buy CDs that you can really never listen to when you have millions of options available to stream, even in lossless format, if you want to pay for it. Classical recordings won’t die, but I think the BCBS has reached the end of the line. In years to come, these BCBSs will be relics of a time when an industry attempted to grasp the past for one last hurrah, but the times have changed.

For more on BCBSs, check out this episode of The Next Track podcast, where we discuss CD packaging, and discuss the concept of the BCBS.