SK Babu


Old pirates die hard

Keeping the flag flying

My workhorse computer, an ancient iMac (circa 2011) crashed a few days ago after a routine Mac OS update. Once upon a time, this would have been a catastrophe. But that was before the time of Time Machine. So I jumped through a few hoops till I managed to get the Disk Utility running on the Mac (restart while holding down R) and then plugged in my venerable Time Capsule (circa 2008). After a bit of wheezing and whirring, the Time Capsule connected to my Mac’s Time machine and informed me that I had last backed up my Mac a few months ago.

However I seemed to have skipped backing up my iTunes library as my Time Capsule had run out of space on its 500GB disk. That isn’t really as bad as it sounds as my iMac too has only a 500GB disk. Backing up all those incremental Time Machine backups meant I had to choose to ditch something. So I had decided to let the music go, as I had already made a second backup a some time earlier on my portable 1TB WD disk.

The full System Restore from my old Time Capsule took nearly 24 hours. that was fine as all my work files are in the cloud, and I could access them from any of my other devices. Once the Mac rebooted, I plugged in the WD disk and replaced the iTunes folder, only to find that 75% of my songs had disappeared.

There was a time when I would have gone nuts. But these days, I tend to dismiss it with a carefree ‘I knew not where they had gone.’

Apple is good, but it does sneak in a low blow like this every now and then. Like yesterday, a friend bitterly complained that all the birthdays saved on his iOS calendar had disappeared. I consoled him by saying the same had happened to me some time ago. And the sky hadn’t really fallen on my head despite my suddenly disappearing off the list of prompt birthday greeters. ‘I live, I learn’ was what I think Alanis Morissette once said.

Was that what her song was called? Out of habit, I fired up my iTunes, and searched for Alanis. But she was gone, probably having disappeared into a wrinkle of time in my warped Time Machine.

Not that it mattered because as Bob Dylan predicted, ‘The Times They Are a-Changin,’ (though I doubt if old Bob would have foreseen being himself bestowed with a Nobel Prize). After all, we live in the era of YouTube. A quick search popped up the video of Alanis’ ‘You Learn.’

Who needs a music library anymore?

Well, I do.

Old habits die hard. After a lifetime of having Microsoft Word crash and lose all my unsaved data, I’m paranoid about auto-saving, and backing up, and backing up the backup, and I do it without even thinking about doing it.

I mean YouTube could close down, and where would that leave me? Oh no, I have taken Alanis’ words to heart. I lived, I learned, and squirreled away my songs in other offline hideaways.

Oh, alright, I’m taking a little creative license with that ‘my.’ But I hope the music industry isn’t really suing people anymore. Maybe the statute of limitations or whatever applies, as this song came out way back in 1995.

Anyway, one quick search later, I found a 50Gb backup of my old clickwheel iPod (which incidentally also has the backup of this backup as it loyally carries out its duties as my car music player). I scrolled down to ‘Y’ and there it was.

By now, I was bit surprised with my paranoia. Where else had I backed it up? I vaguely remember signing on for Google Play Music a couple of years ago when it offered to back up all my music. I think Google was trying to compete with Apple’s iTunes Match. Had I actually backed up my music in Google?

I fired up my Chrome browser, signed in to my Google account, and navigated to The music player came on. I looked for the omnipresent Google Search field, and it was where it was supposed to be. One quick search later, and I had found Alanis.

That was a bit surprising as I had discontinued my Google Play subscription. Anyway, I was curious to see if I could access my Google Music Library on my phone. I went to the Google Play app on my Android. Yes, I could access my songs. In fact, Google also let me play the YouTube video of the Alanis song from the music player. I guess that’s no big deal as Google owns YouTube.

I do wonder why Google still gives me access to the 4348 songs I had uploaded to my Google Music Library. It could be because I do buy a song now and then from Google, which would make them see me as an active user. Or maybe Google has just forgotten about me and my piddly 4348 songs.

Inside my Google Music Library; option to watch videos; and option to download purchased music

But it turns out that all my paranoia was pointless. These days, you can get to legally listen to almost all music for free in India.

That was one reason why I discontinued my Google Music subscription. My second reason was data prices have crashed in India, and it has now become a lot more affordable. My current 70-day mobile pack cost me ₹349 ($5) for which I get 1GB of 4G data everyday, plus unlimited free calls and messages.

This means it’s now practical to stream music, even on my mobile. Spotify is not yet in India, but it’s easy to get around that with a VPN.

Spotify keeps going on and off in India depending on how good your VPN is

In case, the legality of VPNs bothers anyone, there are other perfectly legal options. YouTube has almost every song you want to listen. Jio, my mobile ISP, bundles a music app with my data pack that lets me listen to whatever I want for free. So does India’s top music app, Saavn. Apple Music also allows Indians full access to its library for ₹120 a month. That’s $1.87 a month, which is less than one-fifth of Apple Music’s monthly fee in the US.

Jio Music, Saavn and Apple Music apps give you all the music you want to hear for free, or almost free.

In short, I can now listen to Alanis or whoever I want, legally for free. YouTube, Jio, and Saavn and Apple Music and the rest pay the artists for using their music. They do this with money they earn from ads, or as a cut from my mobile data subscription pack, or some other business model. It’s a classic win-win situation.

I guess I should be happy, and I am about the music part. I’m especially glad that the artists are getting paid, instead of having their music ripped off. I always used to feel guilty about that. After all, I knew I wouldn’t like anyone ripping off something that I created, for free.

But somehow the I miss the fun of the old days.

I think it was not so much the money, but more the thrill of overcoming the many obstacles to getting the music. There would be the challenge of slipping into dicey pirate sites and then escaping with my booty, while the site tried its best to slip some virus into my computer or steal my credit card data or entice me to part with my money via porn or gambling or whatever. Then there would be ISPs trying to block access to certain sites, which had to be circumvented by using anonymizers, and the puzzle of cracking some paid app needed to unzip the folders containing the music, and deciphering the weird instruction by the pirates that accompanied the music files.

There was also the task of learning the skill of ripping music and sharing it. In those pre-iTunes days, there were no 99 cent songs but only expensive albums. Tapes were cheap but quality wasn’t as good as the music CDs or even the LP records. So if a group of broke kids badly wanted some music, the only possibility was to pool in funds, buy a music CD, rip off the music, and share it among the group members. The challenge in this case was to find the app that did the job best and figure out what combination of settings and music format worked best. All perfectly illegal, of course. But that’s just how it was.

These days, you just fire up an app, and the music is served to you in an ideal format. So where’s the fun in that?

Once a pirate, always a pirate.

The other day, I ran across a cover version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. It was one of those covers that I liked better than the original, which itself is a great song. There was a link under the video to purchase the song from iTunes. I tried it but all I got was a message saying the song wasn’t available in the US Store. I switched to the Indian Store to no avail. Well, you can’t say I didn’t try.

I could feel the smile breaking on my face as I looked up the best way to rip the song off YouTube. A few moments later, it was in my music library, and is now one of my most treasured songs.


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