T aking charge of your music collection is a big challenge if, like most people, you’ve been slowly harvesting an MP3 collection for the past decade or so. Not only are you likely to have files stored locally, perhaps scattered across various internal and external hard disks, but you’re also likely to have some stored in cloud services – some you may not even know about if you’ve bought CDs from Amazon in the past decade.

It’s worth weighing up at the outset whether you really want to maintain a library of MP3s at all. Services such as Apple Music and Spotify offer vast libraries of tracks on demand: if you want, you can forget about local music altogether and stream everything from the cloud. If you’re looking for simplicity, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The catch, of course, is that these services aren’t free. While Spotify does offer a free service, this intersperses music with ads when you’re using the desktop player; the mobile apps, when used in free mode, will only play artists and albums in shuffle mode. There’s also the fact that not every record you might want to listen to is available on every service. Although licensing agreements come and go, right now you won’t find Taylor Swift’s 1989 on Spotify, nor Prince’s 1999 on Apple Music. You could end up having to hunt around online for missing songs – not the smooth and simple experience we’re looking for.

Step one: Manage your albums

Let’s assume you’re going to hang on to your library of downloads. A good place to start is by organising your songs into a sensible folder structure, clearing out any duplicates and tidying up any missing tags or album art. There’s no shortage of free tools that can help here: even the much-cursed iTunes can automatically organise your music folder. It won’t help with duplicates or missing artwork, though: if your library needs a proper sorting out, we suggest you download MediaMonkey (mediamonkey.com), which can automatically tag MP3 files based on their filenames, or by matching them to Amazon’s online database. 

On the subject of Amazon, it’s worth checking whether you’re entitled to download any additional free MP3s from the online giant. Amazon’s AutoRip service entitles you to download MP3 versions of any eligible CDs you’ve bought, dating right back to 1998. You might have already ripped any CDs that you bought for your personal collection, but gifts purchased for other people will also appear in your download entitlement – as long as you didn’t expressly tell Amazon it was being purchased as a gift when you purchased it. So if you’ve secretly hankered after The Best of Richard Clayderman you bought for Mother’s Day a decade ago, you’re in luck…

To check your entitlement, log in to Amazon Music (music.amazon.com) and click on Purchased at the left-hand menu. You’ll see a list of tracks available to download: anything that’s been provided by AutoRip will have a blue-and-green arrow icon at the far right. Simply tick the tracks you want to download and click the Download button on the right.
Amazon Music also has a desktop app for PC and Mac, from which you can manage your entire Amazon music collection and download tracks or albums. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can access the company’s streaming service from within this app, theoretically giving you the best of both worlds, although Amazon’s catalogue for Prime members is far less comprehensive than those of Spotify or Apple Music. 

Step two: Music on the go

Once you’ve filled out your library and licked it into shape, the next question is how you’re going to listen to it. The days when your entire music collection would fit onto a 16GB iPod are probably behind us: our libraries have grown to many times that size, and you’re most likely listening on a smartphone with limited space that must be shared with photos and apps. 

For Apple users, one solution is iTunes Match. This service lets your iTunes music live in the cloud – songs you’ve bought from Apple are available for streaming right away, while tracks you’ve ripped or recorded yourself are uploaded automatically from your desktop. For $35 per year, iTunes Match lets you listen to all of your music whenever you want, from the iTunes app on your iPhone, without having to worry about what’s stored where.

That price is pretty steep, however, when you consider that it’s merely granting you access to music you’ve already paid for. Streaming naturally also requires an internet connection: it won’t work underground or on an aeroplane, and if you’re on a metered data tariff then it will eat up around 100MB per hour of music you listen to. A final point worth noting is that iTunes Match lets you store a limit of 25,000 songs. That won’t trouble casual users, but might be low enough to limit music fans. 

Step three: Google Play Music

Happily, there’s a free alternative – and yet again it comes from Google. Google Play Music allows you to upload up to 50,000 songs to Google’s servers: you can do this using the web interface, via a Chrome extension or the Music Manager tool, available from play.google.com/music. FLAC, MP3, AAC, ALAC, WMA and OGG files are all supported, but be aware they’ll be converted to MP3, so audiophiles may detect a loss of quality.

Google Play Music will try to match tracks that are already in its online library, rather than uploading your own MP3s; we’ve found this isn’t always 100% accurate, but you can force it to uploa your own files from the online interface by clicking the dropdown arrow and selecting “fix incorrect match”. If you’ve got a large collection of obscure albums, it could take hours or even days to upload your music to Google’s servers – you can adjust the bandwidth afforded to uploads in Google’s desktop app if you find it’s hogging your connection.

Once your songs are in the cloud, you can stream them to any Android or iOS device for free, using the Play Music app. If you’re out of coverage, or on a limited data plan, then a simple switch tells the app to only play MP3s stored locally.

If you’ve got a large collection of obscure albums, it could take hours or even days to upload your music to Google’s servers.

The best thing about Google Play Music is that, as well as giving you easy access to your own library, it doubles up as a Spotify rival. If you want to broaden your musical horizons, the Google Play Music subscription service gives you on-demand access to a library of 35 million tracks. The first 60 days are free; after that, the fee is US$10 per month, the same as Spotify and Apple Music – or US$15 for ten devices if you’ve set up a family group on Google Play. We’ve only two minor caveats about Google Play Music. First, as with Google Photos, there’s no cast-iron guarantee the service will be there forever, so even if you plan to rely on it for everyday use, you’ll want to keep a backup of your library stored somewhere safe. Should you need to re-download your entire library, you can do it with a single click using the Music Manager tools for Windows – but remember that files in formats such as AAC or FLAC will have been transcoded to MP3.

An abiding niggle to be aware of: every time the app updates itself, it defaults to streaming. If you don’t notice this, you could end up chewing through your data allowance. Overall, though, if you’re looking to slim down and simplify the way you listen to music, it’s hard to beat the convenience of local playback, streaming and a huge on-demand subscription library all in a single app. 

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