Editor's Note: While researching cloud music backup solutions I checked the Bliss music library management blog from Bliss creator Dan Gravell. I found that Dan had recently written a similar article, so I asked him to create something similar for Audiophile Style. Fortunately, Dan agreed to write the following article about backing up music libraries to the cloud. Dan is a great resource in this area and I encourage people to ask follow up questions and check out his app Bliss, that makes music collections look as good as they sound.
Cloud Music Library Backup
As humans we're great at a lot of things, but those things tend to be addressing short term stuff. What's the funnest thing I can do right now? I've got a headache - where's the paracetamol?
Most of the time I'm thinking "what music should I add to my collection". Rarely do I think "what would I do if I accidentally deleted my entire music library". But the reality is that the impact of the latter far outweighs the former.
We all know 'backups are important'. It's almost a cliche; it's something told to us but also something many of us don't do. Depending on how complex you want to get, backups are not trivial. This complexity means we immediately see an upcoming cost, mostly in terms of our time.
The emergence of the cloud has made this even more overwhelming. Now there are different types of backup services with different pricing structures and different capabilities. When should you choose this service, and when should you choose a different service?
The result is that backups are, for many people, The Job That Gets Put Off. Again and again, we have good intentions to eventually implement backups, but we never quite get around to it.
So I'm here to cut through that and outline a plan for you to implement music library backups. I've surveyed multiple cloud services for storing music, both generic and music-oriented. I've been storing, managing and organizing my own library for 25 years. By the end of this article you'll have decided the best route for you to take in backing up your precious music collection. You'll thank me one day...
... admittedly not today, but one day. ;-)
What's the worst that can happen?
Music library disasters come in different forms. It's easy to think of the obvious ones: fire, theft, computer viruses, PEBKAC. But there are more insidious ones too. Bit rot and automation-gone-mad are types of changes to your library that can sometimes go unnoticed, but are damaging nonetheless.
Different types of problem can be fixed in different ways. But they all share one solution: backups. Backups are simple: they are redundant copies of your data. To fix a problem, simply replace your affected files with a previous copy. These redundant copies of your music library are your backstop against pretty much any disaster that can befall your music library.
But there are backups and there are backups.
Backups, as redundant copies of data, can range from a simple drag-and-drop copy of your music library to a different location right through to a best-practice, off-site, automated, scheduled and fully versioned history of file changes.
If you agree you need to do something about backups, you need to decide how you're going to create them. That's difficult, because there are many ways of creating backups, and there are many technical solutions and services that help you do that. What matters is choosing the right solution for your context. There's no one-true-way.
As an overview, these are the broad constraints you should consider when deciding how to backup your music:
- What is the cost of not being able to access your music library? Think in terms of both financial cost and loss of enjoyment.
- In the event of a problem, how quickly do you need access to your affected music to be reinstated?
- How often do you make changes to your library?
- What is the size of your music library (generally expressed in a data storage requirement, i.e. in giga- or terabytes)?
- What are the technical capabilities of the site where the library is stored, e.g. Internet upload speed?
- What is your own technical understanding?
- How much money can you commit to a solution?
We've completed the first step in our plan: to understand our backup constraints.
A mental model for backups
What we've identified so far are a lot of potential problems and a lot of variety in the impact of those problems. Later I'll also be introducing a number of potential varied solutions to backup.
This is confusing. With so many variables how do you pick the right approach for your backups? The resulting multitude of questions lead to procrastination.
This is the most important part of this guide. A mental model for music library backups. Follow this model, and you can choose the best way of backing up your music library. This model takes the constraints we've outlined to decide the best approach to backups. Later we'll apply this approach to the available cloud services.
The most important place to start is with the impact of loss. To start with, if the impact of music library loss can be measured in dollars it's almost definitely worth investing money on a more complete backup strategy. Usefully, having an approximation of how much the loss of a music library might cost gives a good measure by which you can judge the value of solutions.
If the loss of your music library is more about a loss of enjoyment or even sentimental reasons then it's more difficult to judge how much effort you should place on backup. Consider how you would feel if you lost your music library. Different people will have different opinions. The answer might range from utter devastation at the loss of the collection you have curated your entire life, to a "blow it, I'll just switch to a streaming service". Either response is valid.
Continuing with the same mindset, if the loss of music can be measured financially then it's likely fast recovery is required. However, if not, a slower form of recovery could be permitted. For example, physical media is its own form of backup. If you lost a music library which contained vinyl rips that you now have in long term offsite storage the recovery will be slow, but it might be fast enough.
The next major constraints are around the library itself. This has a specific resonance with audiophiles, who are more likely to store music in higher-fidelity formats. If the library is large (1TB or over, say) then even with a fast consumer Internet connection it will likely take a number of days to upload the collection in its entirety. Furthermore, many online backup services are metered by storage, meaning it will cost more to store more music. At one extreme, if you live in a cabin in the woods without an Internet connection you know online backups are not going to work.
If you have a library that is often updated, by adding new music or changing the music that is in the library (including by changing music tags, or file and folder structures) then you might want backups to be scheduled more often; the longer the gap between backups the more likely one tranche of those changes will be missed.
Finally, let's point the finger atâ€¦ you. Your own technical understanding can be a blocker to some backup methods. Fortunately, most backup services try to make this as straightforward as possible, but in the case of generic storage services coupled with backup routines created by yourself, you need to be honest that you have both the skills and time to manage these things.
The model in summary:
- If you attach a financial cost to the loss of your music library, best practice, automated and offsite backup should be considered.
- If a streaming service could replace your library, maybe backups aren't required at all.
- If recovery from disaster must be fast, consider a service that offers speedy recovery.
- If recovery from disaster would otherwise be too slow, would choosing a different backup approach make it faster?
- Compare your library size to your Internet connection. If you have no or limited Internet connection, local backups are the best way. However, if best practice backup is required, you might also need to upgrade your Internet connection.
- If you don't have the time or skills to work on backup, choose a pre-packaged service.
Status quo bias suggests people may overestimate the chances of current conditions (such as: having a pristine music library) continuing in the future, thus they do not plan for the conditions to change.
By at least considering your constraints and working through this mental model you're doing something, even if that's concluding you don't need a music library anyway because you're going to move to streaming.
By using the mental model we have a general idea of our backup requirements. Knowing these gives us the security to guard us from loss. Our plan has evolved from constraints to requirements.Now it's time to implement a solution to those requirements!
Cloud backup solutions
This is where it becomes clear that applying our own constraints is important; there are multiple services that provide backups in the form of redundant copies of your music library, but they vary in terms of the security they provide.
I'm not going to talk about on-site backup services here. There are plenty of options for on-site backups. This article focuses on what the cloud can provide.
Broadly, there are three types of cloud backup service for your music library. These three types provide a convenient way to slice up the potential services we can use and make choosing easier.
For all of these examples, be aware that cloud services are a very evolving landscape. Some services come and some go. Some change to solve a new problem, and some change to only serve certain markets.
This makes it difficult to list examples with any guarantee they will stick around, let alone suggest specific recommendations as to which service you should pick.
You can use tools like alternativeTo to find the right service for you. Start with services named here, for example iDrive. From there you can filter the results to find the right service. This is useful because, being crowd sourced, this directory is updated often. However note that, being crowd sourced, some of the entries can be misleading so always double up with research once you've found an alternative.
Sync storage services
The first type is sync storage. These services are built to provide synchronization of files between devices and people. Backup is a special case of synchronization; in most cases backup is one-way and typically there's only one source of data. As backup is a type of synchronization that means these sync storage services can still be used for backup.
However, you have to be aware the features of these services are oriented to a different problem than backup specifically. This means some more advanced backup features are not provided out-of-the-box. Examples of such features are snapshotting; the ability to download your entire library from a single point in time. Implementing these features yourself is sometimes possible by installing self hosted software, but consider the time cost in implementation and maintenance.
Pros of sync storage are:
- Provided by the largest tech firms, so you may already have an account with the service.
- Support for a wider variety of third-party software, such as music players and best-practice backup software.
- Any problems (or deletions) introduced to your library are mirrored. File history is often available but a lot of files might have been affected, so sorting through them all is a lot of work.
- Change history works on a file level, but rarely a library level. This makes recovery much more difficult (third party software can sometimes solve this).
Examples of sync storage are:
Backup storage services
The next type of cloud storage service are backup services. These are oriented specifically toward backup and solving disaster recovery issues.
These services boast features that are especially useful for backup. Scheduling, automation, file versioning and snapshot restores are all standard. In addition, some services even offer the ability to receive your music library on an external hard drive - which might make recovery faster.
Pros of backup services are:
- Easy to setup best practice backup with the supplied software.
- Multiple options for recovery, including physical storage shipment.
- Point-in-time recovery is available giving you an instant "snapshot" of your library.
- Less flexible in some ways; the services are more constrained and designed to work with the proprietary software shipped with the service.
Examples of backup storage are:
Cloud music lockers
The final type of cloud storage worth considering are music lockers. Music lockers are cloud storage services with added services for music libraries. They allow music to be uploaded to their storage service and then offer extra tools to stream the music to your devices.
They can be thought of as sync storage but with various music-library-oriented additional features. In most cases they are built to solve the problem of remote playback rather than backup. However, as they allow the upload of your music library they do offer a redundant copy and so do offer a small level of protection.
That said, I would not recommend these services as a full backup solution. If you place much value on your library, look to the other categories.
- An easy way of making your music library available remotely and allowing it to be streamed.
- Most services don't automate synchronisation of your library, so you have to keep backups up to date yourself.
- Tricky recovery; there's no support for snapshots of your library.
- Exporting data can be variable; some services have been known to wipe tags from music files.
Examples of music lockers are:
Now we can apply what we learnt about our constraints and backup requirements to the actual solutions.
Choose a backup service if:
- You can attach a financial cost to losing your music library.
- Losing your library is too terrible to bear.
- You have no way of recovering your music library in the event of loss.
- You frequently update your music library.
- You have an Internet connection capable of uploading your music library.
- You are less technically inclined, or simply don't want to spend time managing the backup process.
Choose a sync service if:
- It's not that important if it takes a few days or weeks to get your music back.
- It doesn't matter if you can't easily download your entire library from a point in time.
- Some parts of your library are just not that important, and losing them permanently is not a big deal.
- You have an Internet connection capable of uploading your music library.
- You don't update your music library frequently.
- You are prepared to put more time into adapting the service for use as a more formal backup approach.
Or choose a music locker service if:
- You also want a solution for playing your music remotely.
Our plan is almost complete: we have narrowed down the services to those that most meet our requirements.
The final hurdle
Backups are necessary for self-stored music libraries. Music library disasters are rarely front of mind and this, combined with the complexity of the different solutions, can lead to inaction.
In this article I've tried to ask the questions you should be asking yourself about the best way of securing your music library. What makes sense to you given your constraints and requirements.
You now understand the type of cloud storage service you need for your backups. The final step in the plan is to choose which service is the one you should implement backups with. It's now easier to progress with implementing backups having articulated our requirements and narrowed the possible solutions.
So here's your next step.
Take the shortlist of your chosen storage type and filter each service you want to try, given the cost and the fit to your constraints. Then try the one at the top of your list. Sign up, install, try a backup. By just doing something you've built momentum to having a secure music library.
Dan Gravell is the founder and programmer of Bliss. He wrote bliss to solve his own problems with his digital music collection.