Music and Shortcuts

Introduction

I initially conceived this post as a rumination about how we (I) have been listening to music for the past thirty years and where I (we) stand now. I intended it to be a state of the union without any new policy proposals. Perhaps a lament of some sort.

But then I accidentally built my own iOS music app using Shortcuts. This was a surprising outcome mostly because I had never built a single shortcut on my own. I’m not a coder or developer. I don’t even really know if there is a difference between those two words.

Yet here I am now, just a boy standing in front of most likely not very many people, ready to share my 80 or so interdependent shortcuts that use a combination of text files and the Find Music shortcut action in order to store and serve music the way I prefer.

So this post will include both the original idea along with the details of the shortcut development. But I’ve decided to pivot to video first and just show some examples of the shortcuts in action. I’ll call that Part 1, though it's really the Part 3 grand finale I'm sure nobody would get to if they had to read lots of words first. Part 2 (which is really Part 1) will be the nostalgia laced part about listening to music throughout (my) time. Part 3 (Part 2) will get into the details of the shortcut process.

This will give you some options. If you find the videos intriguing but don’t give a shit about what a rando like me recalls about listening to music or anything else for that matter, you can skip down to Part 3. But if, like me, you value listening to the entire album, starting with track one, perhaps you’ll just read straight through. Or you can leave right now.

Just to give you some context for the videos: Listen, Console, and Organize Music are the three main shortcuts I use to trigger every shortcut that lives in this system. They are menus, essentially. I try to also show in the video how the text files are impacted by different shortcuts.

Part 1 (But Really Part 3)

Part 2 (But Really Part 1)

The process of how one goes about listening to music has never been stable. We tend to think about the most recent technically advanced . . . um . . . advancements as the de facto most life altering but that's not always the case. There was a time when you had to be in the physical presence of someone playing music in order to hear music, when sheet music, not recordings was the money maker for musicians. (I wonder if there was a sheet music Napster?) There was a time when you couldn't choose what you wanted to listen to in the car beyond a knob that took you to a station where someone else decided what you listened to. So while I may think of the Walkman to iPod shift as a huge deal, I imagine I would similarly be writing about the mindblowing capability of the family radio if I had a blog 80 years ago.

Family Radio

Nonetheless, we live when we live, so here's what I remember from some key points in my music listening history.

1988

Until I was about ten years old I was completely at the mercy of whatever my brother and sister were listening to. This meant a lot of Van Halen and Prince. This meant the hard rock radio station or the pop radio station, depending on who was in charge at that moment. I don't recollect ever choosing my music during this time period.

I turned ten in 1988 and I used my birthday money to buy, for the first time, my own music. I could afford two tapes. I settled on He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince and New Jersey by Bon Jovi. I have no idea what led me to these decisions. Was it based on music, on playground chatter, on the clerk at Strawberries who sized me up as a Bon Jazzy Jeff little fellow? I will never know.

Strawberries

Since tapes were expensive the only real way to increase my music on command capabilities was to record new songs off the radio. The top whatever countdown shows were the best for this. If you listened regularly, you pretty much knew 16 of the 20 songs they would be playing. So you sat hunched over with your tape trigger fingers ready. I had one tape that I used over and over for this.

In 1988, how did I select which music to listen to?

  • I decided between the three tapes (He's the DJ, New Jersey, radio recordings) in front of me and picked one.
  • I turned on the radio.

In 1988, how did I listen to my music?

  • I think I had a hand-me-down boom box.

1998

In January 1998 I returned to college from holiday break with a motherfucking external CD-R burner for my Mac. In retrospect, this was just a tiny appetizer of what was to come, music technology wise, but at the time, a year or so before Napster, that CD-R burner changed my life. In a mere 30-45 minutes I could borrow a CD from the random dude in my dorm and make it my own. I could create my own mix CDs. I could manipulate space and time basically. I didn't have to listen to the entire album or song to copy the entire album or song! From January to May of 1998, my CD collection probably quadrupled.

CD BURNER

But I still listened to cassettes for a very particular reason. Jam Bands! I mean, god bless you if you grew up in Southern New Hampshire and were able to resist the allure of them. I certainly couldn't. My favorite was a band out of New Hampshire named Percy Hill. Sure, they produced CDs but everyone knows the dank shit is in the bootlegs. That meant tape trading. Or sending out blank tapes and return postage to someone from an internet message board. I also remember procuring a giant haul from a dude who was getting out of the game just by sending him a check for postage after I received the tapes in a box delivered to my dorm. It was a very trusting scene.

In 1998, how did I select which music to listen to?

  • Whatever I listened to last that was still in the CD player
  • I opened up my CD book and flipped through until something caught my eye or I found what I was looking for
  • Whatever I listened to last that was still in the cassette player
  • I dug through a box of tapes full of jam band bootlegs
  • I made a mix CD

In 1998, how did I listen to my music?

  • My five disc CD player connected to a receiver connected to a couple speakers
  • My Discman
  • In the car via cassette (always available) or CD (still not in a lot of cars)

2008

I couldn't afford an iPod when they first came out. That original iPod was the G.O.A.T in terms of a good or service I wanted but couldn't afford. I lusted for a thousand songs in my pocket so hard. In 2005, I received an iPod mini as a gift and my new MP3 lifestyle exploded. I took part in the Napster/Limewire free for all and had amassed a formidable MP3 collection before I had my iPod, but going from either having to burn a CD or listen from my computer to the ubiquitous iPod straight into my ears started the process of changing my brain's responsibility and ability to choose music. Again, in retrospect, this was just a precursor to our current era of yelling at a speaker or whispering into little plastic computers in our ears to play you any song ever recorded.

In 2008, how did I select which music to listen to?

  • I opened iTunes on my computer or iPhone and scrolled through mixes and artists and albums until something caught my eye or I found what I was looking for
  • I made a new iTunes mix or edited an older iTunes mix

In 2008, how did I listen to my music?

  • iTunes on the computer sent to a speaker via a cord
  • iPhone with headphones
  • iPhone physically connected to a speaker.

Early 2019

I myself have never possessed any sense of direction but they say that for those who do our current GPS driven world is chipping away at it. And forget about developing it if you are a kid with a phone today. Our brains don't see the point. It's like asking it to memorize phone numbers again.

I got a HomePod last year. Combined with Apple Music it truly is a divine God of musical requests. Just say what you want to listen to. Anything you want. Just say the words.

I found it difficult, both administratively and philosophically. Administratively because I often froze, unable to articulate a musical command. Because, unless I was intending to listen to something specific, as opposed to just wanting to listen to music, I couldn't begin to process my options. Philosophically because it feels like a party trick. Like something you'd do to fire up Walk The Dinosaur ironically while drunk with some friends in college. Wracking your brain in order to summon the words to say to an algorithm inside a computer inside a speaker is not how an adult should be made to interact with their music. Don Draper pours himself an after-work bourbon with his damn hands and that’s how I’d like to handle my music collection. I need something tangible, even if it’s just a computer rendering of something tangible.

Ah, but we don't actually have music collections anymore, do we? Since we've gained access to more and more of the music, a sense of our music has disappeared. We have music. We don't choose from our albums or our songs. We choose from the albums and the songs. This has been the case for about a decade now. Yet the recent addition of yelling into the sky with no visual references as a form of playing our music makes it feel as if only lack of imagination could deny us musical nirvana any time we want. It's a lot of pressure.

Yes, even with the entirety of music available we still use the tools in our Apple Musics or Spotifys or Tidals to construct the digital illusion of a personal collection. Something we can look at and say that's my music. I am going to choose from this.

But we know. We know there's limitless music outside our quaint little collection. What if we should be listening to that? Ever go to a concert or a basketball game at an arena and walk around the entire damn building just to make sure you're not missing out on a food or beverage option? There could be an artisanal funnel cake station just around the corner. If I don't do the whole trek I probably won't be able to fully enjoy this basic funnel cake even though it's quite tasty.

What's one to do? For me, for a while, the answer was to retreat into the old reliables. Hey Siri, fire up the fucking hits baby! As this lined up with my approaching and turning 40, it would have appeared from the outside that I was simply following in the footsteps of countless people my age who just give up on new music. The honest ones admit it's about the trying and not the music. I'm busy and the new way of the world is too confusing and always changing. I'm just gonna go with Abbey Road because it's good and I'm tired. The dishonest ones pretend it's about the quality of the product, as if there ever was, is, or will be a time when there isn't good new music. In 1975, the global population was about 4 billion. We are closing in on 8 billion. I’m pretty sure someone is making decent new music. Yet, I'm just gonna go with Abbey Road because I know nothing new is good is probably more common than we think.

No, I knew good new music and good old music was waiting to be discovered. That old favorites I hadn't dusted off in a while deserved to be dusted off. That second chances were in order. And I was realizing that although podcasts were great, maybe constant information and thoughts of other people in my ears all the time wasn't good for creativity or my general well being.

I was taking my undiagnosed frustration with selecting and playing music out on actual music. So, what was my problem?

In early 2019, how did I select which music to listen to?

  • I either knew what I wanted to listen to before I opened Music or yelled at my speaker
  • Or I opened music and gave it a thousand mile stare for a while and then opened Castro and played a dumb podcast

In early 2019, how did I listen to my music?

  • Yell at a computer in a speaker
  • Whisper to a computer in an ear bud
  • Tap glassy devices connected to speakers via magic (not wires)

Technology To The Rescue

There isn't a problem ostensibly created by technology that I don't attempt to solve via technology. So while I did begin buying and listening to music via vinyl records about ten years ago as a sort of primal reactionary impulse, it was always a side project, a little end table I like to work on in the garage.

Record Player

What I was really after was a sort of grand unifying theory (fine, a taxonomy) of curating your music when your music was all music. This, of course, in any music app, meant making playlists. My core playlists were called Inbox, Rotation and Revisit. Inbox for the new (or old but new to me) albums I wanted to check out. Rotation for the five or so albums I wanted to listen to regularly, each one always at the risk of getting shoved out by something new and shiny. Revisit for albums that came to mind for whatever reason, causing me to think I’d like to revisit that album at some point. I had others, of course, including favorite albums of the year, but these three were always part of the system.

I imagine these albums I speak of are scary and unfamiliar to some of you. You'd say: Aren't playlists supposed to be digital mix tapes? All killer, no filler. Why put albums inside of them? To which I would now say: You are correct. I don't know what I was thinking.

It turns out Music on iOS is not tailored towards listening to albums. Or, at least not in terms of adding and removing them from playlists and making lists of them you can easily fiddle with. Let's say I have six albums in my Rotation playlist. On an iPhone or an iPad this means scrolling through like 70 songs and choosing the first song of the album you want to listen to. (Now do the math for the fifteen albums in my Inbox.) It means that when I want to remove an album from a playlist (while keeping it in my library) I need to do it song by song by song.

I love mixtapes as much as the next teenager. I use Apple Music to create tons of them, both manually and (on iTunes) with smart playlists. I listen to the ones Apple People and Apple Robots make. They are perfect to fire up for certain moods or energy levels or when you're just not feeling super intentional. They are great for music discovery. Yet, I feel the same way about them as I did when they were cassettes full of Kiss 108 recordings or burned CD-Rs that were a mystery until I pressed play: They are not the center of my music collection. They are mixtapes. And yet no matter how album centric my Playlists in Music are, they are still just a shitload of individual songs that happen to be in the correct order. Playlists as mix makers are great. Playlists as an album holder and organizer are not ideal. (Though there are some workarounds. Create a folder and then throw albums as playlists into it.)

Why not just tap the Album button in Apple Music? Or Artist and then Album? There actually was a time I could do this, back when I had a digital music collection. Since I was a relatively tame Napster-er and Limewire-er, I ended that era with a super well-rounded, yet not obscenely giant, MP3 library. I could, quite plausibly, fire up iTunes, and short of knowing exactly what I wanted to listen to, start at the _A_ artists and work my way down until I found something from my collection I felt compelled to listen to. At times it could turn into a walk around the arena in search of the good nachos but the arena was like a quaint size joint Mike Birbiglia would perform at and not the Super Dome.

Playlists as an organizing principal just doesn’t work for me. But that's not the only problem I was having with our modern method of playing music.

I remember the anguish of choosing how to allot $30 on CDs when I was sixteen and earning some part time cash. I could spend hours at the CD store trying to figure it out. But then I took them home and that's what I had to listen to in terms of new music. No decision overload. Now imagine what it would have been like if, at sixteen years old, I entered a Newbury Comics attached to a Tower Records attached to a Sam Goody and could pick out as much I wanted as long as I kept paying them $9.99 a month. Imagine the people working at the store as super cool and helpful and non-judgmental but also sort of creepily aware of what you've been listening to. Since you like her you would love him and since you like him you'll flip over them and, here, take them all now and enjoy. What if this superstructure was actually located in an annex next to my teenage room and it's also where the only CD player is located.? Imagine it being impossible to play music without entering Charlie's Music Factory.

NEWBURY COMICS

And in order to help me organize _my_ music beyond alphabetized Artist and Album lists, they give me a table in the front of the store where I can toss individual song CDs into labeled boxes.

Let's just say sixteen year-old me would have run up against some focus and organizational issues in this scenario.

Which is what happened to me as an adult, a result of having to enter the most comprehensive and personalized music store in history every time I want to listen to something. Yeah, I've got my boxes near the entrance I can start with but a nice young lady in a blue shirt is approaching fast with a Playlist in her hand that just might be perfect.

So, Playlists are an annoying way to organize albums but it's really the Charlie and the Magical Mystery Music Tour aspect of listening to music digitally that has challenged me.

 

Part 3 (But Really Part 2)

I Think I Made My Own Music App

A couple things happened immediately after I wrote the above: I downloaded the iOS 13 (and iPadOS) betas and I started playing around with Shortcuts. One thing led to another. Now I listen and organize and choose my music via a billion shortcuts that work together to form a sort of system wide music utility.

Nobody is more surprised at this development than I am. Before the iOS 13 update, my experience with Shortcuts was limited to an occasional download of someone else's work, a quick look, a use or two, and then on with my life. I didn't put any time into learning Shortcuts or considering how it could be helpful to my iOS life. It felt like something Doc Brown would use to feed Einstein.

EINSTEIN

Something clicked when I started digging into the new version, though. I don't know any programming languages. Developing applications is incomprehensible magic to me. Yet as I examined the building blocks in Shortcuts, I felt a vague sense of possibility. So I decided to make some sort of music shortcut. All it took was examining one action --- Find Music --- and my entire conception of what could be done with Music and Shortcuts was expanded.

(Most of the Shortcuts I had seen out in the wild that were related to Music were for doing stuff you could do in Music but now you're just doing it in a shortcut. Firing up and shuffling a playlist. Searching for a song or artist or album. These could be very handy, no doubt, but, in terms of the issues I had, they didn’t really excite me.)

FIND MUSIC

The Find Music action in Shortcuts is a way to access the engine that runs Music and put it in any sort of package you want. This first occurred to me when I realized you could feed it text files. I love text files. Any time I sniff out a possible opportunity to create text files I tend to figure out a way to create text files. The next thing that occurred to me was that the Find Music action was a way to port Smart Playlists to Music from iTunes. Essentially, you can create a saved music search in the form of a shortcut that you can lock in place to run the same way every time you invoke it or update it (via parameters) each time. And then you can take the information it spits out and either play something right away, save it to a new or current text file, or present choices to narrow what you want to play now.

That's a lot of power. If I can feed a database of text files(!) and saved searches into the Music engine (or ask it to spit them out to me) and run it via Shortcuts (which includes Siri and the share sheet) that means I can pretty much create a music organization and delivery method of my choice and access it system wide. It doesn't mean I'd have to shun the Music app. It just means I can treat it as a music player, a music store, a resource, whatever I want from it. But I don't have to build my shelving inside of it and enter every time I want to fuss around with my collection. In fact, I have the power to develop something that might just rekindle the idea I actually have a curated collection of music.

So where to start? Here's a ramshackle list of what was important to me as I began:

  • Album centric structure
  • Access my current rotation of albums I'm listening to easily
  • Fiddle and futz with my current rotation
  • Add and remove albums from any ad hoc list I choose to make
  • Easily make lists of albums
  • Feature a curated group of artists (like a rotation of artists)
  • Add to and access my manual playlists that live in Music
  • Add and access Apple curated playlists from Music
  • Create and play smart playlists
  • Easily generate ongoing lists such as favorite albums of the year, etc
  • Automate Inbox lists
  • Easily add and remove music to and from my library

The Console

Remeber when you used to listen to music via a CD player or a record player or a cassette tape player? Think of the main one. The one connected to your sound system. Remember when you had to physically walk over to it? What did you find? For one, whatever you listened to last was usually in the CD player. So the first and possibly only decision you had to make at that point was, do I want to listen to what I was listening to last?

If you didn't want to listen to what was already in the CD player, usually there was a little assortment of other CDs (or records or tapes) that you had been listening to lately. (Your current album rotation.) Or perhaps a poorly labeled mix CD. The point is that the area around your music player was a great place to make a first pass at what you might want to listen to.

Real Console

This is a concept I wanted to try to emulate in my Shortcuts music app. I decided to call it the Console. The starting point was a single text file that only contained the name of one album. Every time I played an album (not a mix) I would want this file updated with that album. Or I could add the name of an album with the intention of playing it later. Like throwing a CD in the player so it's ready to play later.

Inside of the Shortcuts iCloud folder I created a folder called Music. This is where my text file music database would live.

Text File Music Database (As it stands now)

Inside that folder I created a text file called Console. I typed On the Line, the latest album from Jenny Lewis, the first one that came to mind, into the text file. The shortcut was pretty simple, even for me. Open the text file, search for an album that matched the text inside the file, sort it by track number, and play it in iTunes.

It was sort of delightful to see it in action. I went into iA Writer and updated the file with another album, ran the shortcut, and instantly it played from my HomePod. Maybe I'm easily delighted.

Next I decided I needed to get my naming conventions squared away.

Lists

Lists are made up of albums, not songs

  • Dumb Lists are compiled by mere mortals
  • Smart Lists are compiled by our silicon overlords

Dumb Lists

A dumb list is a text file with a title and a list of albums in the body. When a text file has multiple lines you are able to split them up and choose which one you want to feed into the Find Music action and then play in Music. When multiple text files are in a folder you are able to choose from them first. Thus, you can create any album music menu you want via files and folders, one that is easy to add/delete or edit either by other shortcuts or a text editor such as iA Writer.

My first list is one that I mentioned earlier called Rotation. I decided I wanted this to be a core list that was outside of any other ad hoc lists I might create. So this list, like the Console file, sits on its own in the Music folder. I want it available easily. The Play Rotation shortcut just opens up the Rotation file, splits the text, asks me to choose an album and then searches for it and plays it. I limit it to five albums at a time. More on how I do that later when I get into organization but spoiler: it’s a shortcut.

Play Rotation via widget__(Choosing from lines of text)

The other list in this category right now is called Jukebox. This is pretty much how it sounds. A mix of classic (to me) and newish albums I want to circle back to regularly. Something I can always go to and find a winner. I capped this list at 18. This one gets its own shortcut too, Play Jukebox.

The rest of the current lists sit inside a folder called, wait for it, Lists inside my Music folder inside the Shortcuts iCloud folder. The Play Lists - Dumb shortcut will call up this folder, I'll choose the list (which is the name of a text file) and then choose the album (which is the split text inside the text file). I can edit and add to these lists via shortcuts or a text editor. For most every shortcut I mention I access it through my umbrella shortcuts: Console, Listen, and Organize Music.

Some Dumb List Text Files As Presented By Shortcuts

Smart Lists

A smart list is produced by querying either the Find Music action or my text file music database in order to produce a list of albums. This list is temporary and just used to find something to play. They are saved searches to fetch a list to play right away.

Searching and filtering via the Find Music action is pretty straight forward. I have other ideas I am going to implement but for now this just consists of three Inbox lists.

This Year Inbox__(If I haven't listened to track 5 of an album two times I haven't given the album a fighting chance.)

Not This Year Inbox

All Recent Inbox__(Sorted by date added and limited to latest 20 albums.)

Searching and filtering a text file music database opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities, particularly after you've been building it up for a while, using it to play all your albums, and creating some history. This allows you to create smart album lists with your history that are difficult to create with Music's song-centric tools. I have two ongoing lists right now.

Daily Log

Along with adding the album to my Console file, anytime I play an album via any of my shortcuts, it is logged into a Daily Log file, along with the date. This allows me to run smart list shortcuts that access this file and pull up albums I listened to by date or time perios. *What did I listen to yesterday? Last week? Last month?

Daily Log File

Year Book

A folder full of text files named after a year and that contain albums I like from that year. There is also a master Year Book list. I add albums to these files via shortcut. I can then create smart lists from a specific year, or I can ask it to shuffle and let me choose from all of the years.

Year Books

Mixes

Mixes are made up of individual songs

  • Dumb Mixes are compiled by mere mortals
  • Smart Mixes are compiled by our silicon overlords
  • Apple Mixes are compiled by Apple, a bunch of humans instructing our silicon overlords (for now)

Dumb Mixes

Dumb mixes are simply the playlists in my Music library that I populate by hand. I'm not going to use the word playlist at all in my system. Lists = albums. Mixes = songs. When I refer to a playlist going forward that just means it exists in Music as a playlist but it contains my mix. (Sorry) I use Text Replacement shortcuts generated via the Keyboard settings to quickly ask Siri to add a song playing to a specific playlist in Music. I have a playlist called Song Mix for example. When I type qsm, hit the space bar and then Return, Siri sees Add this song to playlist Song Mix. I use q to start any Music based Type to Siri requests. I have a playlist called Single Songs (qss) that I use to add something I'm vaguely intrigued by when I'm listening to a mix of new (to me) music that isn't in my library. This only happens in Apple mixes such as New Music Daily or even an Essentials curated playlist that I listen to via links. (More on that later.) This way I have one central hub for the single song riff raff I add to my library. You either get promoted out of Single Songs with 5 stars or some love or a move to another playlist or . . . you are gonzo. But the point is that I choose what goes in and out of these mixes, which makes them dumb. They do nothing to help me.

A dumb mix shortcut is as easy as setting up a menu and typing in the playlist names to choose from.

Smart Mixes

Since the Find Music action gives you the ability to run saved searches like you would in iTunes, I use it to create my smart mixes without having to leave iOS and open my Mac. For now I've set up a series of them under the heading of Favorites.

For years in iTunes I used a 5 Star rating as a way to quickly like a song. I wasn't super precious about it. I could always unlike it at a later date. The point was just to generate a gigantic list of songs I could pull from in combination with other criteria like number of plays or last listened. I didn't mess with rating songs on a spectrum of one to five. Five stars was it.

And then iOS Music came around and introduced sweet sweet Love. Fine, not a big deal. I could easily sort my music in iTunes by the rating and then Love all the songs I had rated a five. I was okay with just Loving and not rating going forward.

It turned out to be sort of annoying. I had assumed we were now in a position to make playlists in iOS based on our Love but alas I still had to fire up the laptop to do that. I had also assumed if I loved a song from an Apple playlist it would show up in my Love based smart playlists that I did create on the Mac. That wasn't the case. Because it didn't go into my library the love I gave it was only to the benefit of Apple's logarithm. So I had to love it and library it. Sometimes I'm listening and have no idea the artist or name of the song but I'm busy and just want to add it to a list that will resurface it later without me having to know any identifying information. Love didn't do that.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at the Find Music action filters and discovered that Love was nowhere in sight. But rating was! I had to go back to iTunes on the laptop and sort by love and then make sure they were all Five Stars. Bizarro geeky deja vu.

All Favorites

Recent Favorites

Resurface Favorites

Apple Mixes

Despite building a creaky shadow app to use instead of Apple Music, I love Apple Music. It's a pleasure to use to play music and look for new music. I just want to use it on my terms.

Their curated (whether by people or robots) playlists have continued to improve. I decided to break them down between Apple Playlists that continually update and Apple Playlists that are static. The playlists that continually update are more long term playlists for me. They are the ones I add to my playlists section in Music. I only keep a manageable number of them. (Right now: New Music Mix, New Music Daily, Favorites Mix, Rap Life, Shazam Discovery Top 50) The shortcut to play these is the same as the one for my dumb mixes. Just pick between the names of the playlists.

Static Apple playlists are ones like Essentials or Song Book or Influences. These are ones that I'd perhaps like to check out but don't want to add to my library. I wanted to be able to add as many as I want and it wouldn't be a big logistical headache. The best way to accomplish this was through the playlists's URL link. I can just keep a . . . wait for it . . . text file that includes the name of the playlist (the text file name) and the link (the text file body) and run it from a shortcut. The shortcut looks into the folder, lets me choose the file (the playlist name), and then runs the URL link inside the file so it pops up in Music. The best part about this approach is that it's just a link in a text file. No need to clutter up your playlist screen or add to your library in order to circle back and listen at a later point in time. And getting rid of it is as simple as deleting the text file.

Text File Link To Apple Playlist

Artists

I wanted to create a group of artists that's a subset of all the artists in my Music library. I miss the days of having a manageable number of artists to scroll through. So I created a folder called Artist Archive and inside of it are text files for each artist I deem worthy of this club. I made these text files lovingly by hand on my laptop using Copy and Paste in iTunes. Some include all of their albums while others are more curated. I had to create three (Early, Mid, Late) for Bob Dylan. (I subsequently saw this shortcut from Rosemary Orchard that I now use to create an initial list that I then edit.)

But every so often I'll think to myself, I should give some listening attention to artist X. Revisit the stuff I love and/or spend some time with stuff I'm less familiar with. These are my featured artists and they are kept in the Artists folder. I then just port the files back and forth when I want to feature or un-feature an artist.

The shortcut to play a Featured Artist is another simple one. Open Artists, choose a file (which is the name of an artist), split the text of the file (which is the name of an album), and choose the album name to shoot into the Find Music action.

I can also play an album from any artist in my library using a shortcut that asks me each time for an artist. It then asks Find Music for every track 1 song from that artist, grabs all the albums from the track 1s, asks me which one I want to hear, and then sends it to the Play Music action.

I also keep the Favorites By Artist mix generator with this group of artist shortcuts. This is just a smart search that asks me for an artist or artists and then finds any tracks I've rated 5.

New Music Friday

If you are interested in new music, each Friday is small holiday. Part of my music adding workflow (more later) involves a text file that keeps a list of albums I particularly anticipate along with the release date. And because Apple Music lets you enter an album into your library well before it releases (and it automatically updates when the album is actually released) I can use this text file to surface albums to me as they are released.

I have this shortcut set up as an automation that asks to run every Friday morning. When it runs it scans the master list text file and looks for any album with today's date. If it matches, it grabs it (and any others) and writes over with a new New Music Friday text file for the week.

Back To The Console

Armed with a bunch of new ways to choose and play music I could now create a proper Console. Again, the idea is that this is the first place I go. I added to each shortcut that plays an album (everything but a mix) actions that update the console text file. Thus, the last album I chose to play will be sitting there already and the menu will update everytime I open the shortcut module. After that I added quick actions to play an album from Rotation, Featured Artists, Apple Mixes, Inboxes, the last 20 albums I've played, my favorite albums of the year so far, and New Music Friday. If I want something else I've got the option to fire up the Listen shortcut. I can change these menu option (shortcuts) easily whenever I want by just adding/deleting menu options and the shortcuts they point to.

I also crated a shortcut called Console Roulette that randomly chooses an album from all of the Year Book albums and puts it on the Console.

The Console on an iPhone

The Console in the iPad widget

Organize Music

As much as I love working in text files, none of this was going to work if I couldn't easily add, remove, and organize my lists and artists via shortcuts. Fortunately, Shortcuts made this possible. I was also able to create convenient ways to add new music to both my library and my lists at the same time. These all live inside of the Organize Music module of shortcuts.

Organize Music in the iPad widget

Album Info

A simple way to get Artwork, year released, or to add the album to a list. You can also play from this.

Add To Library

Thanks to the Search iTunes Store action I can easily search all music (and sort by album) either by highlighting text anywhere and sending into the action via the share sheet or just typing in the text myself.

Once I choose what I want I can decide if I want to add it to any of my lists or do nothing, which wouldn't send it to nowhere land because it will show up in my Smart List inboxes.

If the album is a future release I can specify the date and the artist and the shortcut will add it to my New Music Friday master list that is scanned every Friday.

What makes it even more helpful is the fact that I can run it from anywhere that has a share sheet or lets you copy text and share from that. Mail, Safari, Fiery Feeds, etc. All the places I may come across a new music possibility.

This only exists as a share sheet option that I can trigger in Music after copying the link via the share sheet first.

Remove From Library

One of the ongoing battles our new world of unlimited music access has created is the fight to remove music you don't want from your library. And while Shortcuts (for good reason) can't actually remove anything from your library, you can use it to send music to a playlist called Remove From Library that will allow you to nuke the albums and/or songs quite easily from a centralized location.

This works great in conjunction with my automated Inboxes. Once I clear out my Remove From Library cache they will no longer show up.

In terms of the mechanics of the shortcuts, I can either remove an album if it's playing, if I enter the text, if I call it up from a smart list, or if I get it via Album Info. Usually, it'll be a new album I gave a shot and the second or third time through I'll just call it quits at a certain point while I'm listening.

Add To Console

This one is pretty simple but has a nice feature. The simple part is that each album that I play goes on the Console anyway so if I'm listening to an album and not a mix it's usually already on the console. However, I can also, while I'm listening to something else use this to add, via text, an album I may want to listen to next or the following day or whatever.

The nice feature is that if I'm listening to a mix of favorite songs and I hear a song that triggers a desire to listen to the whole album, I can just add Now Playing to the console and it will take the album from the song and put it on for listening now or later after I listen to the mix. Or I can add the album from a mix song I’m listening to to a list while never leaving the mix. Hey, this song reminds me how much I love this album, I'm going to add the album to the Year Book.

Add To Rotation and Add To Jukebox

I like to keep my rotation at a tight five albums so every time I summon the Add To Rotation action (whether it's now playing or text entry) it will ask me which album I want to take out. Same with Jukebox, but that is only if I get past 18 albums.

Add To Year Book

This is how I populate my Year Book lists. I treat Year Book worthy albums similar to how I treat 5 Star songs. If I like the album it goes in the year book. I can make tighter favorite album lists separately. When I ask to send an album to the Year Book, the shortcut will (whether it's Now Playing or via text entry) look to see if a file exists for the year of the album and if it does it will (unless it's a duplicate) add the album to both the individual year list as well as a master list of all albums. This creates both a master list that includes the year information as well as a by-year group of text files.

Release date info can be a bit annoying. It appears that Release Date is an Apple Music field only. It can’t be edited in iTunes. And the Get Details of Music action only uses Release Date as an option. Music I’ve purchased in the past from iTunes or added some other way only allows for the Year field to be changed and contains no Release Date info. The workaround I’m using (short of replacing the music with Apple Music music) is to manually add the year to the Comments field (which can be accessed via the Get Details action) in iTunes. Then in the shortcut I use an If action to use the Comments field for Release Date if Release Date is empty. Annoying all the way around.

Add to List and Edit List

Adding to lists is easy. As is creating new ones. Editing albums (I call it pruning) and deleting entire lists is also simple via text based shortcuts that grab info from files and re-saves them after updates.

Move Artist

Move back and forth from Featured Artists to Artist Archive

Open iA Writer

Besides helping with any sort of text base editing I'd like to do, iA Writer has a great version feature that can show me what, say, my rotation looked like at any given point in time.

 

Odds and Ends

Running The Shortcuts

I really hope we get to a point where more shortcuts can be run directly from the home screen or widget without getting bumped to the Shortcuts app. Even something like Quick Look being available on the home screen/widget would be a big deal. So would text entry from the home screen.

But still, as it stands now, a lot of the functionality works within the widget on the home screen. Some of the more involved smart mixes have a tendency to crap out if not run within shortcuts, but for the most part running from a widget is a smooth experience.

I also discovered along the way that you can add a shortcut to the home screen multiple times. This allows me to keep a folder in my dock of some key shortcuts while also keeping some of the same ones on the home screen.

(And as luck would have it, just recently Macstories released some great icons that work perfectly)

This also turns the shortcut into an application as far as Spotlight is concerned.

Using the home screen shortcut icons to launch my main music modules on an iPhone is perfect. When Shortcuts opens you can't really tell because the menu takes up the whole screen and basically it looks like you are opening an app.

On the iPad, while I'm working on something else, I like to keep Shortcuts in Slide Over so that when I summon a music shortcut, either via spotlight or the dock folder, the same app-like effect takes place.

Share Sheet

I keep three shortcuts in the share sheet. I pin these to the top via the edit option within the share sheet. For my Organize Music and Add To Library shortcuts, I set them up to accept any type of input. This isn't because they accept any type of input (only Add To Library accepts anything, highlighted text) but because I want to access these two in any app with a share sheet or the ability to copy text. I want to access all of my editing, adding to lists, getting info, etc from anywhere I'm doing work and as quickly as possible. It almost serves as a toolbar equivalent. And since they will show up in share sheet of the Music app itself, I can be in THE Music app yet still interact with my music app.

I also want the ability to add something to my library from anywhere I can highlight text, because that's usually how I come across something I want to add to my library: when I'm reading it off of text, whether someone elses or my own. The Add To Library shortcut exists inside of Organize Music but I want a single tap access point so I pulled it out for the share sheet. If I tap Add To Library from any app (and have nothing highlighted) it will ask me to enter text. If I highlight text it will accept that instead.

The only other shortcut I currently use via share sheet is Add Apple Playlist Link To File. I have this pinned to the top as well but set up to only accept Music related input because I would only use this in Music. The shortcut itself just accepts the clipboard because I only run it after copying the link to the Apple Music Playlist. (The shortcut looks for text with an apple url so If I don't copy the link first the shortcut will tell me to do that.)

I toyed with keeping my Listen shortcut module pinned to the top of the share sheet. This allows me access to my music playing options from pretty much anywhere. I may go back to it but for now I prefer to keep the top of my share sheets as clean as possible.

Organizing The Shortcuts

Even as someone who didn't use Shortcuts too much in the past I was aware that people complained about the lack of folders in the app. Tough luck, nerds, was probably my attitude. But now as someone who has a series of many shortcuts all feeding into a few key shortcut modules . . . let's just say I retroactively feel their pain while currently feeling mine. My solution was to make it as visually understandable as possible using as few colors as possible.

Greens are containers that hold Pinks. Pinks are either self-sustained shortcuts (that don't point to another one) or contain Mix or List shortcuts, which have a similar container/containee color scheme. I'm hoping this paragraph becomes irrelevant soon.

Resources

This Rosemary Orchard link generator shortcut is extremely helpful.

This came out after I had completed most of my Music shortcuts via clumsy trial and error. That really sucks for me. If you are at all interested in this type of stuff, and if you're still reading you probably are, this is worth the money: MacSparky Shortcuts Field Guide

Even though I never made shortcuts or used them much in the past, I've always read everything Federico Viticci has written about them. But as a recent Shortcut convert I am now HERE FOR his Shortcut content. You should definitely read his iOS 13 review. Better yet, join Club MacStories and read it in Apple Books on your iPad. (I open Books once a year because of this review.)

Drafts

I don't really do anything on a computer anymore without considering how I can involve Drafts. And if I would have created this whole thing after Drafts 15 came out, with its new Shortcut actions, I am not so sure my whole music database wouldn't be contained in Drafts.

The Drafts Proof Of Concept video was just the first idea that popped into my head.

The problem sharing this set-up is that the shortcuts are so interdependent. They also require text files to be set-up under my exact same naming system.

However, some can be used outside of the context of this entire system. I could see someone just maintaining the Rotation group. The Add To Library could be simplified. Some could just give you ideas.

So I've decided to just dump them ALL right here. Do with them what you wish. They are organized roughly by containers followed by containees.

Warning: I'm sure many of these will look messy and inefficiant to a trained eye. I am not a trained eye. I remember watching Halt and Catch Fire and having no idea what people meant when they referred to how beautiful Cam's coding was. Now I know because I have an example of what ugly (faux) coding looks like.

Music Shortcuts

Conclusion

Perhaps you think this is ridiculous. I would understand. Sometimes I see elaborate shortcuts and wonder what’s the point? Is non-shortcut status quo so bad?

If we don’t feel any sort of connection with someone’s impetus for creating something, we tend to dismiss the final result if it doesn’t immediately appeal to us. So feel free to do that.

For me, this was not an exercise in creating something because I was bored and in an empty room with a box of Legos. This has solved a problem for me, something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I wouldn’t assume you would build your own janky Shortcut music app the same way as me, with the same priorities. But I would assume you’d be interested in thinking about the possibilities.