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My recommendation i to use your favorite media play and have it scan the drive for your media and store it in its database. That way the album art will be stored in the application and you will not have to worry about the thumbnails in the folders.

There is really no difference between /media /mnt and so forth they are all mount points.

As for the thumbnails it more depends on your folder structure. Thumbnails take a while to load when you have hundreds of them in a directory. I am not sure what your folder layout is but most likely it is all the albums in one directory. If that is the case any OS would take a while to load the thumbnail data.

Are there any gains available by mounting the HDD into /media or /run/media? No at all

What part do symlinks play in all of this, if any? Symlinks will not speed up the loading of the thumbnails

What are mask permissions? The mask are the fault permission a file gets when it is created and that will not help in your case that is more so related to security