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Music collections in the era of the cloud

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about music recently; specifically, what it means to own and use a personal digital music library whilst subscribing to streaming services such as Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, and Deezer. I published some loose thoughts on The Pastry Box a couple of months ago, but in the weeks that followed, I’ve stumbled across some thoughtful pieces on The Bygone Bureau and Pitchfork that have spurred me into writing something a little more refined. Whilst this post slowly evolved in my ‘drafts’ folder, Rob Weychert posted a brilliant analysis of his own listening behaviour during a year’s subscription to Rdio and his views highlight my own belief that the music-streaming services — in their current guises — are not replacements for personal music libraries.

I’ll try to explain why.

Music has been an important part of my life since my teenage years; first as a listener, then as a creator (a hobby I still entertain for a few weeks a year), and then as an insider within the music industry: my first ‘proper’ job was Junior Designer for EMI Records and after two years with the company I moved to indie label Sanctuary Records, again as an in-house web designer. So I like to think that I’m able to watch the industry develop from a variety of standpoints without too much bias for any one side: listener, creator, publisher.

Given the developments in digital music distribution in recent years, my interest in the industry also blends with my appreciation for the web and cloud-based apps. I was an early user of Spotify and jumped onto Rdio when it finally found its way to the UK some months ago. However, my eagerness to embrace this new method of consumption is somehow at odds with my more traditional desire to ‘own’ music. That desire most definitely comes from my interests as a designer: the part of me that loves elaborately packaged box-sets, well-designed inlay booklets, and the simple pleasure of looking at music on a shelf and thinking, ‘this is my music. This is a representation of who I am.’ It’s what caused me to convert to digital pretty late in the game and it’s why I still hang onto a relatively large collection of unplayed CDs in a box under my desk.

This ownership conundrum — and it is very much a conundrum when you appreciate digital’s negative effects for artists and labels — is something that’s plagued many music fans, but it is of course something that can be overcome. Even some of the most ardent record collectors have became accustomed to playing digital files through iTunes. As Jonathan Sterne notes,

With an MP3, you’re obviously not going to have the same enjoyment that vinyl collectors talk about in terms of the physicality of the medium. Although for a lot of people, that pleasure has been directly transferred to computer electronics. The whole fashionable-portable-audio-player phenomena is very much of a piece with the enjoyment of records […] MP3s are closer to what I would call the social demand for music — the desire to be with music, to move with it and share it. They’re much closer to that than a record is.

~ Jonathan Sterne

We’ve now come round to the idea that renting — rather then owning — music actually makes a lot more sense in the vast majority of scenarios. Finally, I’m listening to most of my new finds via Spotify or Rdio, rather than downloading them to keep.

But there’s still a problem in this equation. Something that, for me, doesn’t quite sit right. Because although our habits might move towards streaming media as we decide that renting isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the concept of ownership isn’t just about desire; sometimes it’s about need.

There are two scenarios that brought me to this conclusion.

The first is my own taste: I like a lot of obscure electronic music on small labels that simply don’t have a presence on streaming services like Spotify or Rdio, whether that’s by choice (because they see such meagre revenue from those models) or by exclusion (for operating in such a niche market). So for the majority of the stuff that gets pushed by the excellent Boomkat in their weekly newsletter, I’ll buy it directly from them and own the downloadable files (as much as anyone can own anything digital, of course). As a consumer I don’t particularly mind where my money goes — ownership or rental — but the key thing is that in many cases, there’s simply no choice. I buy it because it’s the only way I can hear it. (It’s worth noting that even illegal acquisition of these files would still technically result in ownership.)

The second scenario is the ‘personal’ music I have in my collection. Some of my musically-inclined friends are signed to small labels that aren’t on the streaming services (see above), but more importantly I own digital files of their music that will never be on those services. Some are old recordings taken from self-released CDRs; some are songs from groups who have long since disbanded to get proper jobs; some are my own songs. So if I want to throw some demos for my new EP on my iPod to see how they sound in a different environment, I need an app such as iTunes to handle those files — the streaming services will never, ever enter into that equation.

And this is why I can never completely move over to Spotify or Rdio or Pandora or whatever. Perhaps iTunes Match is a step towards something more unified — because at least I can upload my obscure / old / self-authored MP3s to the cloud — but the whole service is still based around an iTunes concept of ownership that seems to have one foot in the past.

Quite some time ago, Spotify tried to kill off our iTunes dependency by integrating ‘local files’ into the app. In my opinion, the implementation was poor, but the idea itself was solid: use the UI to merge the user’s ‘owned’ local files the service’s ‘rented’ streaming files. Having already experimented with the idea once, they’re well placed to make a more refined attempt; perhaps better placed than Rdio, who have yet to touch on local files. However, what Rdio have done is introduce the notion of the ‘collection’. In terms of functionality it’s nothing more than a slightly more refined playlist, but it does at least appease our desire for ownership.

Music streaming may enable us as consumers of music, able to call up and listen to virtually any well-known track in an instant, but it fails to empower listeners as collectors. It’s possible to bookmark songs in applications like Spotify and recall them at will, but for now at least, it’s not possible to gather together the songs you like in an enduring, sharable library the way we might arrange books on a bookshelf.

~ Kyle Chayka

Because Spotify lacks a collection — but because its music library is far broader, at least in terms of my own tastes — I’ve resorted to ‘starring’ albums and treating that automatically-generated ‘starred’ playlist as my collection. It’s a hack.

It’s not just about the physical ability or disability to create a collection, either. I strongly believe that streaming services devalue music, simply because we’re not as invested — neither physically nor emotionally — in the recordings. Rob Weychert sums it up perfectly:

When I buy an album, I’ll make an effort to enjoy it for the sake of my investment, even if I don’t immediately like it. I spent money on it, it’s taking up space on my hard drive and/or shelf, and I want that to count for something. But subscribing to Rdio is a different kind of investment. Rather than investing in one album, I’ve invested in all the albums, which is the same as investing in none of them. If something doesn’t grab me right away, I don’t have an incentive to return to it, which limits my repeat exposure to only the music with the most superficial rewards. And even that stuff is quickly overcome by the newer and shinier stuff constantly spraying from Rdio’s fire hose.

~ Rob Weychert

What we need is something in between a streaming service and a personal, file-based collection. Could Deezer be the answer?

I heard about Deezer just before going away and at first I rolled my eyes and thought, ‘oh, yet another music streaming service,’ but upon closer inspection it appears to offer the exact functionality I’m after: the ability to upload your own library to the cloud. I must admit that I’ve yet to try the service, but this feature is something I’d like to see adopted by the others.

Perhaps the company with the most potential to do something in this arena is Apple. Rumours have bubbled up — and then fizzled away — about a potential streaming service from Apple, and although many consider it unlikely, it would make perfect sense: Apple’s relationships with the labels is tight; iTunes Match is already an attempt (although admittedly a buggy one) to represent local files in the cloud; and iTunes itself is the familiar face users trust. At last month’s iPhone event, where Apple also revealed the redesigned iTunes, I was half-expecting to see a streaming service baked into the new UI. What a shame that didn’t transpire, because I strongly believe that the MP3 is not going away just yet.

The ubiquity of online music hosting now means that friends can post single tracks to their Tumblr, and we can spy on what they’re listening to through Facebook feeds, though we might not be able to download them. These ephemeral glimpses at others’ listening habits are fascinating and inspiring, but unstable. The thing about clouds is you never own them — they have an instinctive tendency to drift away. MP3s, obsolete as they may become, stick around.

~ Kyle Chayka

It feels to me that a further refinement of the music streaming model must be just around the corner, and I’d like to see Apple behind it. For me personally, this potentially game-changing new app / service / model should allow the user access to both a vast library of music (for a subscription fee) and the user’s personal library of obscure recordings. And although such a proposal would of course be intrinsically cloud-based, it should also allow the user to curate some sort of collection — to have a sense of ownership, because ownership is an outward gesture that speaks about our own, deeply personal relationship with music.

A shorter, earlier draft of this post first appeared on The Pastry Box.