Subscription Vs the Cloud - June 9, 2011

Ever since the demise of the traditional music industry was forecast in the 1990...

Ever since the demise of the traditional music industry was forecast in the 1990s, many smart people have put a lot of thought into what will ultimately replace it.  Dave Kusak predicted in his seminal publication “The Future of Music” that music would become an ever-available commodity such as water, with the public paying a very modest fee to have the service made available to them.  In this paradigm, music is not a product to be owned, but a service to be enjoyed at will.  The consumer would have access to whatever music they want when they want it, without the need to purchase particular songs or collections attached to a physical medium or mechanical play-out device. 

Early in the second decade of the 21st century we are quickly headed in such a direction.  We will approach this subject from the perspective of how it affects the average music listener, irrespective of particular genre or level of passion.  After all, there are very few of us who will not be affected by how this all plays out in the near future.  I will attempt to find the middle way between boring those who follow this subject closely and alienating those who are for the most part unaware of the specifics of this march to the future.

As a starting point, pretty much every person in the developed world has been aware of the fact that the day of having music slaved to a physical medium is fading.  This is being borne out by quarterly and yearly statistics compiled over the past two decades.  Sales of CDs are being described as a tire with a slow leak.  Surprisingly enough, vinyl sales (long-playing record albums) show steady upward growth.  This supports the ‘music like water’ model with the fact that there will always be an upper end user that prefers to have premium bottled water and will pay extra for special features.  This brings us to our main topic for this week.

The buzz about cloud music cannot be avoided these days, with Google and Amazon already launching players and Apple following soon. We will hold off a bit on the pros and cons of these offerings and first discuss the main impediment to cloud ubiquity, the subscription model.

Subscriptions to music services have been available for many years as an alternative to traditional broadcast radio.  This includes everything from a satellite radio subscription to pay-premium internet operations.  For the purpose of our discussion, however, these and similar services do not allow the listener to make specific music selections on demand.   Rather the listener is presented selections based on filtering criteria like period style, artist, genre or previous history, and able to generate playlists of music likely to be enjoyed.

The gating issue to an on demand service is the licensing of musical content catalogs that are under control of the traditional music recording and publishing companies.  Under the guise of representing the rights-holder to the music, they demand payment in order to allow the catalog they control to be played.  Negotiating the rights to play the music under control of the traditional music companies has proven to be the biggest obstacle to a successful on demand music service.

Attempts to create a new business based on the subscription model has resulted in the failure of many start-up operations, even with some well funded ventures falling victim.  Survivors in the United States are most notably companies like Rhapsody and e-music.  The Rhapsody model, in particular, offers a valid entry to the future of the subscription music.  Though restricted to connected devices that can receive the programming, it has acquired the rights to an enormous catalog of music along with a mechanism to purchase and download individual songs to non-connected devices.  As the public becomes increasingly able to establish connection to the service from any location, the need to own copies of songs becomes less important.  The problem arises when you want to listen to music on that rafting trip down the Grand Canyon or on a trek into Yellowstone. 

The relatively recent ‘cloud’ concept offers some promise, particularly to people who rarely venture out of connected areas.   Proponents look to the day when any music you could possibly want to hear is stored on a remote, redundant hardware system to be accessed on demand.  This is fine as long as you have a suitable connection to the cloud server from the mobile device.  Here we must also consider the quality issue.  It is a simple fact that higher quality reproduction of streamed music requires more bandwidth (a bigger ‘pipe’), and that better connection will certainly fetch a premium price.  The current solution is to have a personal library that has been purchased and downloaded to a personally owned device.  The initial synchronization between the cloud and the ‘owned’ library can require a substantial amount of time and bandwidth, depending upon the size of the library and the quality desired.  It is rumored that Apple hopes to minimize this by comparing metadata between the personal library and the cloud in order to avoid the copy time.  This model still has yet to address the issue of a user uploading a library that includes music acquired illegally.

My personal objections to either the cloud or the subscription model are essentially two fold.  In the first place, the gatekeepers that were once giant recording companies are now giant service providers (Verizon, ATT, etc.) or giant technology companies (Apple, Google, etc.)  The fact that this type of corporation will control consumer access to music is quite disconcerting.  From my perspective, it is a case of “meet the old boss, same as the new boss”, as Pete Townsend so aptly phrased it.  As an example, witness the current battle between the providers, tech companies and the recording industry regarding the licensing of music.

The discovery and availability of new music is the second area of my concern.  The mega corporations that are trying to control future music access are primarily concerned with the immense back catalogs of extant recordings.   This does not bode well for the small, independent musician or music production labels or for the promise of a quality artist breaking into the big time.  This, plus the fact that the lion’s share of any revenue generated from the playing of music will go to the access provider, financial transaction broker and the technical facilitator rather than the creators of the music gives me great pause.

So the futurists, tech pundits and early adopters will promote, cajole and bamboozle the general public into purchasing innumerable gadgets and services in order to keep up with the times.  Be being in physical possession of one’s favorite music is not going away any time soon, nor is the expectation of quality reproduction.  It will be a long time (if ever) before either a subscription or cloud-based service can stream my favorite playlist of music in uncompressed resolution to my favorite picnic spot for a modest fee.  Until that day, physical media suits my purposes just fine.

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