Cloud readies music for next round of disruption

Cloud readies music for next round of disruption

Cloud readies music for next round of disruption

I can’t wait. Ever since music began migrating online in the 1990s I have longed to make my record collection evaporate — simply to have available the one song I need at any moment, without having to store the rest.

But I have, as they say, special needs. In three decades as a critic I have amassed more vinyl, CDs and digital files than I know what to do with.

Periodic weeding can’t keep up with the 20 to 30 discs that arrive in the daily mailbag; the overfull floor-to-ceiling shelves are already straining under thousands of CDs and LPs. Any affection I had for physical packaging, no matter how elegant or unique, has long since vanished; it’s a reference library, not an art collection.

And it grows, and grows, because I never know what I’ll need: the limited-edition 45, the home-burned debut CD. Yet I’d much rather have it in the cloud than in my apartment.
In recent weeks Amazon, Google and Apple have announced services to store individual music collections in the cloud, ready for access online and for syncing to multiple devices.

Dar.fm recently arrived as a free service that records radio stations — like TiVo for radio — and, as a bonus, conveniently indexes any music from those stations that has been electronically tagged. (Choose a congenial radio station and assemble a well-chosen collection.) Other companies — Rdio, MOG, Napster, Rhapsody — have been offering huge catalogs of music on demand (and transferable to portable devices) for some time as subscription services for a monthly fee, and Spotify, already online in Europe, is likely to join them in the United States soon.

That’s not to mention the many unauthorised sources for music; virtually any album can be found for downloading with a simple search. Free or paid, the cloud is already active.

As the last decade has abundantly proved, freeing music from discs also drives down the price of recorded music, often to zero, dematerialising what used to be an income for musicians and recording companies.

Royalties generated from sales of MP3 files and by online subscription services are unlikely to ever make recorded music as profitable as it was in disc form. Now everyone, not just a critic, can feel awash in music, with an infinitude of choices immediately at hand. The tricky part, more now than ever, is to make any new release feel like an occasion: to give a song more impact than a single droplet out of the cloud.

But while musicians learn to play in the cloud, I need it as a repository. For the moment, the much-ballyhooed cloud music players leave me unimpressed. Each has different mechanisms, features, prices and limitations, including one major one: They all depend on first uploading the collection into the cloud.

Google Music Beta’s Music Manager has been running for days on my laptop, and it’s barely one-third of the way through a mere 4,000 songs from a single hard drive — a tiny random fraction of the collection. Amazon and Apple will automatically add the music purchased through their respective stores, but the rest is slow going.

Apple is also promising that later this year, for a fee it will share with record companies, that it will implement a service called iTunes Match, which will scan and recognie music and add Apple’s own copies without uploading. That was an idea that mp3.com implemented back in 2000, when its Beam-it function recognized CDs in home computers to add immediately to online collections. But Beam-it was soon stopped by a record-company lawsuit.

Now Apple has gotten permission from the major labels, though at least one independent, the archivally minded Numero Group, has turned down iTunes Match, describing Apple’s financial terms as a “pittance.”

Meanwhile, as many technology writers have pointed out, iTunes Match as currently described will in effect launder music that was copied illicitly, replacing home-ripped files with standardized, good-quality 256 kpbs iTunes Plus AAC files. But now record labels and publishers will receive 70 percent of Apple’s fee.

As for the far greater part of my music library that’s just on CDs, well, it’s too bad no one is bringing back Beam-it, and even then the uploading would be endless. But yes, it’s charming to see an album that’s nowhere in my phone’s memory available for listening, with the option to copy selected files for offline (which to me means subway) play. The cloud services are, after all, just getting started; speed and storage capacity will only increase.

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