From Local Music into the Cloud?

Biographic Notes & Reflection


2011-09-21 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-10-28 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-06-21 — Brushed up for better readability

Cloud (© Rolf Kyburz)

The Future of CDs?

In a comment to my posting “Transitioning from Vinyl to CD“, our daughter Deborah recently asked “What about the future of CDs? Will they replace CDs with some other type of Disc format?”. Let me reiterate on the response that I have given her a month ago:

Sure, the signs can be read off the wall everywhere. There is a trend towards computing and storage in the cloud. Frankly, this makes a lot of sense to me! Why should humanity store Exabytes (or have we already surpassed Zettabytes?) of information on thousands of millions of computers, including a zillion duplicates of the same data? Note that digital storage media such as CDs and DVDs should be included in this! Also, considering that the average computer is idle for over 99% of the time, cloud computing makes a lot of sense, just for the environmental aspects! In my mind, there is no doubt that this is going to happen within the next decade. Not just because big companies such as Google, Apple and others are pushing for it!

Larger Capacity Media?

Things are not so simple for the successor of the CD, though. First, I think that CDs are going to stay around for years to come. We may see some shifts in repertoire:

  • Cheap labels (re-editions of expired CD editions, re-editions of historic recordings, digitized / re-issued LP recordings) are probably economically viable for a number of years.
  • Similarly, SACD and “luxury editions” (high quality, large booklet, “paperback” editions, etc.) will equally remain available for years. I’m sure that SACD is not the successor for the standard CD, it will rather remain a niche market. Along the same lines, the people believing in a return of the (analog) LP are clearly an exotiC minority. This will remain a niche market. Also, I have a hard time believing that an analog LP can sound any better than top digital audio recordings (e.g., 24-bit, high sampling rate, multi-channel audio as available through SACD). Plus, the fortune that “new LP enthusiasts” invest in their super-sophisticated equipment makes this even more of an exotic niche market.
  • Large collections (e.g., all symphonies, all piano sonatas, all string quartets, etc., if not even “the complete works” of a given composer), i.e., boxes with dozens of CDs, at a rather low price, will still have a market for a while, as this would be huge amounts of music to download.

MP3 Downloads

On the other hand, I believe that the “middle / standard” segment of CDs is going to see a growing amount of “deforestation” in favor of MP3 or other format downloads (e.g., through Amazon, iTunes, etc.). But such downloads essentially still represent the same business model as CD trading, though without the actual hardcopy production, mailing, etc. The consumer may see the added possibility for partial downloads (“cherry picking”) as advantage. Artists and the industry will have a different view on this.

The latter option is likely to have a negative impact on the overall volume of music sold, hence on the music industry’s profit (hence they try discouraging selective downloads), and ultimately the artist’s income. From an ecological / environmental standpoint, bypassing the CD hardcopy creation and distribution makes sense, though, and the fact that downloads are faster and easier than online purchases & mailing CDs will also help increasing overall sales.

Downsides

One disadvantage of music downloads is that currently the industry still appears to view it a luxury to include a booklet with detailed information on artists, works, performance, instruments, texts of vocal works, etc. There are signs that things are slowly improving here.

There is a hidden downside to both the current CD and MP3 download trade: the bulk of the profits goes to the music industry. Artists tend to get almost nothing, unless their CDs or MP3 files sell in huge numbers.

We may need the music industry in order to have some insurance for consistent, high quality recordings, decent documentation (CD booklet or PDF equivalent). However, that business model bears the danger of concentrating on a limited “sexy” repertoire, i.e., artists and music that promise high volume sales and a large profit.

The Music industry is a highly concentrated market with a few giants and not many minor players. The latter can only survive in the low-cost (low quality, bad documentation) segment, or by specializing on (often highly priced) niche areas.

Subscription / Streaming Services

So far I know of one alternative label, Magnatune, offering downloads only (no hardcopy CDs), without DRM (digital rights management). They claim that 50% of the selling price goes to the artist. I personally would prefer their original business model where clients would pay per purchase. They now switched to a subscription model that doesn’t make much sense for occasional purchases, in my opinion. I suspect the new model was chosen in order to help them against subscription-based providers such as Spotify. Also, at least with some past Magnatune purchases, the documentation (PDF, artwork, etc.) was rather slim, if present at all.

YouTube

I don’t see YouTube as a serious alternative to CDs or MP3 or similar downloads. The sound quality is marginal at best. Up till recently there was a limit that only allowed for contributions up to a few minutes (that’s improving, though). Also, I wish there was a way to disable, or at least hide, comments! Whenever I watch stuff on YouTube, almost inevitably I start reading comments: the level and content of those is typically utterly disgusting and meaningless.

To me, comments may make sense when a young musician presents his ability to a wider public (some encouragement there is certainly OK!), but when the biggest artists of this planet are shown in a video, one better doesn’t look at the comments! The other point that I don’t like about YouTube is that depending on the video format (resolution setting etc.), there is very often a highly irritating time lag between the audio and the video channel, which often makes it hard to watch these videos.

I don’t want to cover illegal downloads. That’s not an option for me, clearly, as this deprives the artists of their well-deserved income. Of course I don’t want to be sued by the music industry!

Music in the Cloud

On to the Cloud: cloud services are starting to become available now. But it will take a few years until we can see (and use) their full potential.  At the moment (if we ignore collaborative scientific computing projects such as seti@home or folding@home), the bulk of the cloud services already in use are in the area of cloud storage, with services such as Dropbox. Storing data in the cloud protects against failures of local storage media. It also helps synchronizing and sharing data across many computers — provided one has network access.

However, this is just the beginning. Major players such as Google have made it clear that they see (and have started to promote) a move away from local operating systems towards computing in the cloud.  With this, the user’s computer will merely run a client OS, or maybe even just a Web browser. This makes a lot of sense from the point-of-view of resource consumption. It has other advantages, such as access to one’s data from any computer, anywhere. There are also drawbacks, e.g.: possible bandwidth issues, no data access without network connection.

The workaround for this is to duplicate data in local storage media, plus having local software, possibly with a different or limited feature set.

This is nothing to be scared of, because the market will only “buy into” such concepts if the users accept them. It must be viable not only economically, but the feature set and usability must be accepted by a major share of the users around the globe.

Implications for the Entertainment Industry

Films

What does this mean for the entertainment industry? Well, at least for films I think it’s more than a rumor that Apple and others want to move to a business model where the film remains stored in a central location—the cloud, generally speaking. Here, users either pay per view. i.e., down-streaming. Alternatively, they may purchase the right for unlimited streaming views. I can see that the film industry would like this concept, because this allows them to keep control over the actual content. But in the end, of course the business model must be palatable for both the producer and the consumer. It also assumes that the Internet will have the necessary bandwidth. I don’t see a major problem there, at least not in the very near future, given the growth rate over the recent years.

Music

Now, for films this is likely imminent. What about music? Well, if the industry can make this work for films, I don’t see a reason why in the mid-term it should be able to apply this to the distribution of music. It would not astonish me if this became reality within the next few years. I believe there is a lot of potential in such a scheme:

  • The Internet is not “resource-free”. At the very least, it consumes energy, and it also involves hardware. The environment and the climate could at least profit from the obsolescence of the media and casings (consisting of petrochemical products, presumably), the booklets (consuming trees, producing toxic emissions), and the saved resources for the distribution.
  • Environmental and cost savings would also result from greatly reduced requirements for computing and storage at the consumer end. All a user may need is a tablet computer.
  • Rather than distributing a booklet or creating a PDF document for downloading, such content could be associated with the music. This would make it viewable separately or while listening to the music.

Emerging Concepts

  • Especially for classical music, listeners may be able to view the score along with the music.
  • Of course, for new recordings (especially live recordings) one may / will be able to watch the performance, maybe in parallel to watch the score scrolling by in a separate window? Yes, YouTube offers some of this now, but this will be the “professional implementation”, hence much better
  • Overall, more people will be able to view more music, and in a richer experience!

Most of this looks promising to me, but (at least from my perspective) I think there will also be downsides. This scheme appears to suit the “consumerist’s attitude”: buy what you can get hold of, consume it, move on to the next thing … — a somewhat bewildering idea for me.

Collecting vs. Consuming

I have been asking myself why I’m collecting media rather than just consuming. After all, one day I’m going to leave it all behind anyway! The answer is: I’m not just collecting, but I’m trying to relate to the music and the interpretations in my collection. It is for good reason that I listen to new CDs many times (typically 5 – 6, sometimes more than 10 times!). Being able to access millions of tracks / countless compositions in dozens of interpretations sounds nice, but wouldn’t that prevent the intimate relationship that I have with some interpretations / CDs in my collection?

Then, there are more serious concerns: what does all this mean for the artists? Wouldn’t the ability for consumers to listen to all this music in a rich multimedia experience make many musicians, orchestras, concert halls and other musical institutions, ultimately even instrument makers redundant or obsolete? What consequences does this have for musical education? Is this the beginning of the end of musical education, practicing and performing as we know it today? I can’t deny: this worries me!



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