I am a music owner and I demand accurate sound reproduction, having converted my entire physical collection to weightless digital form, CD quality or better. But, in the words of self-described futurist Gerd Leonhold, “Access [to music] is replacing ownership, like it or not. Participate or become insignificant.” Bob Lefsetz was more blunt: “Ownership is for pussies.”
Cloud-based streaming services provide access to low-bit-rate compressed music, typically no higher than 128 Kbps, targeting low-fi mobile devices. Over 7% of all mobile internet traffic in North America is streaming audio. What does the music industry think of this listener experience? Lefsetz, again: “Instead of soul, we have two-dimensional garbage.”
Ownership is for pussies but lossy compressed music is garbage. What is a music-owning bit snob to do, other than become insignificant?
More than 90 million CDs were purchased in the first half of 2012. Let’s say an average buyer purchases one title per month. Sales figures therefore represent an army of roughly 15 million listeners who can potentially be moved from ownership to access. If we all switched over tomorrow, could some new streaming service in the Cloud duplicate the listener experience of playing the CD quality or high-res digital audio we already own? Let’s run the numbers.
Storage. Most cloud-based music storage services offer 5 GB of space for free. But high-res audio is big data. My collection runs 800 GB. Assuming some room for growth, I’ll need 1,000 GB (1 TB) of space. The going retail rate for disc space is roughly five cents per GB, so I can buy 1 TB for fifty bucks. Or, I can rent 1 TB from Amazon for $1,000/yr. (Say it out loud: a thousand dollars a year.) Advantage: ownership.
Content. There really is no need to have 15 million individual copies of Abbey Road (the best-selling LP of both 1969 and 2011) in the Cloud. All owners could share one cloud-based copy. Instead of storing our personal libraries, the Cloud would merely have to provide a CD-quality (or higher) digital copy of the collective holdings of 15 million listeners. Let’s start with a copy of ECM 1206 from my collection. Unfortunately not available from the label, never released on CD. I’ll stick with my high-res digital transfer from the out-of-print LP I bought way back. Advantage: ownership.
Network Traffic. According to Sandvine, median monthly usage on North American fixed access networks in the first half of 2012 was 10.3 GB and mean monthly usage was 32.1 GB. Streaming CD-quality audio just two hours a day would increase mean monthly usage by 50%. Streaming high-res audio for the same period would increase that figure by almost 300%. Multiply that load by 15 million new streamers and carriers hasten their cessation of unlimited data plans. Add hordes of young people already addicted to streaming — now shown to prefer CD quality audio over lossy alternatives — and the internet comes to a halt. Advantage: ownership.
Intangibles. I don’t want to have to register with Facebook to listen to my music (I’m talking to you, Spotify). I will not have the experience interrupted by advertising (commercial services). I don’t want promoted content inserted into every playlist I create (Pandora). Advantage: ownership.
The spirit may be willing, but the Cloud is weak. Until the issues of bandwidth and freedom of choice are addressed, I’ll content myself streaming high-fidelity owned digital audio through the Fog (the wireless cloud inside my house).
[About the author. Consumer Electronics and Software industry veteran Tom Dennehy publishes the online journal Surface to Air, triangulating among ideas and events at the intersection of the analog music past and the digital future. Follow him on Twitter @InAurem_a2d.]