baked byElliot Jay Stocks
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 virtually every standpoint 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 a couple of 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 designer’s mind: 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 who I am.’ That’s what caused me to convert to digital pretty late in the game and it’s why I still hang on to 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. Just as we became accustomed to playing digital files through iTunes, we can 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. Still something that 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. (Note, even illegal acquisition of these files would result in ownership.)
The second scenario is the ‘personal’ music I have in my collection. Some of my 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 bands 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 scenario.
And this, I realised the other day, is why we 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 MP3s to the cloud — but the whole service is still based around the concept of ownership, and that seems like having one foot in the past.
What we need is something in between.
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. But the company with the most potential to do something in this arena is Apple. Rumours have bubbled up — and then fizzed away — about a potential streaming service from Apple, and although it’s widely regarded to seem unlikely, it would make perfect sense: Apple’s relationships with the labels are tight; iTunes Match is already an attempt (although buggy) to represent local files in the cloud; and iTunes itself — in desperate need of a makeover — is the familiar face users trust. That trust is waning as the app shows its age and the likes of Spotify and Rdio gain users, but if Apple acts soon, a new iTunes — or more specifically, a new model — could very well change the way we simultaneously own and rent music.
[These are thoughts I’ve spewed out over half an hour. I expect I’ll refine them and re-publish on my blog soon.]