Clouds on the Horizon
Even though The Second Disc is primarily geared toward catalogue matters, I’d be doing myself a disservice by not paying attention to music as it stands in the present day.
There’s a trend I’ve been trying to wrap my head around on the tech side of music, one which could actually have spectacular implications for catalogue works if done properly. They’re calling it “the cloud” – mobile, streaming music services that keep the music on a server instead of directly downloading it to your computer. Pandora, Rhapsody, Spotify, MOG and Rdio are some of the biggest names in cloud-based technology that you may have come across in recent times. Even Apple itself, which has had a firm hold on the music market for years with the iTunes Store, seems like it’s going to switch over to a cloud-based model, having recently bought recently-shuttered streaming service Lala with possible intent to use its technology for their purposes.
If you’ve used a cloud-based model in your online listening, you have probably had a pretty darn good experience with it. Pandora is a constant fixture on my laptop or iPod touch; say you like an artist like Squeeze, you type the band name in and get a host of tracks from them and other similar artists (Elvis Costello, XTC, The La’s, Blur, The Clash and so on). Chances are you’ll not only hear “only music that you like,” as the site advertises, but new songs by other acts you might dig too. It’s awesome – mostly.
Of course, in this industry, nothing is without its drawbacks. Much like iTunes, cloud-based sites, even with the support of the major labels, only adhere to whatever the labels decide to keep in print in the digital world. If you like Sting, for instance, it’s not hard to hear “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” – but its respective B-side, “Another Day,” which has never been released on CD or download, remains unheard. You’ll hear a lot of Elvis Costello tracks, but none of the hundreds of rarities from Rhino’s out-of-print reissues.
And then there’s the issue of the indie labels. If you like movie soundtracks, it’s not hard to sift through Pandora, Slacker or even AOL Radio, to find a few good channels devoted to the genre. But any of the great soundtracks reissued by the fantastic soundtrack indies (Intrada, FSM, La-La Land, etc.) don’t get any digital play at all.
Less discussed but just as important is the issue of quality. Cloud sites can eliminate one of the biggest gripes about digital music – the compression of most digital file formats – because they ideally could develop the server space to include lossless files. But to my ears, they don’t. By not changing this (not to mention a half-dozen other things), cloud sites risk not catching on to active music listeners – people like you, who care about quality, quantity and content – and skewering an already skewered business even harder.
There are plenty of other things challenging cloud services that we can concern ourselves with too – the usuals like the loss of album artwork, the cohesive experience of an album and so on. But those are malleable concepts. Fifty years ago, nobody was concerning themselves with an album, either. (Yes, the reasons are different, but the facts remain.) In any case, active music listeners would do well to watch the situation as it develops and speak out where needed. Our attitudes toward the situation might yield sunshine from the clouds instead of rain.