August 16, 2022

Arts & Leisure: The Cloud That Ate Your Music

Recent weeks have been filled with announcements about music taking residence in the cloud, the poetic name for online storage and software that promises to make lifetimes worth of songs available to anyone, anywhere, as long as those people and places have Internet connections. (Which of course is a long way from everyone, everywhere, but utopian tech dreams tend to ignore mere hardware.)

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. Pandora Internet radio, which extrapolates individual playlists from users’ likes and dislikes, raised hundreds of millions of dollars with a huge initial public offering (followed, however, by a steep drop in stock price; with operating costs and royalties to copyright owners, the company has never made a profit). 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 unauthorized sources for music; virtually any album can be found for downloading with a simple search. Free or paid, the cloud is already active.

Dematerializing recorded music has consequences. On the positive side it hugely multiplies the potential audience, letting the music travel fast and far to listeners who would never have known it existed. It escalates music’s portability, as it adds one more previously stand-alone function — like clocks, cameras, calendars, newspapers, video players and games — to the omnivorous smartphone. That’s instant gratification, but with a catch: Smartphones aren’t exactly renowned for sound quality. And the MP3 compression that has made music so portable has already robbed it of some fidelity even before it reaches my earphones.

The ritual of placing an LP on a turntable and cranking up a hi-fi home stereo disappeared — when? Perhaps with the cassette and the Walkman, the ancestor of the portable MP3 player. Now even the thought of having a separate music player is a little quaint. The smartphone will do it all — just adequately, but convenience trumps quality. Baby boomers who remember the transistor radio, that formerly miniature marvel that now looks and feels like a brick compared to current MP3 players, can experience again the sound of an inadequate speaker squeezing out a beloved song.

As the last decade has abundantly proved, freeing music from discs also drives down the price of recorded music, often to zero, dematerializing 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.

There has also been another, far less quantifiable, effect of separating music from its physical package. Songs have become, for lack of a better word, trivial: not through any less effort from the best musicians, but through the unexpected combination of a nearly infinite supply, constant availability, suboptimum sound quality and the intangibility I’ve always thought I would welcome.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 25, 2011

A cover essay this weekend about the online storage of music misstates the name of the Apple service that will scan and recognize music and add Apple’s own copies without uploading. It is iTunesMatch, not iMatch.

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