Over the last three to six months, I’ve been reading a ton of blogs posts and articles about various new streaming music services and how music is steadily moving to the “cloud” and away from pure ownership and downloads. Among music tech geeks, there’s a healthy debate over whether or not we will ever fully move away from a downloads/ownership-based model (see below for a bunch of great sources on the topic).
We’ve been starting to see promising signs that “music in the cloud” is becoming more of a reality: Spotify seems to be getting the nod from some major labels in Europe, MOG recently rolled out its own streaming service, Grooveshark has been gradually on the rise, Apple just acquired LaLa, and I just saw a very promising demo of Thumbplay recently at the NYC Music Tech meet-up. All of this seems to suggest that music streaming is a feasible reality, perhaps even within the next five to ten years.
Overall, I’m really excited about this potential transformation and all the possible innovations that it could bring to the recording industry landscape. But I think we’re still a ways away from “music in the cloud” fully being realized and adopted as the new industry model for a couple key reasons. Problem number one is the sheer limit of “always-on” Internet service (even including some of the 3G networks). Although we’re seeing more and more options for broader connectivity (free city/airport hotspots), the limits are still considerable in many areas of the country — anyone who uses the New York subway knows of at least one big “wifi dead zone,” and one where a considerable amount of music listening goes on. The second major issue is the legal/licensing framework we’re still dealing with in terms of the labels and their high expectations for the payouts from music streaming services. The original label deals nearly killed off Imeem, and there’s a good reason that Spotify has still not made its highly-anticipated entry into the U.S. market. And, of course, another major issue is the larger problem of convincing the greater public to switch away from ownership to a streaming model.
And it’s this last issue that brings out something a bit more from my personal experience having tested out some of these newer music services. As a live music fanatic, I’ve got another obstacle that’s stopping me from hopping on to the cloud music bandwagon: it’s the lack of live music.
As a true live music geek, much of my music collection is made up of concert recordings (my rough estimate is about 50%). A large portion of that music is non-commercially traded music from online archives like the Live Music Archive and etree.org, and some of it includes officially-released soundboard recordings that I have purchased from a number of different sites like LiveDownloads.com. But barely any of these recordings would be available to me via streaming services like iMeem (now MySpace), MOG, Spotify, and Lala (which I am including even though it has a slightly different approach to streaming). These services tend to focus almost entirely on the standard studio output from artists and bands per the recording industry’s traditional focus. If it’s not an official release by the band, then you’re unlikely to get access to it with your subscription. Even one of the longest-standing subscription streaming services, Rhapsody, seems to only include the official releases in its catalog.
I recently took the time to check out LaLa and make use of their “Music Mover” app to upload my music collection and test out the streaming part of their service. While LaLa nicely handled the studio portion of my collection, it could not recognize a huge chunk of my personal library. As much as I respect Lala’s vision, that’s just not going to work for me. I’ve also tested out Grooveshark, and while they offer the ability for users to upload their personal music files, I’m not sure I could ever spend the large amount of time I would need to upload my entire live collection to their servers (nor am I sure their system could handle the load or if it would allow me to do so).
Don’t get me wrong, there certainly are work-arounds for my predicament, but that’s precisely the point, they are work-arounds rather than existing features. I already have a work-around…it’s based on downloading and ownership. Overall, if I’m going to move away from owning my music collection and relying on the “cloud,” it’s got to be easy, efficient, and super-inclusive of the music I want to hear.
Now I completely understand why focusing on official releases makes sense for these services, because it serves the more traditional music fans that make up the majority of the market. But while I realize that I’m in a minority, I certainly know that I am not alone. Plus, live music fans like myself are some of the most obsessive music fans in world, fans that consume excessive amounts of music, not to mention all the related products and services (tickets, merch, etc..). It just might help a company to tap into fans like us. We’re a vocal bunch.
Overall, there’s a whole realm of music that exists beyond major label catalogs, and it’s a key source of musical enjoyment for hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of music fans throughout the world. One only needs to check out the Live Music Archive or bt.etree.org or Livedownloads.com to see a myriad of digital reasons why I won’t be able to fully commit to “music in the cloud” until these streaming services find a way to be more inclusive.
Of course, the MySpaces, Spotifys, MOGs and LaLas of the world certainly could try to change this. Sources like the Live Music Archive and etree.org are open and available for all to share. The key issue for these sources of audio is that the majority are available for stream/download because they are non-commercial. As such, I can certainly see the argument that this is free/non-commercial music, so companies should not be able to sell access to it. But doesn’t iTunes make use of non-commercial podcasts? And couldn’t these services find a suitable arrangement to make this work? The reason so many concert recordings are available is because bands specifically approve of tapers recording their shows because they view it as a promotional tool to help spread the music to a wider audience and encourage more fans to come to shows. So, by providing access to these tracks, wouldn’t music services simply be offering a valuable community service to bands and fans alike?
Ultimately, music fans just want the music, and more and more, bands simply want to get their music in front of anyone that is interested. And this plays into a larger trend in the music world towards using the music as promotion for the tour and for other ancillary revenue like merchandise, sponsorships, etc… As bands continue to try to thrive in the new music world we live in, live music will only continue to play an important role in that equation, especially in helping to freely expose artists to new audiences and to feed obsessive music fans who want it all. Why not find a way to expand streaming services so that they tap an even larger database of live music?
At some point, I might be convinced to switch to a more hybrid model, buying access to some streaming service (like MOG or Thumbplay) alongside downloads of concert recordings per my norm (which is basically Paul Resnikoff’s “coexistence” model/prediction – see below). But for now, the live music junkie in me says that I should stick to a the current downloads-based ownership model and make use of cool apps like Simpify Media to stream my own personal collection. Who knows, maybe the rumors that Apple has this same “personal-streaming” model in the works will turn out to be true. That’d be even more killer, but it certainly wouldn’t stop me from needing to go the download route to build up my own personal music collection. It works.
As I’ve been putting the finishing touches on this post, I discovered a new iPhone app that taps into the Live Music Archive and streams concert recordings to your phone. It’s definitely a step in the right direction, but of course, it’s not the all-encompassing solution I’d eventually like to see (and pay for). Interestingly enough, it appears that they’ve not address the issue of non-commercial vs. commercial, but I should have more info on this over at Live Music Blog once I hear back from the developers.
Jason Feinberg (via PBS MediaShift): Rent vs. Own: The Streaming Music Debate Continues
Cory Doctorow (via Hypebot): Why Music Streaming Will Fail
Ian Rogers: Why I’m Excited About Apple Buying Lala
Digital Music News: Resnikoff’s Parting Shot: The Case for Coexistence
Michael Robertson (via TechCrunch): Apple’s Secret Cloud Strategy And Why Lala Is Critical
Telegraph: Spotify now makes record labels money
Wired Epicenter: Spotify Hits 250K Paid Subscribers; U.S. Rollout Still Unknown
Billboard: Pessimistic About Spotify? You’re Not Alone