Dancing into the Cloud

Guest Post: Author Matthew Freedman

The music industry’s adaptation to the Internet has been a struggle for survival. Hampered by a change in format, then cut out of the equation by piracy and peer-to-peer file sharing (90% of all downloads are unauthorized), the recording industry watched slack-jawed as sales dropped 64% from 1999-2009. Now, Artists rely on grueling tour schedules to stay afloat, and record companies are desperate for a new source of revenue. With all of the industry despair, it’s no wonder cloud computing is being heralded as the future of music.

The idea is this: users would be able to access enormous libraries of music, at any time, without restriction and from any internet-capable device, presumably with a subscription fee.

Why download music when you can stream anything you want instantly? For record companies, it is at least a glimmer of hope. By licensing music for online-streaming services, they are finally edging into the action. And like a swarm of moths near a shining porch-light in the summer, everyone is throwing themselves heedlessly at the glow.

Is the hype real, or are the hopefuls going to get burned?

Cloud computing itself is not a new concept (it was first coined in 1997), but as mobile devices develop and tablets continue to take off, the ability to access the Internet on the go is increasingly common. And each day mobile technologies advance the Cloud becomes more enticing, more valuable, and more of a necessity than a luxury. I see the effects every day when exasperated commuters in the subway can’t access their email or twitter feeds.

As someone who works in digital media, and more importantly, as a music lover, I’m extremely curious as to how ‘the cloud’ will evolve with music. All the major players are in on the game: Apple announced today that they will reveal iCloud in one week, and Google has already shared an early version of their aptly-titled cloud platform, ‘Music Beta.’ Now Amazon has Cloud Player and Cloud Drive, and even LaLa, a website that was bought by Apple in December of 2009 and dismantled four months later, allowed users to upload their entire music collections to the Cloud.

Still, there are a couple of big questions: will cloud computing live up to its hype as the future of music, or merely provide convenient but unremarkable online storage? And will the record companies really be able to turn a profit? It all depends on whether or not streaming becomes the new norm, and if membership can take the place of ownership.

For the music industry, the trouble will always be that subscription fees are more expensive and less permanent than free peer-to-peer music swapping. As a user, my biggest concern with Cloud streaming would be my own lack of control: having no palpable ownership over my favorite music would mean the possibility of disappearance or altercation, however unlikely that may be. I want to be able to say “my music” and mean it, to have it with me at all times, connected or not.

Apples new iCloud has taken some steps to address these questions. Instead of having to upload your music library for you to stream on your portable devices, Apple has been reported to have secured deals with the major record labels, that will allow iCloud to recognize the music files on your iTunes and use your past purchasing history. This would seamlessly allow you access to your music library wherever you are, as long as you are connected to iCloud.

iCloud will also bring more than just streaming music libraries. The connotations for syncing devices, sharing documents a la Google Docs and seeding sales of productivity apps are huge. But I digress.

The Cloud will certainly be a wonderful addition to the way we listen to music, but I don’t think it will change our need for tangible ownership. And if that’s true, will services like iCloud be enough to change the fortunes of the record industry?