Nov 012009
Authors: Erik Myers

Woe is me, first-world white man.

My laptop died three weeks ago, taking with it 7,500 songs. Months prior, my iPod, 10 gigabytes strong, was felled by a few measly raindrops. I remember that day too well, clicking and scrolling and praying under a cloudy sky. It never woke up.

In this glorious Age of Information, I’ve come to realize this music lover’s happiness depends on the upkeeping of the “tools” around him. Simply put, I am slave to the machine.

But I am content. I know the future will relieve me of my suffering, as it will for all who embrace the coming era. Lucky for us, it’s unfolding right now.

The personal library (MP3s, song titles, album covers and all) is moving from single devices to dedicated computer servers. “Cloud computing”, as it’s called, will allow the user to access his entire music collection from any computer or mobile device with an internet connection.

This is almost assuredly the future, but the profit formulas are still in testing. Music piracy may never be squelched, but the success of the iTunes Store indicates that people will still pay for music — 8 billion MP3s have been sold as of Sept. 2009. This “ownership” model has been the standard ever since record players came about. But remember: We’ve left the 20th century behind.

I contend that there is a future in subscription-based music distribution or a type of free service based on advertisements. On the other side of the Atlantic is Spotify, a European Web site capable of streaming more than six million tracks without bothersome buffering problems. It’s free, provided that a user is willing to listen to advertising every 20 minutes between songs. Users have the option of better audio and no commercials for a monthly premium.

It’s not available to North Americans yet (drop date is predicted for early 2010), but when it does, it could be a whole new ballgame.

Apple has approved Spotify as an iPhone application, which will make the service portable — any song from anywhere, anytime.

Critical to Spotify’s success will be whether or not it can continue to be offered as a free service. According to Rolling Stone, deals cut with MySpace’s free streaming service have yet to produce profits for labels. Spotify might have to charge all users a subscription fee to satiate the fat cats and keep its library competitive.

Regardless, an iPhone with Spotify sounds like the golden ticket to me; it’d be akin to having an iPod with a library impervious to device failure.

CSU economics professor Ronnie Phillips has his own thoughts. The Ph.D.-clad educator, currently authoring a book on the music industry, argues that the concept of “ownership” will continue to be an asset to the listener, at least for now. In an e-mail, he writes, “Right now, I think ‘own’ means that you can do whatever you want with it.”

It’s a good point — the files on a laptop library can be edited, mashed-up or reproduced. Spotify does not offer such control.

He champions, a music Web site that lets him upload his entire iTunes library onto a server and be accessible from any computer or mobile device. It, too, will soon have its own iPhone app. Lala requires users to purchase songs after one free listen, and they have the option of paying a dime for a “Web-only” version of a song or about a dollar for the MP3 file.

Supplementing his argument would be consumers’ apparent aversion to the monthly fee. Rhapsody — a subscription-based music service that has operated since 2002 — is struggling to retain users. Despite the company’s recent jump to mobile devices, the Web service has seen its user-base dwindle by 100,000 in 2009, according to parent company RealNetworks’ third quarter financial reports.

Spotify’s success depends on whether it can maintain a free service while keeping the labels’ coffers healthy. Phillips says the model has the potential to usurp the top dogs, at which point the concept of “ownership” could decline.

Either way, we’ll be paying a lot less for music than ever before; bad news for the folks on the other side of the stereo.

“I don’t think that artists will be able to make a living selling recordings in the future,” Phillips writes. “The cost of production and distribution is virtually zero. That suggests that it is difficult to earn revenue unless you can figure out some way to add value to the recording.”

That could be cool DVDs or artwork, special packages, the possibilities are endless. Phillips says he’d pay big for a recording of the Jimi Hendrix concert he attended in 1970.

I’d pay twice his highest bid to actually go to the concert. Until scientists perfect our chronology-technology, I’ll just stick to shelling out for the modern day versions. As Phillips concludes: “I think the bottom line is that ‘live’ music is the key in the future — as it always has been with music.”

Music columnist Erik Myers can be reached at

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