Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times, Published May 23 2012
With Spotify and its ilk, there’s no ‘my’ in music anymoreLOS ANGELES – I am sitting on a couch facing two turntables, a DJ mixer, a dual-drive CD player/ recorder, a cassette deck and a wireless two-terrabyte hard drive half full of music – all in one way or another plugged into my sound system. The various components live in service of the thousands of LPs and 45s on shelves spread throughout my home, which I love, and the 3,000 CDs stored in containers in a closet that I’m reasonably ambivalent about but haven’t figured out what to do with. They’re near a tub full of tapes that I once tried to throw away but retrieved from the dumpster a few hours later and the MP3s on the hard drive, which I used to access way more than I do now and have no emotional attachment to whatsoever.
I’ve got music in there you wouldn’t believe, objects of such beauty and history that they should be in the Smithsonian. My collection of Mekons records is second to none, and my Joni Mitchell, Sun Ra, Def Jux, early Chicago house and Bob Dylan holdings are fat (“Great White Wonder” on original bootleg vinyl, a pristine mono copy of “Blonde on Blonde”). Having worked on this collection for the last three decades – the first spent as a clerk and indie/ electronic music buyer for record stores – I’ve dutifully if begrudgingly added formats as the industry has dictated while stubbornly (and at times compulsively) keeping earlier ones, moving from vinyl to compact disc to MP3. My collection, along with my many books, have been the physical manifestation of the musical data I have accrued, the accumulated evidence of my passions.
But with the evolution of streaming and download services such as iTunes Match, Spotify, Google Music and Rhapsody, that no longer need be the case. Right now, if I so desired, I could sell or delete 90 percent of my holdings in favor of two services, iTunes and Spotify, and seldom lack for a specific track, new release, rarity or reason to dig. The format continuum that started with the rise of sheet music publishing in the 19th century, moved from player piano roll to Edison wax cylinder, to 78 rpm record, 45, LP, 8-track, cassette, compact disc and MP3, has entered a new and already maturing phase: high-quality streaming in the so-called data cloud, no physical space on my part required. This isn’t news anymore, though; we’ve seen it coming for at least half a decade. But over the last six months, the services have unveiled new initiatives, expanded their breadth and moved to control the next frontier of music consumption, one that has many fans reconsidering certain basic assumptions of geeking out. And looking at the bookshelves mixed within the vinyl shelves, it has me wondering about my changing relationship with them as I flip the pages of downloaded books on my iPad.
In a race to provide the most convenient, engaging and entertaining way to experience/ discover/ share recorded music, iTunes and Spotify in particular have been pulling ahead. Neither has gotten it completely right, but within these engines a new way of hunting for and listening to music is revealing itself as are new fanatic-friendly ways of sharing your passions through curated playlisting, one that’s resulting in a whole new hierarchy of tastemaking.
Apple’s iTunes Match was launched in mid-November as a way for customers to store their digital collections on a central Apple server, offering access to a consumer’s catalog anywhere, any time on any device for $25 a year for 25,000 songs.
The sound quality, however, varies: When streamed from the cloud onto a device, the compression is apparent and some serious nuance is lost; download the same song onto the device and then listen, and the sound is much better – though still not CD quality. The bonus, though, is that all your muffled 128 kbps blog tracks from 2007 in your iTunes library can be upgraded to a doubly superior 256 kbps when matched in the cloud.
This, in addition to the perpetual access to iTunes, which automatically updates all new iTunes purchases for multidevice access, makes Match and the iCloud (Apple’s centrally based storage server) worth the price, especially as I upload more and more of my digital archive into it.
Spotify, which launched in America last year, has quickly established itself as iTunes’ chief competitor, and its service has already surpassed iTunes in terms of innovation, ease of use and social interactivity. With Spotify’s premium service ($9.99 a month), access to its 15 million songs is virtually instantaneous from anywhere you can get a phone signal – though its Achilles’ heel is how much data it consumes.
Spotify’s recent innovation arrived when the Swedish-based company at the end of November began offering free add-on applications – basically, little icons that line up like file folders, which when selected act as portals into curated collections. This, more than any other innovation, has pushed the service’s potential in fascinating directions. It’s here, in the world of filtering, rearranging and shuffling of all this music, where the real game-changer arrives.
Click on the Matador Records icon and you’re transported to virtual real estate that offers instant listening to all the label’s new releases and catalog, ranging from Pavement to Perfume Genius. Other label apps also feature music tips from artists. Sony Music’s Legacy app provides the opportunity to explore and learn about the catalogs of, among others, Hall & Oates and Miles Davis.
So the vinyl I’ll keep, even if some of it gets dumped as interests shift. But the discs I’ll continue whittling every few months, as I do, as I get used to my Universal-issued “The Best of Chuck Berry” CD sounding no better than the Spotify version or the one that’s available to me via Match. The sound files on the hard drive aren’t going anywhere, because they aren’t taking up space. Maybe someday in the future, a hard-drive digger will find my 2 terrabytes of choice tunes from the ‘00s there, reboot them and commence unpacking them. Then perhaps their true value will reveal itself.