Debate: Will cloud-based music ever replace physical formats?

Will music in the cloud ever replace physical discs? Can you imagine clearing your shelves of CDs and LPs, and instead just access your music via a computer or handheld device. We asked two experts for their opinions… and got two passionate responses.

Paul Rigby

Paul Rigby, Record Collector columinst says NO:

If I was a lawyer, I’d have this case kicked out of court. The question itself is an irrelevancy and shows a lack of understanding of the current music market and, to be frank, anyone who sees this topic as a black-and-white issue fails, as our beloved Prime Minister is so fond of saying, to ‘get it’.

In the same way that a BMW Mini will never replace a Rolls Royce, Cloud-based music will never replace a vinyl reissue box set. But then, why the hell would it want to? How many £10,000 turntables have you seen on the beach? How many electrostatic speakers have you seen peeking out of the pocket of the shorts of a be-shaded dude? And, despite the preponderance of ‘hi-fi’-based iPod docks, how many MP3 players have you seen that form the basis of a quality, home-based hi-fi. Ok, lots but how many of them actually work properly and sound good? None. Zero.

I won’t bother to wait. I’ll give you the bottom line here and now. There is room for both Cloud and physical-based music. I use all physical and non-physical music types. After all, I’m human. I’m complicated.

At the moment, though, Cloud-based music systems are poor for top sound quality and they remove 80% of the sensory experience of listening pleasure. Both of these features remain in the physical domain. Yes, it’s entirely possible that the sound quality issue will become an irrelevancy in the long term when downloads stop using MP3 and FLAC (yes it is lossless, but it’s still compressed and fails to come up to scratch in my opinion), when the servers have enough capacity to store WAV files and when the transfer rates are high enough to cope but the physicality will never be challenged.

Why? Because, physicality adds worth – and downloads take an opposite stance, they are worthless. They have no shape or form. In these terms, even the name ‘Cloud’ emphasises the download irrelevancy, in terms of value. You cannot hold a download but I can receive pleasure by just holding a Bob Dylan vinyl box set – and I don’t even like Bob Dylan. It also retains second-hand value (which is why vinyl sales are on the up, why major record labels like Sony are working hard with third party companies like Music On Vinyl and why no-one gives a damn about ‘throw-a-way’ downloads).

Cloud-based music has no sense of art. Combine the packaging of a typical vinyl album with the broad expanse of space to feature, often glorious, artwork, add to that informative, easily read,  liner notes, large-format photographs and often personalised additions that directly connect you to the artist. On vinyl, even the track running order has a purpose. There’s a reason why that track is at the end of Side A. On a physical format, music ebbs and flows and builds to a climax.

So, no, the Cloud will never replace the physical. It will, however, live alongside it. But isn’t that the point?

Tom Dunmore

Tom Dunmore, former editor of Stuff says YES:

Digital music sales are expected to overtake CD sales next year. Put aside your nostalgia for physical formats and you’ll realise that music’s move to the cloud is irresistible. It has been for a decade.

At the turn of the millennium music fans were offered a choice: take the blue pill of SACD to keep music and a lounge-based ritual – or take the red pill of MP3 and change the way we listen to music forever. We chose the red pill, and there’s no turning back. Now we have a soundtrack to our lives, on shuffle, wherever we go: not just our own music collections but, thanks to the cloud, the entire musical output of humanity.

It’s easy to be sentimental about vinyl, but it’s a niche pleasure that accounts for just 0.02% of the record market. No-one gets dewy-eyed about CDs because Apple’s iDevices – our own personal music clouds – are more convenient, more desirable and more tactile. So iPods are the new CDs; but what happens next will be really interesting – because tablets will bring the large, tactile artwork of vinyl to the digital realm, adding interactive elements like videos, lyrics and image galleries. And thanks to wireless streaming, this interactive cover art experience can stay in your hand when the music is playing. It won’t seem so virtual after all.

It’s true that MP3s and AACs still don’t sound as good as vinyl. But a digital file doesn’t need to be 16-bit. It doesn’t need to be compressed. And you don’t have to rely on a portable player’s poxy built-in digital-to-analogue converter. Sound quality won’t be an issue for long: instead, the focus will be on the quality of the content. And that’s where things get really exciting: because bands are using the internet to have a continual conversation with their fans, distributing mix-tapes, live bootlegs, mash-ups, mixes, movies, EPs, and interactive artworks. They’re even having virtual whip-rounds to pay for the next studio session.

Of course boxed editions and coloured vinyl will retain their places in the pantheon of rock’n'roll curios, alongside action figures, lunchboxes and other merch. But the future is virtual. Yes, the cloud is a frighteningly vaporous thing – but that makes it a perfect fit, because pop music is gloriously ephemeral. While there are songs and – occasionally – albums that persist through the ages, I’m willing to bet that 90% of your physical music collection remains unlistened to after the first few plays. It’s hard to let go, I know, but the generation that has grown up with file-sharing and streaming knows that music collections are transient, illusory things: music isn’t earned and built up over time like money in a bank; it’s experienced, explored, shared and recycled. It’s not that cloud music has no value –  it’s just that it has no limits.

27 Comments

  • Ken says:

    it’s physical formats all the way for me. theres a whole tactile thing that happens when you shoot down to the local record shop, buy some CD or Vinyl then take it home and play it. yes by all means rip the Cd so you can take the music with you on your ipod but if you do then go lossless and also invest in a quality portsble headphone amp and phones. I agree that physical and cloud both have a role to play but to me there is nothing more Zen than warming up my McIntosh valve pre and monoblocks and putting a vinyl disc on my Clearaudio emotion and listening through my B&W 804s like i am right now. :)

  • Graeme Hughes says:

    I am old school and new school. I will always want to buy the cd and support the artist, then take it home and rip it to my iTunes library and listen to it on my ipod on my b&w zeppelin. I think it is always preferrable to have the physical cd in your hand, to look at the sleeve and artwork and read the thank yous at the end from the band to the people who have made it happen for them to share the music that you listen to and enjoy. Maybe I am a dying breed ( I am 41 after all ) but I still think this is important.

  • Hajo says:

    In my opinion the streaming or downloading of music files will increase in the next few years, but i don’t think that the cd or lp will die at last. It will be a kind of a status quo with all formats, physical or non physical. At least the quality of a format will be the key factor and for sure the quality of the recordings.

  • Davide says:

    I still don’t know, but I’m curious.
    I am 58, grown up with rock and roll and then jazz, interested in hi fi since the first advertising of McIntosh on magazines. I have changed, like everybody, many standards in music reproduction, always finding myself quite satisfied, but also quite surprised considering that high end music reproduction always seemed to be glancing backwards: it is strange that we still have a debate about mono versus stereo, or valve vs. transistor, or home music collection vs cloud (whatever this will end up to mean).
    I know that we all are very curious and stimulated, but that this is only a marketing problem. It’s fine having all our music stored in one single place, readily accessible, etc., but this is mainly the consequence of the necessity to keep things rolling for the industry (and the press). I read thousand of times that digital music was poor and flat, but in the end I found that my iPod connected to a good hi fi equipment works fine; or I find, too, that good speakers (no relation to where I am now!) connected to my Mac are serious contenders to my living room high end stereo set.
    I think this is it: new is often fun, so is confronting the quality of sound between different speakers, and so it will be finding all my records in the cloud while watching sunrise in Tibet or the traffic in New York City.

  • TRILOK SINGH MEHTA says:

    I like both, physical format presents substance and audiophile quality whereas as net based music provides convenience and portability.

  • jack says:

    My thoughts :

    1. Consumers should resist a) DRM that prevents moving and sharing music between devices and a limited circle of friends. b) Being charged more for something that costs less or the same i.e. the studio quality 24/bit96khz mix versus 16bit/44.1khz c) All proprietary lock-in formats e.g. whatever Apple tries in this area as opposed to FLAC.
    2. If the above criteria are met, then I believe there will be an economically and socially positive transition to the next era of music that is a fair balance betwen the needs of all parts of the musics industry and the consumers that they rely on but have been repeatedly abused in the past decade.

  • Barry says:

    It is a real shame if Lp’s and Cd’s will not be produced anymore as a result of digital downloads. I for one will stick with what I enjoy best. I have a vast collection of vinyls cd’s and Md’s Yes even Md’s. But have also downloaded mp3 music to my computer. The only problem with downloads is if your computer crashes and you lose everything on it and that includes your music. You have lost all your music in one fell swoop. Back it up I hear you say copyright music Hmmm!. Well if I have the music on vinyl or Cd’s or Md’s I dont have to. Its there for as long as the software lasts. I think it is best that we leave well alone and continue to enjoy all forms of music in all formats. That includes the old and the new formats,

  • Steve says:

    Most of today’s listeners just don’t get it. I’ve been in the audio/video business for 27 years, and I was a big fan of it before then. Granted, most people don’t sit down long enough to listen. But when I’ve taken a willing customer and showed them the difference in a CD, SACD, or LP vs. their iPod, their jaw drops each and every time. I think there will always be two markets. One for people who care, and one for people who don’t.

  • Paul says:

    I’m already thinking of clearing out those shelves of CD’s, why keep them, everything is loaded onto my Mac. It’s much easier to dust a PC/Mac than thousands of CD’s

  • Javier says:

    The truth is most listeners realy don’t care about ultimate quality and that makes it easy for the businesses that are moving the music away from the physical format.
    It is also true that it is about money. The Netflix service in the US is de-empahasizing the rental of physical media (DVD, Bluray) and they want us instead to stream the content, as it is more profitable for them. Can you imagine the differences between Avatar streamed over a 1.5 Mbps broadband connection versus the viewing the Blu-ray on a nicely calibrated Home Theater?
    Pink Floyd’s Wishe You Were Here is being published in SACD and Blu-ray in 2 months, how does that compare to an Apple lossless version even if docked into the beautiful Zeppelin? It doesn’t, right?
    The masses consumption behavior makes cloud based source material inevitable, but because the masses don’t care it will be compressed and rate limited, sorry Tom Dunmore. Even if high quality cloud sources become available, they will be niche providers.
    It behooves discerning listeners like us to keep up with our demand and ensure material to OUR standards continues to be available. I’m with Paul Rigby all the way!

  • Philip Wilkins says:

    I think a lot of people are missing the fact that many people’s Internet access is bandwidth constrainted and performant enough in speed to not have annoying pauses and the download catches up.

    Ultimately it will come down to convince vs flexibility and the majority of people will vote with convenience. That is why cassette tape did so well and so on.

    For me, I want something in my hands

  • the king of punk says:

    Yes maybe one day Cloud based music will surpass the sound quality of cd or even vinyl , but right now I love my vinyl & cd. Not every piece of vinyl is pressed well and it is undeniable that physically owning is attractive. Cd is a very under rated medium (get a good player, cables & isolation then you will enjoy)

  • bruce repasy says:

    I am an old audiophile, and quite frankly the ART of music reproduction, listening to Analog records on a classy turntable, can’t be beat. However, I compromised and went to digital CD, and I find myself doing the same with my audio collection today, going with Itunes lossless, the convenance is just unparalleled.

    In Itunes, I was able to listen to my 1400 Beatles recordings and compare, all at my fingertips. There are no more record shops, and today’s market is filled with generic audio electronics.

    I believe the focus in the future will focus on powered speakers, where an simple Ipod can be used as a source input, with perhaps internet connectivity for radio. I like to see companies such as B&W make this happen. EPOS and CREEK have attempted it, but could still improve on their design. Audio racks are now today’s dinosaurs.

  • Mike | Homeless On Wheels says:

    Interesting that you framed the debate as cloud vs. “physical formats” – presumably tape, vinyl, CD, etc. I think there is yet a third option that is being overlooked: possession of digital files.

    For the record, having been raised on vinyl, I appreciate the accompanying rituals of playing a record, as well as the subtleties in sound that digital formats haven’t quite been able to duplicate.

    That said, digital storage provides many advantages, not the least of which is the ability to reduce a room-sized music collection to the size of a small book.

    OTOH, I am a fairly staunch opponent of “the cloud” — not just for music, but for anything. There is a big difference between having something available out in the ether, where it is only rented or borrowed, and only available when and where I have a connection to the so-called “cloud” and having that on my own hard drive at home or in a palm-sized player, allowing me to listen forever, wherever, and once I’ve paid for it it’s mine to enjoy forever.

    So, to summarize, I beleive there is a place for both traditional analog and digital format-based music, as well as music downloaded to and stored upon my own devices, but there is no need for the “cloud” model where everything resides on remote servers and I must continue to pay over and over and over if I wish to continue to enjoy it.

    http://homelessonwheels.wordpress.com

  • GEOFFREY THORNBER says:

    Currently I play music from CDs, SACDs and downloads. The latter can be transferred to CDs if required via iTunes by converting from FLAC. I haven’t played vinyl discs for decades. No compression and a decent DAC give very pleasing results with low distortion.
    Listening is though a Zeppelin – iPod Nano or a 5-channel system using B&W speakers.
    I also have a Classic iPod (160 Gigs) sitting on a Cambridge player which sends the digital signal directly to the DAC in my receiver. The sound from this iPod goes from bad to very good after bypassing the built-in DAC, and it plays the part of a low cost server.
    The only problem with downloads is the documentation, but it also can be stored digitally.
    I am 83 and have been interested in Hi-Fi since about 1945. It’s getting better all the time.

  • Phil says:

    I must disagree on one point that Tom Dunmore made regarding his comment “…because tablets will bring the large, tactile artwork of vinyl to the digital realm….”

    The word tactile relates to the sensation of touch, pure and simple. No matter how good the artwork (An it can look very good on a nice screen), the tactile sensation of artwork on a tablet is always the same, i.e. the feel of the metal and glass of the tablet you are viewing the artwork on. It is not the same as holding a well packeaged CD or LP, reading the sleeve notes or extracting the media from said packaging.

    Its like saying you’ve been to the Great wall of china or Machu Pichu (Spelling?) Because you have seen a picture of it on the net or you know what it’s like to drive the latest ferrari because you watched Top Gear this week. You get an impression of the scale and feeling of thing from a picture, but it does not replace the feeling you get when you experience the actual item with your own senses. This is true whether it is Machu Pichu or an album cover.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against streaming music. I have all of my CDs ripped to a home laptop and play them via an HRT DAC, but seeing a picture of the cover on a screen is ultimately less satisfying than holding the original disc .

  • Sandy Untermyer says:

    Whatever is cheapest and most convenient will win. It generally has, with very few exceptions (Apple, Porsche, B&W), and it will this time.

  • Philly Bob says:

    I am an audiophile and a musician with over 1000 LP’s and 2000 CD’s. All this music is on my MAC and two multi-Gig external hard drives. I am now in the process of selling and giving away the physical pieces. I record all my Rips via aiff and use a Wadia ipod dock that allows me to bypass the internal ipod DAC and use my own external DAC. Depending on your DAC/system, the music sounds as good if not better than the same sound from a CD or LP. My MAC Book Pro has a 500 GB HD that I only use for Itunes and I have over 6000 songs on it. I record at the highest bit rate and therefore the 6000 songs have devoured over 300 GB of memory. When I rip a CD/LP, I only record the songs that I like from the record.

    For me, why store the physical copy? Itunes cover flow provides the album art/cover and Apple is moving towards providing all the same information that is available on a physical album. For me, storage of the physical product has become an issue. One 15 inch laptop has replaced a 10′X10′ room filled with book cases because, I was one of those guys that liked to display (show off) my massive collection of LP’s, CD’s, Sony Mini Discs, and yes, vinyl 45′s.

    Let me tell you, I can demonstrate the sound quality in my Navigator between playing a CD and an Ipod via a USB connected Ipod using the Sync system. The Ipod sounds as good as a CD and there is no changing media during an eight hour drive. With “Playlist” I can create and listen to compilations for a cross country drive and never have to change a disc.

    At 58, I have elected to go with the MP3 format for 95% of my music enjoyment. I still have those times when I clean up a 331/3 and sit back for an hour of analogue. My generation will be the last to hold out for the analogue. Those of us who are computer literate will most certainly find the more esoteric ways to make the digital sound, sound more “non-digital), but even the purest of audiophiles will eventually acquiesce to what is, without a doubt, the most supported and advanced medium for listening and enjoying music. Enjoy your quest.

  • norman says:

    streaming music through a pc the sound is no where near the quality of cd, i do have my pc networked with a arcam av and B&W speakers. the main problem is the music goes through to much, ie servers pc etc which to my ears degrades the sound, i have compared an album one played through my pc and the same album played on cd through an arcam dv29fmj and there is a big difference between them, they have a long way to go before i would consider music from the cloud i think i will stick to cd

  • Gary Hills says:

    I have tried MP3, ALAC, AIFF and FLAC downloads from various sites, but always seem to gravitate back to buying the CD and ripping in AIFF to iTunes, either to feed the USB DAC of my headphone amp or fill the iPod (Classic) with music of a high enough quality to run on the headphone amp, integrated amp and speakers, hook up to the ACM unit in the car, or listen through IEM’s whilst on the move. I have not ventured into the HD 24bit quality market yet, since I’m more than happy with 16bit and I doubt that my deteriorating hearing would note a significant improvement.

    Why do I go back to CD, purely value for money. I am not prepared to be ripped off by sellers peddling their wares for top Buck. With downloads of AIFF and FLAC, I really don’t hear the difference when compared to CD, however, my pocket certainly benefits. I do find that ALAC (top end sounds flat) and especially MP3 imperfections are really picked up by the headphone amp/headphone and integrated amp/speaker combinations. These imperfections are more than enough to get my back up, particularly when you take into account how much the seller wants to charge for what to me, is a backward step in quality/listening enjoyment.

    I’m quite happy to progressively transit from the physical to cloud/electronic storage world and not even feel nostalgic about the move. But it certainly won’t be happening until the sellers become more realistic with their pricing.

    Whilst there’s a bargain out there, viva the CD!

  • sacd-man says:

    What the future holds is actually anyone’s guess. For the moment, it appears that the masses have gone for the lo-res sound, but there are a few of us who still expect superior audio reproduction. SA-CD, is for me, the very best audio playback device for the closest sound to the real thing. As for the masses, who knows. Maybe one day the word “Hi-Fi” will be on people’s lips again. For each person they have to decide what matters most. Convenience or quality.

  • Ripo Man says:

    There’s no substitute for size !

  • Neil Porter says:

    As a long term buyer of vinyl and cd, I find myself excited for the first time by something truly different.
    I don’t care for SACD or DVD-AUDIO or surround sound or blu-ray or even the complications surrounding downloading.
    I also do not care for home theatre or 3D televisions and I’ve never really liked fish either.
    I believe that streaming is almost as exciting as vinyl must have been to people who experienced it when it first appeared, late 40′s I believe for the 7″ single.
    For people who have large collections of vinyl etc, this will continue to be played and new products will be available to buy to support these mediums, for a while at least.
    Anyone who truly believes that streaming is not a threat to conventional music distribution systems, including downloading, is, I’m afraid, sadly mistaken.
    No amount of “box sets” or “but look at the lovely packaging” will save any of these approaches to music.
    Finally, I will be sad to see these approaches pass, of course I will, but look at the landscape now, with the truly extraordinary, truly dazzling excitement, that is streaming and perhaps more importantly, that is pure music.
    If I’m not mistaken, music is the only true reason you are reading this now.

  • Adrian Rogers says:

    We had 56k modems now BT is releasing fibre-to-the-home with speeds up to 100Mb. We had 1.5 MB floppy discs now we have 50GB Blu Rays. We had 100MB hard drives now we have 2 TB hard drives.

    We had compressed music as MP3 files because the file size suited the download speeds available to most, in no time download speed available to most will allow for lossless 24 bit/192KHz and then uncompressed 24 bit/192KHz and give it a decade or two and you’ll be able to download uncompressed 32 bit/384kHz instantly.

    Would anyone really want to listen to flawed physical media rather than an instantly available digital 24 bit/192KHz version let alone 32 bit/384kHz.

    People seem a little confused by what a “Cloud” is, in it’s most basic form it’s just remote storage, your files on your space securly stored in a data centre so you can access them anywhere.

  • Alex says:

    MP3 was the solution when we had limited storage space, destroying sound quality. Flac today gives music back its realism, and we can store thousands of albums in one HDD, so all cloud is not the same from Hi-end perspective. The trick burried by the industry / magazines, is not to use any conversion back, try to use a digital amplifier with digital input or digital input active speakers.
    Let’s buy this flac music, so to increase titles availability. For real cloud, try sky.fm with 5$/M in streaming at reasonable quality, it shows the way for real 24/196 streaming when DSL speeds go higher. You have to pay for a slice of the server working only for you!
    My 802s are at their best with just a 300Euros Squeezbox Touch player, extremely realistic after its last month’s update. And you have a picture of your playing album on its screen or your computer wifi connection, to have a “feeling” of searching a disc.
    And a trick for your speakers, you cannot imagine how I got to the end of sound when I covered capacitors of 802 crossover with a plasticine like gome, from SIKA Spain.

  • Claus thøgersen says:

    I am in my first year with a streamer and internet radio, so all my music is digital.
    There are 2 issues here. First the quality in the cloud, can we stream 24 bit 96 or higher resolution files without introducing problems in the distribution from cloud to local system.
    This can only work if we have unlimmited highspeed internet access, at least here in Denmark this does not seem to be an issue.

    So the Spotify way of doing things pay a resonable charge and have all music available is an interesting way forward. If it works we can drop all the downloading, saving organizing and several backups of the digital music.

    For me this sentence in the original post is much more interesting than the actual topic:

    “Yes, it’s entirely possible that the sound quality issue will become an irrelevancy in the long term when
    downloads stop using MP3 and FLAC (yes it is lossless, but it’s still compressed and fails to come up to scratch in my opinion)”

    I have seen people debating if a wave file sound the same as a flac file, in theory it should, but some say they prefer the wave file. I have not tested it, but it is relevant since all 24 bit downloads I buy online are flac files.

    .

  • Laszlo P says:

    I have two teenagers at home. What stikes me about their music listening habits (playing mp3 through the built in speakers of an iPhone/Blackberry) is that the sound is not any better than that my granddad used to listen to with his transistor radio. I installed a hook up point to my amplifier so it would be very easy for them to connect these portable devices to a decent amp/speaker system, but they only do this at parties when the hi-fi is valued for it sounding loud rather than for its sound quality. It seems that there is a lot of people for whom the quality of the sound they are listening to does not matter. For them cloud storage (especially when it can be hacked so you won’t have to pay) is the way forward.

    I personally am on the other end of the spectrum. When my father passed away recently I used some of the inheritance to buy an expensive amplifier (with a built in DAC with USB S/PDIF apart fromthe line inputs). The sound is so good that it really moves me the way my previous setup never could. However, there is a catch. A few years ago I started downloading hi resolution FLACS form the Society of Sound and other sources to “future proof” my investment in music. With the USB input I hooked up a computer to my shiny new amp, to find that the sound from my hi resolution files is disappoinnting to say the least. I am quite handy with computers, so i fiddled quite a lot (and spent a fair bit of money in the process) adding the supposedly most musical soundcard (ESI Juli@), adjusting settings so that the computer output was bit perfect, trying various playback software packages, soundproofing the case so you could not hear the hard disks and fans making a noise etc. This improved the sound no end, so I was almost happy. Then, one day I decided to download the files from the “Maps of the Floating City” (the album sounds absolutely superb, get it from SoS if you have not yet done so) in ALAC format, burnt it to a CD and compared this (via an almost 20 year old Rotel CD player as a transport) to the hi resolution file on the computer. To my surprise and disappointment the CD sounded way better. Like £1000 better in equipment cost terms… I am sure the future is all electronic storage, weather on hard disk or cloud is probably irrelevant (as long as they don’t want me to pay again avery time I want to listen to something I already payed for). I can’t wait for the day when I can get rid of the CDs that clutter the living room floor (I am not the tidiest person you will meet) after a long listening session. I like the coverflow thing on my iPhone. But as long as a 20 year old CD player beats hi resolution files in sound quality, I’ll be burning those CDs without giving the alternative any thought.

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