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, 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, 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.