The cloud that ate your music

Written by New York Times | Updated: Jun 30 2011, 09:26am hrs
Jon Pareles

IM ready for the cloud. Soon, I hope, it will be ready for me. Recent weeks have been filled with announcements about music taking residence in the cloud, the poetic name for online storage and software that promises to make lifetimes worth of songs available to anyone, anywhere, as long as those people and places have internet connections.

I cant wait. Ever since music began migrating online in the 1990s I have longed to make my record collection evaporate simply to have available the one song I need at any moment, without having to store the rest.

But I have, as they say, special needs. In three decades as a critic I have amassed more vinyl, CDs and digital files than I know what to do with. Periodic weeding cant keep up with the 20 to 30 discs that arrive in the daily mailbag; the overfull floor-to-ceiling shelves are already straining under thousands of CDs and LPs. Any affection I had for physical packaging, no matter how elegant or unique, has long since vanished; its a reference library, not an art collection.

And it grows, and grows, because I never know what Ill need: the limited-edition 45, the home-burned debut CD. Yet Id much rather have it in the cloud than in my apartment.

Recently, Amazon, Google and Apple have announced services to store individual music collections in the cloud, ready for access online and for syncing to multiple devices. Pandora Internet radio, which extrapolates individual playlists from users likes and dislikes, raised hundreds of millions of dollars with a huge IPO.

Dar.fm recently arrived as a free service that records radio stationslike TiVo for radioand, as a bonus, conveniently indexes any music from those stations that has been electronically tagged. Other companiesRdio, MOG, Napster, Rhapsodyhave been offering huge catalogs of music on demand for some time as subscription services for a monthly fee, and Spotify, already online in Europe, is likely to join them in the USsoon. Thats not to mention the many unauthorised sources for music; virtually any album can be found for downloading with a simple search. Free or paid, the cloud is already active.

Dematerialising recorded music has consequences. On the positive side it hugely multiplies the potential audience, letting the music travel fast and far to listeners who would never have known it existed. It escalates musics portability, as it adds one more previously stand-alone functionlike clocks, cameras, calendars, newspapers, video players and gamesto the smartphone. Thats instant gratification, but with a catch: Smartphones arent exactly renowned for sound quality. And the MP3 compression that has made music so portable has already robbed it of some fidelity even before it reaches my earphones.

The ritual of placing an LP on a turntable and cranking up a hi-fi home stereo disappearedwhen Perhaps with the cassette and the Walkman, the ancestor of the portable MP3 player. Now even the thought of having a separate music player is a little quaint. The smartphone will do it alljust adequately, but convenience trumps quality. Baby boomers who remember the transistor radio, that formerly miniature marvel that now looks and feels like a brick compared to current MP3 players, can experience again the sound of an inadequate speaker squeezing out a beloved song.

There has also been another, far less quantifiable, effect of separating music from its physical package. Songs have become, for lack of a better word, trivial: not through any less effort from the best musicians, but through the unexpected combination of a nearly infinite supply, constant availability, suboptimum sound quality and the intangibility Ive always thought I would welcome.

Now everyone, not just a critic, can feel awash in music, with an infinitude of choices immediately at hand. But each of those choices is a diminished thing; attainable without effort, disposable without a second thought, just another icon in a folder on a pocket-size screen with pocket-sized sound. The tricky part, is to make any new release feel like an occasion: to give a song more impact than a single droplet out of the cloud. This presents a challenge to ambitious musicians: before they can be larger than life, they have to be larger than the LCD screen.

Or they can try to conquer that screen and play the Internet as an instrument, using its defining attribute: interactivity. When Google replaced its logo with a virtual instrument for Les Pauls 96th birthdaynot strictly speaking a guitar but a harp, with one note per stringpeople worldwide played tunes on it and recorded them into the cloud. And of course there are smartphone apps to simulate guitars, keyboards, drums and recording studios.