November 15, 2011 at 12:30 pm

iTunes Match: The Past Disguised as the Future

In the olden days, most of the music on music fans’ hard drives came from P2P networks and ripped CDs. If Apple’s vision of the music cloud proves dominant, the future will resemble that past, perhaps with MP3s downloaded from music blogs replacing CD ripping.

Steve Jobs didn’t believe people wanted to rent music, which is why iTunes doesn’t offer a real subscription service. Apple iCloud and its recently-launched iTunes Match feature are neat, and helpful.

But this system is essentially an invisible, infinitely-long USB cable that you can rent for $25 per year. You still have to “own” the music, whether you pay to download it or not.

Steve Jobs was no dummy, of course, and there’s a very good argument for music being owned, not rented: because there is no good way to port a music collection between subscription services. If you love music — which music fans do by definition — you want to keep the good stuff with you. It should become a part of you and your environment as you move through life — but it can’t do that if you lose your collection every time you switch between MOG, Spotify, Rhapsody, Napster, Rdio, and whatever other services emerge.

And even if you could, participating in something like that would defeat Apple’s purpose in selling digital music in the first place, which is to make its hardware more attractive and harder to leave behind once you switch to it.

It doesn’t help much if your music is portable in space, between your house and your car, if it’s not also portable through time, over years or decades of life. This is something we music fans grasp on a subconscious level — especially because digital things already feel fleeting enough.

Switches between physical formats, which have only occurred a handful of times, have been traumatic. People bought the same albums on CD that they’d owned on cassette or vinyl, because the new formats conferred a new advantage.

Digital music isn’t like that. This is the last pure listening format, barring incremental improvements in sound quality and app-based formats that go beyond pure listening. We’re done with collecting the same recorded music over and over again — or at least we should be, because there’s no good reason we should have to do it anymore.

The way things are set up now, iTunes and other a la carte music stores are the only way truly to own digital music that’s portable in both space and time. Now that iTunes Match and iCloud can zap your collection into the cloud (faster than any other locker, no less), you’ll hold onto it no matter how many hard drives you fry; how many laptops you lose; or how many (iOS-only, of course) smartphones, tablets, and television set-top boxes you burn through, for the rest of your life.

The music in Spotify, MOG, Rhapsody and other true cloud services, on the other hand, feels impermanent. They could go out of business. Something better could come along. Your friends might prefer a service other than the one you’ve painstakingly built into your own personal music fiefdom, causing you to choose between your friends and whatever service you swore fealty to years ago.

We inherently understand this stuff, as did Jobs. Owning a file feels more solid than renting access to it. It doesn’t have to.

From a musical perspective the iTunes system is clearly inferior, and not just because it ties you to Apple’s hardware. True subscription services are a huge step forward for anyone with musical curiosity, as Facebook users are finding out. They let you listen to anything you can conceive of — the new stuff on the music blogs, classic hits you neglected, songs you’ve Shazam-ed from FM radio, and so on. For the music fan who enjoys discovering new stuff — or even stuff that’s new to them — they’re clearly the better, more adventurous, and less expensive way.

Want to discover the joy of vintage Jamaican rock steady all of a sudden? With a subscription, you can start right away. With iTunes, it’s time to spend hundreds of dollars on stuff you might not even want to listen to next month — either that, or fire up your bit torrent client and start downloading stuff for free.

The word for this phenomenon is “friction.” ITunes still has it; subscription services do not.

I’ve been going on and on about what I think would fix this situation: an agreement or infrastructure between all subscription services to offer interoperability, so that I could switch from Spotify to MOG to Napster to Rhapsody to whatever else comes next, in a minute, with the click of a button, and keep all my playlists, playcounts, song ratings, custom album art, playlist subscriptions, social connections, and so on. This interoperability grows even more important when you factor in that certain services are tied to certain devices and barred from others.

Do you want to swear to purchase only Apple phones and tablets for the rest of your life? That’s what you’re doing by buying in to the iCloud system, which I likened to “a roach motel you’ll love anyway.”

It’s convenient, if you already use iTunes, but it’s bad for musical curiosity. It’s bad for anyone who wants to see P2P become a behavior of the past. It might even be bad for the independent bands and smaller labels that weren’t part of Apple’s reported $100 million advance payout in return for being able to offer the iTunes Match and iCloud features.

As a strategy for Apple to parlay its dominance of old-school digital music to the cloud, while increasing its hold on Apple hardware users, it’s just about perfect.

  • http://www.globallistic.com J Herskowitz

    I know a nice little piece of software that enables music portability across subscription services as well as your own library.  ;)  http://gettomahawk.com