David Rogers: Cloudy skies ahead for music ownership

David Rogers

First it was vinyl, then it was cassettes. CDs quickly followed and now digital downloads are the format du jour for music lovers. It’s been tough (and expensive) for a music fan to keep up with the all the changes.

Believe me, I know, having lugged around boxes of records from dorm to dorm in college and then from house to condo to house with my boxes of CDs.

At least now all my music is on my laptop (and backed up on an external hard drive). It sure weighs a lot less and I can access what I want in a hurry. I do miss going to record/CD stores, but with iTunes and e-music and other music brokers taking up the slack, the transition hasn’t been too painful. In fact, I still get the music-shopping buzz, especially on Tuesdays when new releases are unveiled.

But shopping for music could become as obsolete as the 78-rpm record or 8-track tape (sorry), and sooner than you know. The Financial Times recently reported that Apple is widely expected to offer a streaming music service as part of iTunes. Streaming allows you to listen to songs on the Internet without downloading them. Further proof came when Apple announced that on May 31 it would be closing Lala, the streaming music site it purchased late last year.

Some analysts believe this won’t happen anytime soon since it will be difficult or next to impossible for Apple to come to revenue-sharing agreements with the four major music companies (Warner Brothers, Universal, EMI and Sony Music). That’s a fair assessment considering how Apple pretty much ruined its entire bricks-and-mortar approach to selling music when it introduced iTunes in 2001. But as more people are learning each day, it’s not a good idea to bet against Apple these days.

If Apple does decide to pass on streaming music, there’s another music provider that appears willing.

The European-based Spotify wants to steer consumers toward the advantages of access and away from ownership of music. Instead of purchasing new music, people pay Spotify a monthly subscription charge to stream as much music as they want from the mobile devices and computers.

“We know that this is a huge shift. People are used to owning music — but more and more people are becoming comfortable with accessing music and services in the cloud,” Spotify founder Daniel Ek said in the Financial Times. 

Spotify has its own problems, including different licensing agreements for the specific parts of Europe. For example, while folks in Sweden can stream Oasis, fans in the United Kingdom (where Oasis is based), are out of luck. I can’t imagine that kind of piecemeal approach working here in the United States. You can listen to Boston in Kansas but not in Chicago?

Spotify doesn’t have the track record of Apple in terms of making the most trusted names in music look like amateurs, but until it hammers out its own licensing agreements it looks like its marketing idea will be swing and a miss.

Still, it’s only a matter of time before Apple figures out another way to bamboozle the hopelessly out-of-step major record companies. Along the way I hope it makes the whole streaming experience more appealing to collectors like myself. That would make the inevitable demise of music ownership less painful.

Here’s one way: Make it easy to stream music while we’re in our cars. That’s where millions of us listen to most of our music. It’s one thing to fiddle around for songs while you’re lounging on the couch or working on your laptop. But it’s entirely different (and dangerous) to surf for songs when you’re cruising down the highway at 70 mph.

If they can do that and make it possible for me to listen to Asia while I’m "shipping up to Boston," then that would make me feel “Hunky Dory.” 

David Rogers is an editor with GateHouse Media based in Beverly, Mass. Any comments? Send them to drogers@cnc.com.