Thursday, July 12, 2012

Can the Cloud Satisfy an Army of Musical Bit Snobs?

I am a music owner and I demand accurate sound reproduction, having converted my entire physical collection to weightless digital form, CD quality or better. But, in the words of self-described futurist Gerd Leonhold, "Access [to music] is replacing ownership, like it or not. Participate or become insignificant." Bob Lefsetz was more blunt: "Ownership is for pussies."

Cloud-based streaming services provide access to low-bit-rate compressed music, typically no higher than 128 Kbps, targeting low-fi mobile devices. Over 7% of all mobile internet traffic in North America is streaming audio.  What does the music industry think of this listener experience? Neil Young: We're in the 21st century and we have the worst sound that we've ever had. It's worse than a 78 [rpm record]." T-Bone Burnett: "A xerox of a poloroid of a photo of a painting." Lefsetz, again: "Instead of soul, we have two-dimensional garbage."

Ownership is for pussies but lossy compressed music is garbage. What is a music-owning bit snob to do, other than become insignificant?

More than 90 million CDs were purchased in the first half of 2012. Let's say an average buyer purchases one title per month. Sales figures therefore represent an army of roughly 15 million listeners who can potentially be moved from ownership to access. If we all switched over tomorrow, could some new streaming service in the Cloud duplicate the listener experience of playing the CD quality or high-res digital audio we already own? Let's run the numbers.

Storage. I'd want to upload my personal library to the cloud for streaming. Most cloud-based storage services offer 5 GB of space for free. But high-res audio is big data. My collection runs 800 GB. Assuming some room for growth, I'll need 1,000 GB (1 TB) of space. The going retail rate for disc space is roughly five cents per GB, so I can buy 1 TB for fifty bucks. Or, I can rent 1 TB from Amazon for $1,000/yr. (Say it out loud: a thousand dollars a year.) Advantage: ownership.

Content. There really is no need to have 15 million individual copies of Abbey Road (the best-selling LP of both 1969 and 2011) in the Cloud. All owners could share one cloud-based copy. Instead of storing our personal libraries, the Cloud would merely have to provide a CD-quality (or higher) digital copy of the collective holdings of 15 million listeners. Let's start with a copy of ECM 1206 from my collection. Unfortunately not available from the label, never released on CD. I'll stick with my high-res digital transfer from the out-of-print LP I bought way back. Advantage: ownership.

Network TrafficAccording to Sandvine, median monthly usage on North American fixed access networks in the first half of 2012 was 10.3 GB and mean monthly usage was 32.1 GB. Streaming CD-quality audio just two hours a day (assuming a 1.4 Mbps connection) would increase mean monthly usage by 50%. Streaming 24/96 audio for the same period (assuming a 4.6 Mbps connection) would increase that figure by almost 300%. Multiply that load by 15 million new streamers and carriers hasten their cessation of unlimited data plans. Add hordes of young people addicted to streaming — now shown to prefer CD quality audio over lossy alternatives — and the internet comes to a halt. Advantage: ownership.

Intangibles. I don't want to have to register with Facebook to listen to my music (I'm talking to you, Spotify). I will not have the experience interrupted by advertising (commercial services). I don't want promoted content inserted into every playlist I create (Pandora). Advantage: ownership.

The spirit may be willing, but the Cloud is weak. Until the issues of bandwidth and freedom of choice are addressed, I'll content myself streaming high-fidelity owned digital audio through the Fog (the wireless cloud inside my house).

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #38            

Artist: Keith Jarrett
Title: Concerts (M√ľnchen, June 2, 1981)
Title: Concerts (Bergenz, July 28, 1981)
Genre: Solo Piano Improvisation
Year: 1981

One of the pleasures of ephemeralizing physical media to weightless digital is breaking arbitrary physical boundaries to organize the source material in personal ways. I group all my Keith Jarrett solo material by concert date, transforming this 3-LP set with a generic title into a more natural set of two specific shows. Let's see the Cloud do that.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.


  1. If you have the bandwidth, KEXP in Seattle ( has a CD Quality (1.4 Mbps) streaming audio channel. Requires Windows Media Player (or equivalent) to receive.

  2. Another problem with the cloud is due to slow upload speeds. Most ISPs limit upload bandwidth to 2Mbps so uploading significant content is impractical.

  3. Could be an opportunity for streaming FLAC.