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Critic's Notebook: With Spotify and its ilk, there's no 'my' in music anymore

Streaming and download services offer a whole new way to keep and share one's recording collection. But why is it so hard to toss all those LPs, 45s, CDs and MP3s?

May 10, 2012|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • With mobile access to iTunes, Google Music through Android or Spotify, everyone "has" a copy of everything available more easily via Web than digging in a crate or on a hard drive. It's in the cloud.
With mobile access to iTunes, Google Music through Android or Spotify,… (Paul Gonzales )

I am sitting on a couch facing two turntables, a DJ mixer, a dual-drive CD player/recorder, a cassette deck and a wireless two-terrabyte hard drive half full of music — all in one way or another plugged into my sound system. The various components live in service of the thousands of LPs and 45s on shelves spread throughout my home, which I love, and the 3,000 CDs stored in containers in a closet that I'm reasonably ambivalent about but haven't figured out what to do with. They're near a tub full of tapes that I once tried to throw away but retrieved from the dumpster a few hours later and the MP3s on the hard drive, which I used to access way more than I do now and have no emotional attachment to whatsoever.

I've got music in there you wouldn't believe, objects of such beauty and history that they should be in the Smithsonian. My collection of Mekons records is second to none, and my Joni Mitchell, Sun Ra, Def Jux, early Chicago house and Bob Dylan holdings are fat ("Great White Wonder" on original bootleg vinyl, a pristine mono copy of "Blonde on Blonde"). Having worked on this collection for the last three decades — the first of which was spent as a clerk and indie/electronic music buyer for record stores — I've dutifully if begrudgingly added formats as the industry has dictated while stubbornly (and at times compulsively) keeping earlier ones, moving from vinyl to compact disc to MP3. My collection, along with my many books, have been the physical manifestation of the musical data I have accrued, the accumulated evidence of my passions.

But with the evolution of streaming and download services such as iTunes Match, Spotify, Google Music and Rhapsody, that no longer need be the case. Right now, if I so desired, I could sell or delete 90% of my holdings, every last object, megabyte and piece of gear, in favor of two services, iTunes and Spotify, and seldom lack for a specific track, new release, rarity or reason to dig. The format continuum that started with the rise of sheet music publishing in the 19th century, moved from player piano roll to Edison wax cylinder, to 78 rpm record, 45, LP, 8-track, cassette, compact disc and MP3 has entered a new and already maturing phase: high-quality streaming in the so-called data cloud, no physical space on my part required.

This isn't news anymore, though; we've seen it coming for at least half a decade. But over the last six months, the services have unveiled new initiatives, expanded their breadth and moved to control the next frontier of music consumption, one that has many fans reconsidering certain basic assumptions of geeking out. And looking at the bookshelves mixed within the vinyl shelves, it has me wondering about my changing relationship with them as I flip the pages of downloaded books on my iPad.

In a race to provide the most convenient, engaging and entertaining way to experience/discover/share recorded music, iTunes and Spotify in particular have been pulling ahead. Neither has gotten it completely right, but within these engines a new way of hunting for and listening to music is revealing itself as are new fanatic-friendly ways of sharing your passions through curated playlisting, one that's resulting in a whole new hierarchy of tastemaking.

Universal access

Apple's iTunes Match was launched in mid-November as a way for customers to store their digital collections on a central Apple server, offering access to a consumer's catalog anywhere, any time on any device for $25 a year for 25,000 songs. Setup is easy, if a little time consuming: After you've bought your plot of server space via iTunes, the software scans and matches your iTunes catalog with what it's already got stored. Tracks that it doesn't have, it uploads from your computer and adds to its database — then offers you identical access.

That initial process took about two days for the 10,000 or so songs on my laptop, and once it was finished, I immediately could listen to all that music on any device with iTunes. I could load the new Beach House album, for example, on my work iTunes, drive home while streaming it on my phone and then when I got home, it was available on my laptop and AirPlay-enabled receiver.

The sound quality, however, varies: When streamed from the cloud onto a device, the compression is apparent and some serious nuance is lost; download the same song onto the device and then listen, and the sound is much better — though still not CD quality. The bonus, though, is that all your muffled 128 kbps blog tracks from 2007 in your iTunes library can be upgraded to a doubly superior 256 kbps when matched in the cloud.

This, in addition to the perpetual access to iTunes, which automatically updates all new iTunes purchases for multidevice access, makes Match and the iCloud (Apple's centrally based storage server) worth the price, especially as I upload more and more of my digital archive into it.

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