Bye Bye Disc Drive


How long has it been since you bought a CD? I’m talking about an actual circular, silver-on-the-bottom, graphics-on-top, comes-in-a-jewel-case compact disc? Last week? Last year? When’s the last time you burned an album to disc so you could play it in your car? Can you remember the last time you made a mix CD for a friend? Maybe you can, but judging by recent trends in Apple’s product development, they’re betting that many of you have learned to live without your old friend, the disc drive. If so, how is it to be replaced?

Given the emergence of the MacBook Air, the demise of the MacBook line, updates made to the Mac mini and the rumored introduction of a new, super thin MacBook Pro, optical drives are becoming an endangered species in Apple’s line of laptops. Add to these developments the rise of Apple’s App Store, which delivers software without an installation disc, and it seems that Apple, the same company that catapulted us into the mp3 era, is currently putting the final nails in the coffin of the compact disc era.

What does it all mean? Well, it means no more, “Hey, I thought you’d like this James Blake album, so I burned you a copy!” No more, “The concert was so great, I went straight to the merch table and bought their CD so I could listen on the way home!” And, maybe mercifully, no more, “I really like this girl, but I’m stuck in the friend zone, so I’m making her a passive-aggressive romantic mix CD with the first letter of each song title written in red so that they spell out L-E-T-S-M-A-K-E-O-U-T-A-S-A-P.”

In fairness, this isn’t exactly a shocker for the music industry. Physical album sales have been tanking for some time now, new cars are being built without CD players and many people have already moved on to other methods of finding and listening to music. But it’s important to recognise that this isn’t your parents’ format change.

In the past, there’s been an orderly transition from one dominant physical format to another. When the time came, everyone sold their vinyl records and bought their favorite albums on tape, and then sold their tapes when it was time to buy those same albums on CD. One format in, one out. Like a crowded night club. And in some ways, mp3s acted the same way – people ripped their CDs so the files could be played on their computers and iPods. Mp3s also behave like physical formats in that, even though there’s no album to hold in your hands, you still own the files, whether you bought the songs from iTunes, ripped them from a disc or downloaded them illegally (I’m sure none of you upstanding people would do such a thing). These files take up space on your iPod, phone or computer’s hard drive. Like previous formats, you have them.

But that’s the interesting thing about death of the disc drive — it comes as we’re preparing to say goodbye to the very notion of owning music. These days it’s all about access.

Think about it. What’s the point of owning your music? For decades, ownership and access were the same thing. You went out and bought a record, so that meant you could listen to all the songs that were etched in its grooves. But what if you didn’t need a record, or a CD, or even an mp3 to hear a song? What if you could hear a song whenever and wherever you wanted, without having to bring it with you when you left the house in the morning? Isn’t that the best case scenario?

Luckily, for music fans, this ideal is already a reality, and it’s only getting better.

Apple’s iCloud is a great place to start, as it provides a bridge between the old model of ownership and improved access. For no cost, you can wirelessly access up to 5 gigs of the music you already own (items purchased from iTunes do not count against this total, and you can buy extra storage space in the cloud for the more obscure tunes in your library, like that gig-and-a-half of underground vampire metal you have stashed on your external hard drive). Amazon offers something similar, though you have to upload all your files initially. Either way, if you’re at work and you want to hear a song you already own, you simply download it from the cloud, and voila! Vampire metal on demand! Great right?

When you take the idea of improved access one step further, you arrive at something even more exciting: streaming music services. In one form or another, these services give you the option to access music without using up hard drive space, as long as you’re connected to the Internet. Given the increasing ubiquity of Internet connectivity, streaming music is becoming increasingly attractive. There are approximately a zillion services available right now, which is both fantastic and challenging — fantastic because you can choose the service that best suits your needs, challenging because the marketplace is more than a little chaotic. But never fear! You can bring order to this crazy world by asking yourself one question:

Am I an active or passive music consumer?

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you probably fall into the first category. You’re proactive about finding new music — you check blogs, talk to friends and go to concerts, all in the name of discovering your next favorite album. When you don your earbuds, you usually have a specific song in mind. Sure, you put your iPod on shuffle when friends come over and you need to be social, but passive listening is not the norm. For you, I’d recommend a subscription service like Rhapsody, Napster, Grooveshark, Rdio, MOG or Spotify. For a monthly fee (usually around $5 for unlimited usage at your computer and $10 to go mobile), all of these companies give you access to comprehensive music libraries, letting you stream millions of songs instantly. It’s fantastic. Most even let you save songs to your device of choice for offline listening. Let’s take a look at the plusses, minuses and differentiating factors for each one…

Disclaimer: Some services may not be available in your country due to licensing restrictions.

Rhapsody

  • The good! Wide range of services, including radio, charts, staff picks and social features.  Rhapsody also provides richer artist information, which can be extremely useful when finding new music.
  • OK, now gimme the bad… It’s only available in the U.S., and it boasts a slightly smaller catalogue (11 million+ songs) than its peers. There is no desktop software for Mac (you have to manage your account on Rhapsody’s website), and, despite offering 60 days free access to the service, you’re required to enter your credit card details upfront.
  • So… what’s the difference? Without any significant differentiating factors, the smaller catalogue of songs makes it difficult to choose over similar services that offer a better selection.

Napster

  • The good! The service claims to have the largest streamline library in the marketplace (15+ million songs).
  • OK, now gimme the bad… No desktop application, so users have to use their browser to manage their music.
  • So… what’s the difference? Napster offers a large library for a slightly smaller monthly fee (just $8 a month if you agree to sign on for a whole year).

Grooveshark

  • The good! Grooveshark offers an impressive combination of services with a slick user interface. Plus, users can upload songs, making for a more comprehensive library.
  • OK, now gimme the bad… The mobile app has been pulled from both the iPhone app store and Android market for legal reasons. Android users can still download the application, but only jailbroken iPhones can do the same.
  • So… what’s the difference? Because users can upload songs, Grooveshark helps you find songs that can’t be found on other streaming services.

Deezer

  • The good! Deezer has a decent-sized library (13+ million songs) and the most extensive mobile platform coverage in Europe. They also recently teamed up with Orange to provide a free/discounted service on Orange smartphones, as well as offering offline music availability with the best of them
  • OK, now gimme the bad… Does not allow a free-to-listen version in the UK.
  • So… what’s the difference? Deezer’s entrance into the UK market on the back of Orange could herald a new partnership between mobile service providers and streamers, leading to discounted fees for many smartphone users in the future.

Rdio

  • The good! Rdio offers favorable social features and mobile app usability.
  • OK, now gimme the bad… Also only available in the U.S. and Canada, and like Rhapsody, Rdio offers a considerable, but somewhat smaller library of songs (10+ millions songs).
  • So… what’s the difference? Slightly smaller catalogue overshadows any other differentiating factor.

MOG

  • The good! Decent-sized library (12+ million songs), fast search function on the mobile app, you can even take pictures of album covers from inside the app and, if MOG has it in their catalogue, it pops up! Neat, eh?
  • OK, now gimme the bad… Only available in the U.S. Busy interface creates a bumpy user experience.
  • So… what’s the difference? MOG’s social networking functionality is impressive. Users have profile pages that track their listening habits, and there’s even a feed similar to Facebook’s. Very interactive.

Spotify

  • The good! Big library (15+ million songs) makes for an excellent selection. Success in garnering subscription users makes social features more valuable each day. Spotify is also entering the mobile market in the UK along with Deezer.
  • OK, now gimme the bad… The search function on the mobile app lacks the sophistication that offer services provide. Finding other Spotify users, if not connected to Facebook, is unnecessarily difficult, as you have to know to type “spotify:user:[insert friends user name here]” to connect. There has also been a backlash with some Spotify users attempting to break the syndication between the two accounts, leading to a new privacy setting from the provider.
  • So… what’s the difference? Spotify has a large library, a generous mix of features and a strong sense of momentum in the marketplace, given their successful launch in the U.S.

My weapon of choice? Spotify. The capabilities are many, the downsides are few. If you love music, and are willing to part with $10 a month (£15 in the UK for premium), I can’t recommend it highly enough.

But maybe you like your new music to come to you. You like being presented with variety and the chance to say “Yes, I liked this!” or “No, that song sucked.” Maybe you’ve been using Last.fm or Pandora for years, and you like them because you can simply hit play at the beginning of your party and take comfort in the knowledge that your preferences are being taken into account. Well, I have some great news for you! There are a whole range of other services you can explore and most of them are totally free. In addition to Last.fm and Pandora (U.S. only), you can choose from we7, Earbits, iHeartRadio, Jelli, Mixcloud, Slacker (discovery made easy), Songza (playlists galore), TuneIn (50,000+ radio stations worldwide)… really the list goes on and on. Some give you online access to traditional radio stations, others boast their own library and offer premium services for a fee, and all of them have one thing in common — they take the work out of discovering music, so you can sit back and enjoy. This isn’t my cup of tea, but I can see the value in these services, especially given that most let you listen for free (though you’ll likely encounter ads between songs, time restrictions and a limit on how many songs you can skip per hour or day).

There is a great deal of overlap between these two classes of streaming music services, and each service is worth consideration. There are also niche services that satisfy specific needs. Turntable.fm (U.S. only) specializes in interactivity, as users create “listening rooms” where they can chat as they play the music they already own for friends and strangers alike. SoundCloud lets musicians and everyday users upload files and employs visually distinctive player that’s extremely easy to embed on other pages, making it a darling of both artists and music bloggers everywhere. In some ways, Apple’s iCloud also fits into the niche category. If you’re already using Spotify, you can use Apple’s cloud to fill the gaps in Spotify’s library (at least the ones that your own library can fill). That’s my plan for the moment.

The truth is that no single service currently dominates the market, and by pairing services, you can develop a personalized cocktail that works best for you.

Uh oh. I shouldn’t have said “dominates the market.” I’ve awoken the 800-pound gorilla sleeping in the corner of the article – Facebook. So how does Facebook figure in the discussion? Well as of the recent F8 developer’s conference, it looms quite large. The social networking giant just unveiled a brand new music sharing system, which pulls in information from almost every single streaming service listed above. The idea is that your friends can see what you’re listening to, and with just a simple click, listen themselves. To say that this is a game-changer would be an understatement. It remains to be seen how this will affect the services themselves — some are saying that Spotify is receiving preferential treatment in Facebook’s new offering. If this is true, it would be incredibly bad news for Spotify’s competitors. Possibly deadly. Then again, the backlash against the automatic sharing of user information on Facebook and the tethering of the service to the future of Facebook may not prove as productive as hoped. All we can do is watch and wait.

As for me, I’m sitting here with my SpotiCloud cocktail in hand, typing on what may be the last disc-drive laden computer I ever own, and I’m extremely excited about the future of music distribution. I may be trading my ownership of James Blake’s album for access to it, but I feel incredibly lucky to live in a world where I can listen to such amazingly beautiful music whenever I want.

David is 27 year old writer/musician who covers the flourishing music scene in Richmond, Virginia over on You Heart That?!? as well as wider topics. If you want to know about the music scene in Virginia there isn’t a better place to go.

About The Phonograph

Looking at music in a wider context since July'11. Follow @thePhonograph for news and analysis on everything music related from the Music Industry to the Libyan Revolution via Festivals, Games and Sexism and a whole lote more.
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10 Responses to Bye Bye Disc Drive

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  2. sarahpumpkin says:

    Thanks for breaking down the different music sources out there and doing the research on them for me! Snappy writing AND phrases like “Given the increasing ubiquity of Internet connectivity…” don’t come around every day. And while the days of waiting for my favorite song to play on the radio so I could tape it and play it back a “zillion” times are over, reading this article made me feel a little better about it. Look forward to reading more from David.

  3. Brian says:

    Great article, David. Thanks for the nostalgic CD trip and the look forward. Of all the services you’ve laid out, Spotify and iCloud seem like ones I will eventually use. But I’m hesitant for two reasons. Maybe you can help ease my mind. For one thing, most artists (and even labels) have terrible digital download contracts that are stacked against them. The Independent reported that Lady Gaga only got $167 for one million streams on Spotify. If she does the math, she’d realize her music is, at best, advertising for her profitable concerts and t-shirts. But those streaming services’ charge monthly fees, and no matter how affordable, that money is still going to middle men, only they’re at internet companies instead of record labels. Have you discovered any business models geared toward compensating artists more fairly for their content? My other concern is from a curatorial standpoint. If you are an active music fan, how does the idea of an all-access cloud jive with the satisfaction of finding and collecting music? Even stealing music and setting aside harddrive space for tunes is a music collection. But if you want to jam MC5 for you and your friends on Spotify, do you really want to see Maroon 5 in the search results every time? Vampire metal, not Vampire Weekend? In other words, besides pulling up a song at will and posting something to Facebook, is there some part of this cloud-streaming game that allows a music fan to distinguish themselves and make something of their tastes? If you still get a disc at a show and rock it in your car–even once–you’re helping. I just hope Spotify and other services are resources to find and support artists, not the end result. But my head might be in the wrong cloud.

    • Phil says:

      With regard to the first issue, Spotify et al seem to be geared at preventing piracy rather than compensating artists. It seems like the old model of making money through touring is still the main way artists earn. Only the top artists ever made serious amounts of money from CD sales and digital sales have not picked up the slack (in revenue terms).

      The end financial goal for most artists is to make enough to live off through touring, digital hasn’t changed this model (aside from better access to independent avenues for self promotion).

      With collecting music, I’m still very suspicious of streaming services. For instance, in my own experience I’ve had tracks in playlists disappear due to license agreements changing, free listening hours decline, and friends deciding to cancel subscriptions to Spotify as they’ve been gradually priced out of the service. That has personally put me off paying for access as I can never own it, but if you’re happy to shop around, pay for price increases, and realise you’ll never truly lose access to the track (it will be available somewhere) its not too bad. You might just end up with a music collection scattered over the web.

  4. I just discovered Grooveshark and it is completely rocking my American world.

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