David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

The Jukebox in the Sky

Fortune Magazine’s David Kirkpatrick recently took a gander at the iPhone hype and concluded that the Apple model of music distribution is a thing of the past. “I doubt most people will want to buy or ‘own’ music at all,” writes Kirkpatrick in his article Looking Beyond the iPhone. “It will be far more useful to pick from a giant online library and listen to whatever we want wherever we are.”

The author then goes on to hold up as a model for the future RealNetworks’ Rhapsody service, which RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser calls “the jukebox in the sky.” It sounds like a great deal: $10 a month for all the streaming music you can listen to. The catch is that you don’t get to own any of it; everything resides on the Rhapsody servers, you’re just checking it out for a few minutes.

Jukebox with wingsLet’s put aside the fact that RealNetworks’ products turned into clunky, adware-laden pieces of crap several years ago with the release of their RealOne player. Let’s also put aside the fact that the company has lost so much ground in recent years to Apple’s iTunes and Microsoft’s Windows Media that they hardly have the clout to revolutionize the music business anymore.

The real (Real) question is this: Do people want a jukebox in the sky?

Kirkpatrick points to the coming ubiquity of wireless broadband networking. Within the next ten years or so, we’ll all be using 3G or WiMax or some as-yet-unchristened technology to access information anytime, anywhere. You won’t need to bring your music with you on little metallic discs — or little plastic iPods — because it will all be available for the taking on the big jukebox in the sky. Why pay to “own” music at all when downloading it is effortless? Just download what you want, when you want.

But here’s the problem with that scenario. Broadband access isn’t the only technology that’s growing by leaps and bounds. Disk storage is exploding too, and getting cheaper by the day.

As I write this, I’m looking at a last-generation iPod sitting on my desk with 30 GB of storage. Not quite enough to store my whole music collection yet — I rip my MP3’s at a full 320 Kbps, as God intended them to be ripped — but the newer 80 GB iPods might do the trick. Within a few years, we’ll be carrying 500 GB iPods. Seagate and Hitachi have 1 terabyte hard drives coming out this year. Flash memory is getting so cheap that you can find piles of thumb drives sitting next to the check-out counter at computer stores.

Guess how much data the entire printed Library of Congress contains? 10 terabytes. Yes, that’s it, 10 terabytes. Assuming we continue along this exponential trend of increased storage, you’ll be blowing your nose with 10-terabyte Kleenex soon enough. What does that mean? That means you’ll be able to carry your entire music, video, and book collection around in your pocket in 20 years. Let’s take it even further: in 40 or 50 years, you’ll be able to carry around every book ever written and every piece of music ever recorded around with you. Give it another 10 years for video.

So would you rather carry your digital media with you in your pocket, or would you rather carry your radio receiver with you and access your media on the great jukebox in the sky?

You’re going to want to carry it in your pocket.

Why? For starters, the great jukebox in the sky is a centralized system. This means that it’s easier for authoritarian elements to control. Courts rule that Negativland has infringed on U2’s copyrights by sampling their music? Easy enough to remedy — the court will just instruct Rhapsody to yank the Negativland tracks out of the jukebox. The surviving Beatles decide that the original George Martin-produced Let It Be album is an abomination and henceforth only Let It Be… Naked shall be heard? No problem — just overwrite the old tracks with the new ones.

Also, let’s not overlook the fact that a centralized system is easier for malicious hackers and pranksters to attack. And it’s much more vulnerable to the kinds of clerical errors that often plague large databases. The Gracenote/CDDB database is full of typos and just plain false information that’s damn near impossible to fix, and it only contains meta information. Imagine the chaos that would ensue when the jukebox in the sky’s files get corrupted. What if they post the wrong mix, or switch tracks by mistake? Good luck getting that fixed.

But probably the most damning factor is what I call the Greasemonkey factor. People want their own individualized, personalized filters on reality, and the tools to create them are becoming easier and cheaper all the time. This is as true of music as it is of anything else. People want to do what bassist Steve McDonald did to the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells album — they want to add their own instrumentation. They want to mix it their way. They want to mash up the Circle Jerks with Tijuana Brass and 50 Cent, and then use it as a soundtrack for the Star Wars Kid’s lightsaber battle. Theoretically there’s nothing preventing you from doing this to music from the jukebox in the sky — you could create Greasemonkey filters that work on streaming music just as easily as they work on locally stored music. But what are the copyright holders going to think of that? Are they going to make the jukebox in the sky Greasemonkey-proof? Are they going to require that you ask their permission every time you want to goof around with your friends in Apple GarageBand?

For me, the clincher of the argument is something I don’t think everyone would agree with: people like owning things. Especially if it’s just as easy, cheap, and convenient to own as it is to rent. Have you stopped buying DVDs now that they’re available on Netflix? Have you stopped buying books because they’re available at the library? Did you sell your Toyota when Zipcar came to town? If you’re like most people, the answers to these questions are no, no, and no.

We can argue about whether the world would be a better place if we didn’t have such an acquisitive mindset. We can argue about whether all cultures on this planet would ultimately share this mindset given an atmosphere of abundance and indulgence like America’s. Right now I side with the philosophy that says people are acquisitive by nature. And opening a big jukebox in the sky isn’t going to change that.

So in short: I’m sorry, but in the long run, RealNetworks’ jukebox in the sky just isn’t going to fly.

Comments RSS Feed

  1. Matt Jarpe on January 17, 2007 at 3:18 pm  Chain link

    Another problem I can see with the big jukebox in the sky is that I have to sit there and search out the music I want from millions of tracks. I want to do that when I’m at my desk, not when I’m working out. (Theoretically, that is. I don’t actually work out.) I guess you could select a channel that has the kind of music you want and trust the channel creator to get it right. That would work for all those other drones, but they’d never capture my quirky tastes in music (and everyone who likes music is going to think the same thing.)

    I can be excused for segueing into shameless self promotion territory for two reasons: 1) my novel RADIO FREEFALL deals with this issue at some length; and 2) my novel RADIO FREEFALL isn’t on sale yet (August 7, Tor).

    I called the jukebox in the sky the worm drive (write once, read mostly, not my acronym) and proposed that information would be metered as it entered your space like electricity is metered. You can send it to someone else but they have to pay for the information when it comes into their space. Such a setup would require a centralized authority that controls the flow of information and such an authority would be ripe for exploitation by evil control freaks and thus you have the setup for the novel.

    But aside from dramatic license, whether you’ve got a jukebox in the sky or one in your pocket, you have to ask not only about the technology but the flow of money as well. I’ve got the library of congress in my pocket, but did I have to pay for the whole thing up front or do I only have to pay when I access something? You’ve got a jukebox in the sky but do you have to pay to access or can you just agree to take in some commercials and skip the fee? (Or do they just hit you with the commercials and still make you pay, like they do at the damned movie theater?)

    I’d hate to guess where the electronic file thing is going to put us. When I wrote the book ten years ago I hadn’t even heard of any of this so I had to make it up as I went. I recently updated some of the sections about the technology of listening to music, but I wonder how up to date that will all be in August when the book comes out. (Did I mention that already?)

  2. David Louis Edelman on January 17, 2007 at 3:32 pm  Chain link

    Matt, you know how much I frown on shameless self-promotion. Shame on you.

    Re how you pay for it all… Just because you can hold an entire Library of Congress in your pocket doesn’t mean you would buy the whole thing in one fell swoop. I assume we’ll continue buying things in small chunks of one song/album/film/book/story at a time, which makes sense because that’s how we consume them. We’ll just download them rather than stream them.

    That’s my theory, at least.

  3. Kate Elliott on January 17, 2007 at 5:11 pm  Chain link

    I don’t think this Kirkpatrick guy is going to be getting rich from his understanding of human nature any time soon. He can have my iPod when he pries it from my cold, dead hands. I think you, and then Matt, about covered the salient points.

    A side point: one of the things I hate about cell phones in this country is that virtually all useful plans are done on the subscription basis (which perhaps is the writer’s reason for misunderstanding the appeal of Rhapsody), when my vague understanding is that there are – or used to be, anyway – better pay as you go services in other (foreign) cell phone markets. These subscription services are, it seems to me, predicated on the consumer overpaying for what they might use, whereas iTunes or at a music store I pay for what I want.

  4. Yaron on January 18, 2007 at 6:24 am  Chain link

    You’re pretty much spot-on, yes.
    I find the whole idea of depending on a central service to be always available, have everything I possibly want, and provide all the flexibility and control I want, to be absurd. And certainly impractical.

    Plus, for some people (I’m not sure if it would be a majority or not, but a sizeable chunk anyway) it can also cost a heck of a lot more, since they may have to pay over and over just to listen to basically the same music.

    Now for the obligatory technical comment. Encode your mp3s as high quality VBR, not 320kbps CBR. You’d get your 320kbps when necessary, but less when it’s not. The new encoders do it very very well, and basically even the crazy audiophiles agree there is no relative quality loss.

    Though of course I still insist that I feel the original CDs sound better. But it’s hard to say whether it’s physics or psychology. And the mp3 files are far more… flexible and easy to carry.

  5. David Louis Edelman on January 18, 2007 at 10:16 am  Chain link

    Encode your mp3s as high quality VBR, not 320kbps CBR. You’d get your 320kbps when necessary, but less when it’s not.

    Well, I used to code VBR… and then I went ahead and bought an Intervideo plug-in for Windows Media Player to get better sound quality. The thing claimed to be encoding VBR, but everything came out as 320kbps. Now I’ve uninstalled it and Windows Media Player doesn’t even give me an MP3 VBR option anymore.

    Yes, I’m perfectly open to switching to another media player, but as far as I can tell, they all suck. That includes you, iTunes, and you, RealPlayer, and you, WinAmp.

  6. Matt Jarpe on January 18, 2007 at 11:11 am  Chain link

    I got Creative Media player with my MuVo and boy howdy does it suck. It got hung up transferring my eMusic onto the player and now when I go back to try and move the songs it missed it can’t even start to transfer them. It says the files are corrupted or something. I’ve got about 25 songs permanently trapped on my hard drive at home.

    It also doesn’t help that eMusic creates a subfolder for every song or that many of the tracks are helpfully titled “Various Artists.” Don’t you ever just want to tell the guys who invent these things to stop adding new features and just get the features you’ve got to work?

  7. Yaron on January 18, 2007 at 1:10 pm  Chain link

    Shall I be difficult and say that just because most players also support encoding doesn’t mean you have to encode using a player?

    For playing I usually use Media Player Classic, or VLC, but that’s because they’re light, configurable, and in the case of VLC doesn’t rely on external codecs for playing. I never used them for encoding.

    I’d suggest, for ripping from CDs, that you’d get the latest compiled non-beta LAME, and a program that can use it. I use EAC (Exact Audio Copy), which does a very good job even with scratched CDs, but there are plenty of others.

    All of the above have the additional advantage of being free (Unless you feel like donating, as with most freeware), while providing comparable, and better, quality than the commercial programs. The interfaces are usually less refined and a bit clunky, but, well, the programs you described as “suck” are the ones with the elegant looks.

    Matt, are you sure it doesn’t have an option to determine the names? I’m not familiar with eMusic (lucky for me, the way you describe it) but most of these programs allow you to define what parts of the ID3 tag you want in the directory names and file names.

  8. Matt Jarpe on January 18, 2007 at 2:24 pm  Chain link

    Matt, are you sure it doesn’t have an option to determine the names?

    I’m sure of nothing. I just want it to work and not have to think about it. I’m one of those people.

  9. David Louis Edelman on January 18, 2007 at 4:46 pm  Chain link

    Thanks for the suggestion, Yaron. I’ll give it a whirl. I always knew there were a million ripping programs out there, just never felt like experimenting around to find one I liked.

    I’ve got high hopes for Songbird, btw.

  10. […] to personal computer, and then uploading to the web) in favour of a direct connection to the “jukebox in the sky“.  There are a few recent alternatives, with more likely to come in the […]

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