Friday, August 19, 2011

Music Cloud (10 May 2011)

The iPod's popularity has always implied the inevitability of a universal music library that anyone can tap into at anytime from anyplace. It would be a realization of the dreamspace in Twin Peaks: "Where we're from, the birds sing a pretty song, and there's always music in the air." I figured people would ultimately pay a subscription fee for "all music anytime" -- much as Netflix is evolving toward a monthly fee for "all movies anytime" (assuming bandwidth can keep up).

Google's launch of a cloud-music service moves us closer to that scenario: "Upload your personal music collection to listen anywhere, keep everything in sync, and forget the hassle of cables and files." That makes for a nice peg for linking to this First Monday article by Jeremy Wade Morris: "Sounds in the Cloud: Cloud computing and the digital music commodity." Morris contends that "the cloud metaphor obscures the fact that the transition is more than a simple shift from music as a good to music as a service. Music in the cloud ... enmeshes users in ... a process of continual commodification of the music experience." The article is mostly an explanation of how cloud computing works and makes some incontrovertible points about the surrender of ownership this implies -- we rent computing power (putting us at the mercy of Big Tech) rather than own the means of production/consumption for ourselves. Morris points out that subscription services make music "contingent" on providers' whims, subject to surreptitious control. But I think this hint is worth following up: "the more ubiquitous music appears, the more difficult it is to conceive of music as a separate and distinct experience from our everyday activities."

It's worth noting how cloud-music services (Amazon has one already) posit that we hate the "hassle" of music as physical object and are liberated by the transformation of hard-to-lug collections into ephemeral lists. The implication is that we yearn to breathe music like air, at all times, and have been waiting for it to be dematerialized, decommodified. To a degree that is an ideological cover for the way cloud services intensify the circulation of music as a commodity. What do I even mean by that? It has to do with this part of the promotional campaign: "Mix it up. Create your own custom playlists with just a few clicks. Or use Instant Mix to automatically build new playlists of songs from your collection that go great together. All the playlists you create and all the changes you make to them are automatically available everywhere your music is."

Doing this sort of thing in the cloud makes that labor available to Google, along with your general preferences, and presumably associates them with everything else you do online while logged into a Google account. Google Music is another tool to keep you signed in, with music serving as another code for generating associative marketing data, regardless of whether or how much we listen to it. In the cloud, music is a much more labile signifier, a more flexible marker to denote emerging demographic niches. So in that realm, music is more commodifed, in the sense that it is enlisted to a more intensive degree as a signifier of nonmusical information. Those signifers circulate in ways we don't even know about, let alone control. Why does that matter? It makes music listening less autonomous an experience, and more an aspect of the online universe of sharing and self-presentation and immaterial labor. That means it is harder to hear on its own terms (if such an approach to listening "purity" is even to be taken as ideal or normative). Cloud music furthers the decontextualization process that commodifying music as recordings initiated.

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