Is Cloud Computing the Future of Music?


I received an email over the weekend asking my thoughts on this blog post, in which the author predicts that along with your operating system and your software, your music collection will soon be housed entirely online – somewhere in ‘the cloud‘.

The idea is essentially that with increased download speeds, bandwidth capacity and online storage, there will be no need to ‘own’ music. Everything you want will just be available to listen to, presumably for a monthly fee.

According to the post:

You’ll no longer store your music files on a hard drive or flash drive but rather in a cloud of servers scattered around the world. Your net-devices will access your library collection wirelessly, streaming from remote servers. Exchange your Notebook for a Netbook because you’ll no longer think about downloading music files to your computer… you won’t need a massive storage system anymore.

I’m sorry – but why are we still having this nonsensical conversation?

Cloud computing is not the problem
I have no issue with cloud computing. I think it’s a really powerful development. In fact, it’s a fascinating and exciting emerging area of online technologies and architecture.

The Amazon S3 hosting thing is brilliant for rapidly scaling websites – and there are some interesting developments with online applications like Google Docs, Freshbooks and the indispensible Basecamp.

On the music front, there’s no shortage of services that will play you music, help you find music and store and organise your music without unduly bothering your own personal hard drive.

And apart from anything else, the cloud metaphor is a useful one for understanding distributed hosting and processing. It’s way better than ‘information superhighway’ and infinitely preferable to the godawful ‘jukebox in the sky‘ catchphrase that was doing the rounds a couple of years back.

My problem is with anything that smacks of ‘In the future, we will all wear silver jumpsuits, eat meals in a pill, fly around in jetpacks and communicate via telepathy’.

Predicting the future MAKES you wrong
If history (or, more accurately, media ecology) has taught us anything, it’s that making a prediction about the impact of shifts in technology on human behaviour will pretty much guarantee that you’re going to get it wrong. And you’re going to get it wrong on three fronts:

1) Essentialism
This is the bit where we assume that all people will act a certain way, and that something is the same to all people for all purposes. There are no essential characteristics of music consumption, and even if a development is hugely significant – the exceptions will usually outweigh the rule.

2) Technological determinism
This is the idea that new technologies make us do certain things and that technology drives history. This positions every new development as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey – something that comes to us from outside our experience that transforms us. In real life, technologies grow out of a human context, and we decide what to do with them when they turn up. They may open up possibilities – but they don’t force behaviours. They are, in other words, socially mediated.

3) Failure to accommodate disruptive developments
Predicting the future based on trends is a guaranteed sure-fire way to get things wrong, because the unexpected almost always happens. It’s like the computer scientists in the 1950s who predicted that by 2005, there would be 5 computers in the world, and they’d be the size of skyscrapers. Where things look like they’re headed is generally the opposite of where they end up. Read your McLuhan on this.

There is no future of music
While I’m quite the fan of some of the ‘cloud’ services – I love, am warming to Spotify and I’ve been a user of mp3tunes over the past couple of years (and really hope they weather the current absurd legal wranglings) – I think predicting a universal shift to them is beyond premature.

The thing is – people are complex, and their music consumption is different from person to person. And in saying that, let me underline once again that music consumption is about more than merely discovering, acquiring and listening to music.

To predict a future of music – any future of music – misunderstands that complexity and the richness of experience and meaning that people bring to it and get from it.

I can totally understand the techno-enthusiasm that leads us to make these kinds of proclamations. It’s an effort of will to stop ourselves from identifying the new, exciting thing as The Answer.

My problem is not with people who write wide-eyed blog posts – but with the people who make a career from pretending they can predict the future. And yes, this is a hobby-horse of mine.

As a general rule, anyone passing themselves off as a futurist is either a charlatan or an idiot. Frequently both.

There’s enough going on around us right now that’s confusing, game-changing and technologically jaw-dropping without having to make shit up. Rather than try and guess what “we will all do in the future”, instead think about what you should be doing now.

Strategies, rather than fortune-telling please.

25 thoughts on “Is Cloud Computing the Future of Music?

  1. @Stephen says:

    Brilliant rant, sir. I agree that the majority of tech-based predictions turn out so very wrong. Personally I find it fascinating how so many people hear these predictions and attempt to get out in front of them, only to see the wave pass them by.

    Your statement – “To predict a future of music – any future of music – misunderstands that complexity and the richness of experience and meaning that people bring to it and get from it.” – captures the difficulty for the futurist, because we do not even know how our own, personal, experience will be changing, let alone the habits and preferences of the “kids” a generation behind us. I may be mistaken, but I do not recall anyone predicting the convergence of the cell-phone and the Walkman 20 years ago. And did anyone see SMS coming?

    If I may, I’d like to make a prediction, and it is this: the future of music will be exciting, creative, and different from most of what has come before.

  2. Whilst I think cloud computing will become the way forward I don’t really think it’s going to change things drastically.

    I highly doubt that everyone will access one giant cloud of music and listen to the bits that they are interested in, and especially not pay a monthly subscription fee. I’d say it’s far more plausible that everyone has their own cloud within which they store everything, including their music.

    So in terms of consumption and the difference this makes to artists and labels that difference is zero, apart from people will have more opportunities to listen to all of their music, which can only be a good thing.

    For anyone still using DRM to try and force people to buy more than one copy of the same MP3 this technology would hopefully get rid of you altogether.



  3. Simon Barber says:

    You say that there are no essential characteristics of music consumption. Perhaps this is true in terms of rapidly changing technology, but as humans there are some fundamentals that can be acknowledged; a working set of ears are pretty essential :-)

    Also, I understand your position on viewing futurism as a bit of a snake oil occupation, however, to say that anyone passing themselves off as a futurist is either a charlatan or an idiot could be a bit strong. I’m sure you could dig up an equal amount of examples of developments that have come about because individuals are prepared to create debates about what might be. The idea that ‘we decide what to do with them when they turn up’ surely does not reflect how new technologies are conceived and developed?

  4. I agree… and for the time being, the majority of people still want to OWN their music which is why these subscription services have never taken off in the first place.

  5. James Pew says:

    I’m guilty of predictions. And what makes it worse I rarely predict things based on study or research. Instead I shape my predictions around a future world that I WANT to see.

    I visualize the MP3s that live on an individuals hard drive as lonely and isolated. I predict (hope) that in the future not only will individuals tap into the worlds musical content cloud – but that the means of discovery will be enhanced and customized for each individual account (or profile) within that cloud.

    I love Keven Kellys 1,000 true fans model. And I believe that an enormous chunk of the worlds mostly undiscovered content is desperately trying to find its audience. We need computers to streamline this. Things like Pandora’s algorithm, based on the Music Genome Project, are a step in the right direction. But its copyright that is hindering the potential…not technology.

    I predict (hope for) a future world where indie artists use MGP type rankings and various other sophisticated recommendation engines, and find their 1,000 true fans. Weather its one cloud or several, this future is more likely to occur if all the lonely isolated mp3s can be included in a service that not only stores them…but effectively ranks and recommends them.

    I understand your point Andrew. And your issue with futurists. But I do feel a certain amount of day dreaming and imagination can at least push innovation in the direction to what we (I) want. To what is best for the culture of music.

    I say keep up with predicting the future. For no other reason than how it may influence, or direct the present, toward whatever idealized future we can imagine. You have to admit…its kinda fun too!

  6. David Rent says:

    Very informative article thank you!


  7. Jon Smirl says:

    People wouldn’t want to own music if the music was freely downloadable. Why do you want all of the hassle of backing up purchased music and protecting it from loss? The true cost of backup might even exceed the original purchase price of the music. You are backing up all that music you bought, right?

    Instead you’d just manage playlists. Then when you get a new mp3 load the player from the free cloud using the playlist. Playlists are much easier to keep safe, emailing them to multiple places should be enough.

    With freely downloadable music the cost of maintaining backups disappears. When you break your mp3 player, just load the replacement from the cloud. We’re already doing this via Bit Torrent.

    I’ve evolved to the position of digital music being advertising for the live acts and I’d like to see a lot more live acts. I’m tired of concerts being perpetually sold out. Of course there is still the problem of the unneeded record companies that won’t go away quietly.

  8. Kirby says:

    Following anyones predictions verbatim is just crazy fanatasism & ignorant

    We should be able to use user and consumer trends to predict things coupled with the ability to adapt to their habits in order to sell them our music…or whatever it is we’re selling.

    It seems like your blog takes most of what Gerd Leonhard ideas or “predictions” are and throws them out the window, though hes been somewhat accuarate as to how music will be consumed and purchased.

    Do you not agree with his ideas on the future of music?

    Because they are speculations does it make him wrong?

    Don’t you speculate to some extent to the future of music in your blogs?

  9. “People wouldn’t want to own music if the music was freely downloadable. Why do you want all of the hassle of backing up purchased music and protecting it from loss? The true cost of backup might even exceed the original purchase price of the music. You are backing up all that music you bought, right?”

    If it was FREELY available YES…
    if I had to pay a fee for this “privaledge”, NO

  10. Dubber says:

    @Kirby I can’t recall having made predictions on this blog, but if you find any, please be sure to bring them to my attention.

    Gerd Leonhard does call himself a futurist (or rather – other people called him a futurist, and he decided to go along with it). I don’t happen to agree with a lot of what he’s said should happen – but that’s already been pretty well documented on this blog in the past.

    That said, Gerd has some pretty good advice to give music businesses. I happen to think that’s what he’s best at. He also has some good ideas about using contemporary technologies – and he has been good at identifying and understanding current issues in online music. I don’t think that makes him good at predicting the future. But then I don’t think anyone is good at that.

    I make a point about not speculating with regard to the future of music for the very reason that I outline on this particular post. My job, as I see it, is to try and understand the present of online music and help others to do so in a way that can be helpful to them now.

    Seems like there aren’t too many people engaged in that. There are lots of people reporting on events in the music business (and Hypebot does this particularly well), and there are people guessing about some mystical ‘new model’ that we will somehow all mysteriously end up using.

    McLuhan used the metaphor of the rear-view mirror. Like we’re driving into the future, and most people are seeing what’s behind us (tell us again about CD sales…?). I try and make sure I don’t fall into that trap – but I also don’t try and see what’s coming around the corner, either. I do like to look around and see what’s out the window, however.

    Music Think Tank has been particularly good at this too – and it’s a privilege to be involved with everyone there for that reason alone.

    But I wish I had a dollar (pound/euro) for every time I’ve been asked ‘What’s the future of the music industry?’

  11. Jon Smirl says:

    “If it was FREELY available YES…
    if I had to pay a fee for this “privilege”, NO”

    But would you pay for a download server that was reliable? One with clearly indexed files that were verified to be what they say. A lot of people are paying $3-10 month for download servers because Bit Torrent is unreliable.

    I’ve always thought the record companies had it wrong. Instead of going after end users for $0.0007 a stream they should instead license server sites for a flat $100K-$1M/mth and then let them do whatever they wanted with the content. Then turn the RIAA dogs loose on the server sites that won’t pay.

  12. Andrew,

    music was initially not something you posessed, but a cultural expression you took part in. I probably heard it from you, that the divide between music producer and consumer is something new and kind of artifical.

    So, records made it possible for us to “own” music copies, and it sparked a whole new interest for music collections. It’s an example of technological determinism, as you say.

    Cloud computing makes it possible to consume and interact with music without having to own a record. Radio has been around for a while, of course, but I can’t choose what they play for me. With I can, and all I worry about is my playcounts. Yes, I project my personality onto the statistics, hoping there to find parts of myself when I look back in a few years time.

    I’m starting to consume music like I consume blogs, keeping statistics and bookmarking the interesting content that flashes past my browser window. Access and attention profiling replaces ownership. If that comes with a fee, no problem for me.

    Prediction is hard. Especially the future.. So give me more of those interesting and thought provoking blog posts on new music strategies!


  13. Felix says:

    One “cloud” type thing I’ve been using is SeeqPod, which is really cool when you’ve heard something about a song or artist and you just want to check them out quickly.

    It does playlists and other stuff too but I mostly just use it for quick reference – I still like having my music in my house.

    Silver jumpsuits – still waiting. We were basically promised them as kids so I’m not too happy about that. Don’t even get me started on diagonally opening doors in oval frames…

  14. Andrew Cowie says:

    I think some sense of what’s important is, well, important. It’s human nature to look at something new and think: how could I use that in the future? I guess the thing is to avoid turning could into should; the blog you quote would presumably be OK if instead of saying “will” he said “will be able to”?

    But I agree that a rear view mirror perspective on the future can be deceptive; Microsoft have 40 years of Moore’s Law to reassure them that every operating system release can be twice as big as the one before because processors will be twice as fast so they failed to spot the netbook which is a hopeless platform for Vista.

    I work a lot with young people, all of whom have music on their phones and iPods so I’d have confidently predicted that CD players are dead, (also borne out by a recent visit to Curry’s) but apparently this Christmas portable CD player sales are booming:

    Every investor is placing a bet on the future but some bets are better than others (One day we’ll all drive cars instead of riding horses – Yes: collect a billion dollars! One day we’ll all ride Segway scooters instead of walking – No: lose your shirt.) We couldn’t have this conversation now if no-one had bet that in the future people will own personal computers powered by domestic electricity, with access to the internet and write blogs using the QWERTY keyboard, etc.

    While I’m writing this I’m not wearing a silver jumpsuit but I am wearing clothes made out of the same processed oil that my computer, telephone, kettle and Christmas tree are made of, which is pretty freaky if you think about it…

  15. Kirby says:

    Hypebot is a fantastic news feed for whats happening in the industry. Anyone who is interested in staying current would enjoy the updates.

    Andrew, thank you for the feeback. Your blog provides too much insight and contains too much content for me to want to sift through to prove you wrong, nor was that my intention. I read NMS because I enjoy it and the perspective you have. Much like Gerd Leonhard.

    And as I said, I’d hope no one believes any prediction verbatim. Assumptions as they say make an “ASS out U & ME”.

    Keep up the great posts.


  16. Andrew Cowie says:

    Hi Andrew,
    as my last post is still awaiting moderation, the bit I should have added was: you’re right, most futurists are charlatan or idiots but the 0.001% who say “in the future everyone will [drive cars/have a computer on every desk/talk on mobile phones/have their hips replaced when they wear out/insert life-changing technology here]” and put their money into their hunch and get it right not only become multi-billionaires, they also shape the world the rest of us live in. You can always criticise the logic but that imaginative leap into an unknown and unknowable future is exciting and in its own way quite romantic and admirable.

  17. Jon says:

    Predictions are important in driving strategy when coupled with risk/probability assessment. Real silver bullets are like iPod moments, few and far between. Don’t be afraid to make predictions (because having Vision is good), just don’t forget to temper them with reality/probability and include “all-else” type option in your strategy.

    The tendency to suffer from tunnel vision or myopia regarding a particular solution is great particularly when attempting to believe/have/present (esp entrepreneurial) confidence.

    Good post Andrew.

  18. Excellent post…

    I work in technology PR for my sins, non consumer technology, and cloud computing has become the new zeitgeist term being bandied about like no other.

    Of course there are benefits when getting software as a service in this realm, it switches things from capex to opex is probably the biggest. But its an evolution, not a revolution, particularly once you begin considering in the context of music.

    I think the idea of ‘tipping points’ is always a factor in some of these things, of which Malcolm Gladwell popularized. The way we wish to engage with music and even consume it will of course be driven social norms and behaviours, rather than technology.

    Can we all recall Minidisc? A technology that was before having the platform of a seachange in social norms, consider minidisc to ipods, consider the reasons why one failed and one succeeded.

    While the notion of ‘tipping points’ is still quite vague in many aspects, what it does back up is Andrew’s inherent belief that technology does not drive human behaviour. I believe that the context that human seek to use that technology will drive any changes in the way we view said technology.

  19. cloud busting more like. music like water.

  20. Rob Shelby says:

    Your use of technological determinism is pretty one sided there Dubber… ;-)

    Certain technologies are invented (or combined) and it does change culture. With out explanation, some examples are GPS and slow motion cameras.

    In fact, one of the first quotes in most ‘technology culture’ university books is Henry Ford stating, “If I built what people wanted, I would have built a faster horse”.

    Predicting how the majority of a population is going to consume a certain product is how millionaires are born.

    It not technology culture’s fault that most people are not very good at reading what society needs…

  21. Jim says:

    Agree with your post, but in terms of another step towards “cloud computing” check out LaLa. Cloud computing for music is already here. LaLa has a few kinks, but for the certain person who works in an office all day and still wants access to their music, it’s perfect. Their iPhone app is processing, we’ll see if Apple approves it or not.

  22. aaron says:

    to a certain extent, ‘the cloud’ is already there, and everything in it comes from ‘teh bluz’.
    as far as owning music is concerned, i think we should be more vigilant about the ways in which IT OWNS US! when the goverments of ‘Teh FewTour’ sell us air, it will be OverCompressed as well!!!
    We are NOt A LOUD!!!

  23. I think it was a comment intended for provocation. As you said, no one really knows the future and no one could have accurately predicted the shift in technology over the last 50 – 60 years. Strategies instead of fortune-telling indeed.

  24. Carl says:

    well my opinion:

    i dont know why i SHOULD use it? i think this is the wrong way of multimedia based on cloudcomputing

  25. Midge D says:

    I love this incisive post!. I remember being at primary school in the 70’s and being told that computers will set us free in the future and hearing actual debates about ‘ how will people spend all their new found leisure time?’, did it happen?, did it fairycakes!.
    all the best