Why cloud storage for music is really an opportunity for labels

As anybody who knows me knows, I am profoundly ambiguous about the effects of the network on the music industry — particularly the independent bits of it, such as artists (like myself) who fund, produce and distribute their own music without the benefit of big labels.

However, I am completely unambiguous about the recent explosion of cloud-based music services such as Google Music, Apple’s iCloud and Amazon’s Cloud Drive…unlike Chicago-based indie label Numero Group, who have decided to opt out of Apple’s iTunes Match program, which allows users to pay a small fee to “match” the music on their own drives to existing files on Apple’s servers, saving them the time and hassle of uploading those files, which could easily be measured in the tens of gigabytes or more.

Numero says:

In the coming weeks, many customers and friends will ask us this question: why am I not able to automatically access Numero in my iCloud? The simple reason is that Apple and their major label “partners” have created a reward system that is both incomprehensible in scope and totally out of sync with iCloud’s streaming peers’ (Rdio, Spotify, et al) financial mechanics. As we have been entrusted with an incredible wealth of creative assets, and our primary responsibility is to our partners; the artists, producers, and songwriters that make up the Numero catalog, we feel that Apple’s pittance is an insult not only to them, but every other musician, living or dead, and, if the latter is the case, their heirs.


While Numero has every right to refuse Apple’s program, I think the problem here isn’t simply a label opting out of a service: it’s a fundamental misunderstanding within the music industry of what cloud storage is and how it works.

Cloud storage is just that: storage. None of the music cloud storage providers allow people to obtain music illegally, so far as I can tell: they simply allow users to store their own music collection, some or all of which may be of dubious provenance. But that provenance isn’t the provider’s responsibility, any more than a U-Stor-It place is responsible for making sure that every item a customer stores in their 8×10 storage unit was legally bought and paid for. All of the providers seem to be taking some steps to ensure that undeniably illegal items (such as leaked, unreleased albums) will be blocked from being uploaded, the same way a U-Stor-It would presumably refuse to allow someone to pull up with a van full of bricks of heroin and dump them in their unit. But if a user happened to have, say, a half-pound of China White at the bottom of a trunk they leave in storage, the onus of discovery isn’t on the storage rental business, any more than it’s on Google Music if somebody happened to have an “illegally” obtained copy of my record.

Nor do I believe these providers owe labels and artists money, any more than hard drive providers do, and I think the only reason labels are going after them is because they’re much larger targets than the group that labels consider the real enemy: people who don’t pay for music. (It has also become deeply unpolitic for a record label to treat the people who pirate their music as freeloading thoughtless assholes, whether or not they actually are.)

What labels and artists ought to be doing is working with the cloud providers, because the providers now have a very valuable piece of data: they know what people like, and their sample data is way more comprehensive than that of music discovery tools like Last.fm and Pandora, because they can see each user’s entire music collection and how they’ve interacted with it, not just what they happen to listen to at work or on their mobile device or what have you.

For example: I’m a Tom Waits fan, so I have a Tom Waits channel on Pandora. Pandora, in return, gives me links to buy Tom Waits records. But each of these ads is a waste of time. Why? Because I already own every Tom Waits record. I’m not going to buy them.

Pandora doesn’t know that, because Pandora only sees what I like, not what I already have. But Google Music does. Google Music knows I like Tom Waits, but it can also tell that I have all his records. It also knows that I have several Elvis Costello records, but not all of them. So it shows me an ad not for Waits’s Rain Dogs, but for Costello’s Blood & Chocolate…something it knows I probably want but don’t actually have. And I’m far more likely to buy that.

More to the point, for indie labels, it can “weigh” my collection and offer me discovery of new/indie music based on an extremely detailed statistical modeling algorithm. For example, I have the Kenny Loggins track “Playing With The Boys” in my music collection, but it’s there mainly to torment people when I DJ at parties. Since I have no other Kenny Loggins tracks (I swear to God), and the play count is fairly low, it’s probably not worth including in a model of my likes and dislikes. But I have four or five Eleni Mandell records; even if I don’t listen to them that often these days, that still suggests that I like Eleni Mandell enough to have several records, and that I would probably like Jessica Lea Mayfield. But I already have both of Ms. Mayfield’s records…so it goes into discovery mode and shows me Lera Lynn instead.

And boom! I’ve just bought Lera Lynn’s record, because it’s right there in front of me, for a reasonable price, and as soon as I buy it it’s in my cloud collection. The barrier to commerce has been lowered so far that it’s probably easier for me to buy it than to steal it.

This actually has more benefit for indie labels than it does for big labels, because a lot of indie music still lies at the edge of the popularity curve: it’s not popular enough to be easily pirated, but by the same token it’s also not popular enough to be easily discoverable. If you want the new Lady Gaga record, you can buy it instantly from iTunes or download it in two seconds from The Pirate Bay, either way…but it’s easier to buy Lera Lynn’s record than to try and find a torrent or even a Rapidshare download for it. (I know, I bought it.) Marrying marketing to the cloud means ads are getting to people who actually want to see them (the most valuable demographic of all no matter what you’re selling) and who are willing to act on them, because they actually represent the path of least resistance.

I hope the indie labels see this opportunity soon rather than railing at the cloud music service providers, which is a wasted and frankly unfair effort on their part, and focus on how this can actually help them — because what helps them helps us, the music-loving audience, by giving us an easy way to find and buy new and great stuff.


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