In 2009, when Apple dropped the Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions from songs sold through the iTunes Store, it seemed like a huge victory for consumers, one that would usher in a more customer-friendly economy for digital media. But four years later, DRM is still alive and well—it just lives in the cloud now.
Streaming media services are the ultimate form of copy protection—you never actually control the media files, which are encrypted before delivery, and your ability to access the content can be revoked if you disagree with updated terms of service; you’re also subject to arbitrary changes in subscription prices. This should be a nightmare scenario to lovers of music, film, and television, but it’s somehow being hailed by many as a technical revolution. Unfortunately, what’s often being lost in the hype over the admittedly remarkable convenience of streaming media services is the simple fact that meaningfully relating to the creative arts as a fan or consumer depends on being able to access the material in the first place. In other words, where your media collection is stored is not something to be taken lightly.
Since streaming services host the multimedia content and send it to you upon each request for playback, they can always deny the request. Netflix streaming content sometimes features impending expiration dates. In April, Netflix decided to limit access to two concurrent streams per subscriber, putting an end to years of informal password sharing between roommates, acquaintances, and family members. Whether or not that’s legally justifiable, it’s certainly a greater degree of control over user behavior than content providers ever enjoyed with any file-based DRM systems.
In order to understand the problem, it’s important to distinguish between the streaming services modeled after libraries and those modeled after radio stations. In the library model, users are presented with an enormous selection of tracks from which to choose; Spotify and Grooveshark are key examples of this. In the radio model, track after track is pushed to the listener, who has usually indicated a preference for a particular style or genre; Pandora and Apple’s new iRadio service are among the bigger names in this space. Both kinds of streaming service can earn revenue from subscription fees, advertising, or affiliate referrals to a download store. That last one is the catch: so far, only services using the radio model actively promote download purchases. By and large, the radio model explicitly positions the service as a music discovery service, whereas the library model aspires to replace locally-stored music collections. This is why you will find integrated purchase links in Pandora, but not in Spotify — because when you want to hear a specific song at a specific moment, Pandora’s service can’t help you, but Spotify probably can.
Nonetheless, unlike its predecessors, Spotify can still integrate its streaming content with offline media, and would not have fared as well had it tried to ignore the huge local media libraries that listeners had compiled prior to its launch. But that’s where the cooperation ends. Spotify seems to have little interest in promoting further investment in a listening platform other than their own, even if both services are compatible. If you find a new album you love, you can add it to a playlist on Spotify, in which case you risk eventually losing access to it. You can also download a copy externally, legally or otherwise, and Spotify will happily integrate it with your streaming library and play it back. But Spotify will make no attempt to connect you with the other services—there are no handy purchase links—and of course their payment model makes no allowance for this behavior either. There’s no flow from exploration to fandom, no concession that you might first listen to something new and then like it enough to want to keep it around forever.
It’s not that there’s anything inherently superior about tangible file downloads, of course—the experience is largely the same once you hit the play button, and many fanatical music fans were operating personal streaming media servers using specialized solutions years before the Amazon Cloud Player, iTunes in the Cloud, and Google Play made cloud storage for music libraries mainstream. The problem is this “buffet approach” to media avoids permanence, both contractually and technically—previously, you’d always be able to hear that song because you bought it, stole it, downloaded it, saved it, backed it up—some combination of the above, at least. Lala.com sold a la carte web streams for specific songs, and was quickly gaining steam when it was purchased and unceremoniously executed by Apple in December 2009. The transaction for a Lala stream was “$0.10 for this song, forever.” The transaction for a Spotify stream is “$9.99 for access to whatever we choose to provide, for one month.” If you opt for the latter, then whose music library is it, really?
Here, then, is the question that the providers of streaming library services are sneakily dodging: are they providing a music discovery platform, or a permanent replacement for local media? If it’s the first, then they should have no problem integrating links to purchase songs in their library from another source such as iTunes or Amazon. If it is the latter, can there be any guarantee to users about the permanence of various tracks and albums? Current royalty rates for music streams are abysmal and upsetting to many artists and labels, as recent impassioned cases by Galaxie 500 and David Lowery continue to illustrate. Every major streaming service has gaps in the available catalog, and many have also experienced indignant defections from dissatisfied record labels. Your love for an album does not change simply because the streaming service and the copyright holders could not agree on the financial terms, but if the solution is simply to pass the new holes along to the users, carving away sections of their beloved online libraries after they’ve established their emotional investment in particular pieces of film or music, then the cultural permanence of the art ends up degraded.
The easiest answer here is a cop-out identity statement—perhaps Spotify is intended neither as a sampling service nor a permanent replacement, and is rather only a temporary window into a limited content set. But what changes about the process of digesting culture when your ability to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the material depends on a relationship that you no longer control? It’s difficult to explore using one format and then commit using another, so for the first time in history, we’re building personal media libraries that can be remotely disabled. Digital media usually needs a format shift every few years, and in the absence of strong import and export APIs, which every major streaming service thus far has predictably declined to provide, eventually migrating your fandom between platforms essentially becomes logistically impossible.
Think about it: when a film is removed from Netflix, do you typically seek out an offline copy, or do you forget it and move on to something else? Spotify was strong-armed into importing iTunes, but it would be bad for business to allow you export to anything else down the line. It’s absurd—these extreme locks are just for references, metadata, and your own consumption history, but not the actual content. If you want to jump ship someday to something else, you certainly can’t take the music you like along with you; you might not even be able to take the database records indicating that you ever liked it in the first place.
The need for a centralized music service became evident as soon as file sharing arose in the late 1990s, but it took far too long for the tech industry and the music industry to reach an agreement regarding how to go about it. Those terms are now being established, but they are still tenuous and contested, and a fan experience built atop the conflict makes for a rickety cultural future. Ultimately, regardless of the delivery mechanism, the question is not one of streaming versus downloads. It’s about whether you want to have your own media library or request access to somebody else’s. Be careful.