OpEd: Ownership in the Age of the Cloud

I am not a luddite. In fact, barring cybernetic augmentations (bring 'em on), I'd say I'm about as far from a luddite as one could be. I love technology. Thanks to my job, I'm often the first of my circle to have the latest gadget. I've got tons of Apple iStuff, a beloved Android phone, an oversized HDTV, 18MP DSLR, and yadda yadda.

Yet, I still buy CDs.

This is not because I'm somehow opposed to music on a computer. Quite the opposite. I've had an extensive MP3 collection since at least 1997, and was an early user of the original Napster. I buy music these days partly as penance for these early indiscretions, but mostly for a much bigger reason:

I own something.

I have a physical disc with music on it. I can transfer this to new file formats, play it in my car (which lacks MP3 playback...thanks, SVT), and really do whatever I want with it. I'll always have a high-quality, universal-format original as a starting point.

True, the first thing I do after purchasing a CD is rip it onto my computer. Some would see this as an unnecessary step, but with few exceptions the vast majority of music available for download is much worse sounding than CD. And I don't care who you are: everyone can hear the difference. They might not think they can - or they might not care - but in my experience if you A/B compressed audio with CD, to a person the difference is audible.

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What's troubling me is not the shift towards all-computer audio. There are ways to make that work, like extensive backups. My concern is a trend taking hold with Apple's iCloud and Amazon's Cloud Player. It's easy to see a future in which you lack not only physical media, but one in which you lack even your own files. Everything's stored offsite, and you're allowed only the privilege of accessing the music you've purchased.

If you use their Cloud Player, Amazon is already like this, in a way. If you buy a song, it gets "stored" in your Cloud Drive, from where you can stream it. But if you want your own copy, you have to take another step, and manually download the file.

So it's not the present reality that's troubling, exactly, but the direction things are taking. Is it hard to imagine a pay-for-play model for music, like what we already have with digital movie rentals? As Steve Guttenberg recently asked of digital audio: "iTunes and files on your computer. If you can't touch them, are they real?" Go one step further: If you don't even have files, can you guarantee you'll always be able to play your music? If your answer is yes, you're more of an optimist than I.

I'm all for artists getting paid for their work, but once I pay for it I should be able to listen/watch whenever I want. Relinquishing control of the medium to an intangible entity isn't the direction I'd care to go with my music listening pastime. And for all the audiophile hype about a resurgence of vinyl - let's be honest, it is and always will be a tiny, tiny sliver of the audio market.

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In the end, I realize this is a futile argument that will be lost on most, and ignored by others. It surprises most people that I still buy and listen to CDs. When I tell them that I do, I receive a look I'd give someone who doesn't check their email at least once a day: shock and disbelief, with a twist of condescension. I just don't get it, just as others don't get my disc obsession. For those who care little enough about their music to not be bothered by not owning it, there's no trouble here. Just additional convenience.

Luckily enough for me, though, CDs are still available for those of us so inclined. Thankfully, this seems likely for the foreseeable future. I just hope the CD's inevitable successor will be high(er?) quality, and that I can store it semi-permanently.

Otherwise, I take solace in the knowledge that my quaint collection of 4.7-inch plastic discs will last for a few thousand years.

Hopefully I'll still have something to play them on.

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