All Hail the Cloud

June 1, 2012

So, every month or so Yahoo! “News” posts a story like this:   Daddy, What Were Compact Discs?

I happened to read this one while listening to the Uncle Tupelo “7 inch singles” collection i snagged at the independent- record-store promotional holiday National Record Store Day this past month. I mention it only because I found it somewhat ironic to read about the “future” of media consumption jettisoning all things physical while enjoying a product released in support of  what is left of the  “dying” brick and mortar stores. The article read like all similar such Yahoo! promoted stories of the sort, like more or less an advertisement for Apple products while once again the comment thread consisted of bickering back and forth between physical media devotees and digital stream-embracers. This particular piece was pulled from the New York Times finance section. In it, Sam Grobart predicts the very soon demise of physical media and speculates about the “what were CDs, DVDs, VCR’s, etc.” child to parent conversations of the allegedly very near future. He detailed briefly the history of the format wars, the vinyl to 8 track to cassette to CD to ipod, the film strip to BETA to VHS to DVD to Blu Ray, etc, and its history of “mostly” progression (though sometimes regression as well).

Now, I admit I can be a bit of a curmodgeon on this issue and acknowledge that I’ve spilled too much digital “ink” on something so relatively asinine. The fact of the matter is that I do love my physical media–my vinyl records, including 180-gram pressings of new albums, my CDs, my Blu-Rays, etc, but I also love the convenience of digital. I stream Netflix and use an i-pod practically every day, but I have also scraped through my phsyical collection to condense and skim every time I’ve gotten ready for a move (because boxes of records and books are indeed heavy, a selling point for which digital certainly comes out on top by a mile). When it comes down to it, I listen to 75 % of  new music via digital, whether streaming a new discovery online or syncing something to my ipod to listen to for a review. As I’ve mentioned before though, if I love an album chances are that by the end of the year I’m going to spring for the vinyl pressing or at least the CD of it. But for most albums, the cheaper more convenient digital format works just fine. Audiophiles can argue about sound quality, but at least sites like Band Camp now offer full quality digital music. Though I prefer certain music on vinyl and certain on CD (and I make the case for the delivery medium as part of the art itself in this previous post), I recognize that some of that is nostalgia, some of that is my identity as a “collector” of various things, some of that is tied up with subtle forms of “materialism.” Though I don’t think digital can replicate the feel of going to a record store on new release day, running into friends there, getting unexpected recommendations from knowledgeable and like-minded clerks, or of remembering a forgotten album while poring through and organizing your collection and throwing it on the stereo in rediscovery, or of soaking in the artwork and liner notes from a big record sleeve while that album spins, or of scouring thrift stores and yard sells for missing pieces of your collection, or of buying an album from the merch booth at a concert and seeking out a signature from the artist, or the good and bad aspect of being limited to what you have on hand and not being overwhelmed by the vast ocean of choice, or a whole host of other experiential issues, I do see the positive ways the online age has opened up the music frontier, from connecting fans and artists who are separated by continents, from exploding the options one has in discovering new music, from instant gratification of a new acquisition, and certainly even legitimate and legal digital music purchases are now for the most part far cheaper than the physical items often were (and are), especially CDs at the height of corporate price-fixing. So if the future holds only digital and the LPs and CDs are all for the collectors alone, I’ll hold on to my favorites, eventually piece together the optimal physical stereo to support them that magazines like Rolling Stone always highlight during this vinyl boom of new collectors, and find the best way to play digital music in a way that presents its sound authentically.

But what still concerns me regarding the author of the finance article’s “completely digital in the near future” prediction is this:  we’ve all seen what a financial recession can do to numbers and money that isn’t “really” there, what about art and media in a synonomous situation? I mean, I realize the “cloud” is “physical” somewhere. I trust back up and such; I use Carbonite and a detached hard drive to back up information, so a personal computer crash isn’t the threat in such a complete way as it once was, though I am always finding CDs I lost between backups as I scour my  shelves to re-rip them. But this article supposes a set of speakers streaming an online collection of music and a TV streaming all movies is the only way to go very soon. I keep thinking of all those times my Netflix decides to stop working at 10:30 every night due to whatever reason it has (I sometimes suspect Netflix of limiting output quality to make sure you don’t get too much bang for your buck). I keep thinking of that movie I want to see that Netflix doesn’t offer on the stream and then kicking myself that I got rid of it. I think about the music I try to listen to that has to “buffer” or is interrupted by ads. I think about the 2 or 3 bucks Amazon, Vudu, or On Demand want to charge for an episode of “Breaking Bad.” The point is, if digital is the near future how do we prevent limited information and media availibiltiy or price fixing? How to stop a “digital monopoly?” Netflix became the primary game on the block and then dropped half of their movies from their digital stream to focus on the cheaper acquisition of television shows. In towns that have lost video rental stores because of Netflix, someone wanting a movie from the 80’s or 90’s on a whim some Friday night is out of luck until the mail runs next week. Sure there is competition to Netflix, but it often seems like they’ve cornered the market and now I’m thankful that I hung onto my favorite movies every time I’ve consolidated my shelves. It’s why, as someone who loves and reads books for learning, pleasure, and practicality that I find it unlikely that I’ll every make the full-on Kindle jump. I don’t even have an e-reader of any kind yet. I decided before my last big move to jettison the bulk of my fictional books aside from favorites and collectibles, that paperbacks for the most part in that department were “disposable,” to save room only for those works I love, reference, and return to. So in theory I’d have no problem e-reading all my “pop” fiction but until I can get those novels and one-time-only reads of whatever genre as cheap as a thrift store or as free as a library, until the device I read them on is so disposable I could care less that it’s sun, water, or element damaged, I’m not ready for that jump yet. But the worst case scenario, for me, about an all digital future is that if all of my music, video, pictures, books, and art were floating on some cloud, or if I didn’t even “own” my entertainment merely streamed it from a provider, what happens when the internet price hikes or the music/movie/book provider doubles their monthly charge? Or I need to cut my service a month or two to save money? Or a “pulse” knocks out all wireless signals for a month, a year? There are any number of scenarios, however unlikely, that could effectively keep me from listening to a song or watching a movie or reading a book I would like to.  Far more likely though is that the equipment I use or the internet service provider my apartment owner makes me use will act up in the way my computer, no matter how new or protected, does from time to time. Whether bad weather, bad signals, or a computer virus there are times when most of us curse technology as we rewire and test out our devices so that we can make an ordinary, daily transaction or action of some sort that was done with far less technology in the not-too-distant past. That’s the reason why, other than being a bit of a curmudgeon, that many of us like at least some of our media in a physical, tactile format. I find it good that both online options are expanding and that younger collectors are discovering the warmth and enjoyment of vinyl music and turntables. I don’t want the “cloud” to be the only option; I want to go to a library, go to a movie theater, go to a record shop and interact with people and products.

*By the way, that Uncle Tupelo 7 inch singles box? Fantastic. Hearing those early songs by such an influential yet often unacknowledged band in 45 form really amps up the borderline between punk and country where they staked their ground, especially their cover of “I Wanna Destroy You.” And also? I did follow the link and enter the code from the enclosed coupon to get that free download of the box in digital form. Like I said, I like both options.

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2 Responses to “All Hail the Cloud”

  1. Christopher Zeidel said

    This is a very nice blog post and I feel the same way you do, but what about copyright owners? What if we could not watch our favorite movies because copyright owners have not allowed Netflix or other services to stream them?

    • dmhamby2 said

      You’re right. I think that’s the reason right now many movies a lot of us would like to stream are not available is because of copyright holders. Some companies allow their movies to be on stream for a month or so then removed temporarily so that they are not consistently available, mostly to keep demand for the DVD or blu-ray up. The stream embracers suppose that one day all things will be on stream and there will be no need at all for a physical copy of anything. That day may come, I suppose, but I don’t think it will preclude some of the (possibly unlikely) scenarios I proposed which could then make those films inaccessible.

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