Music Clouds, Portability, and Graduated Response

Clouds look like bad news to me. Instead of the greater efficiency of shared resources it looks to me like they are all attempts to inflate switching costs and achieve higher profitability, at the expense of efficiency and consumer value.

Remarkable though how Silicon Valley rehabilitates a metaphor of the formerly unwelcome, and endows it with a kind of messianic glow. I am these days besieged by cloudy conference opportunities – which I am sure are not far off being described as ‘meatclouds’ (sometimes used for sysadmins today) or some similar distressing neologism. But what would make it all make much more sense to me would be if the music cloud meant real competition, rather than increased opportunities for lock-in.

In telecoms, the evils of lock-in were recognised over time and dealt with. Hassle, costs, and periods without service on the consumer side, and deliberate mal-coordination and costs on the wholesale side all have their regulatory responses around the world, and the result is generally higher standards of service and lower prices. The equivalent for the consumer in cloudy music services would be library and playlist portability; the wholesale market has yet to address portability, but when it does it will probably be just as anti-consumer as the telcos were.

So here is the big idea. Perhaps, instead of opposing Government intervention to help copyright owners and music services prevent competition, the most progressive among us should be prepared to cede ground on enforcement in return for intervention to insert into music the equivalent of handover and number portability regulations in telecoms.

The wins are clear for consumers. Instead of facing increased switching costs and losing all his careful curation, Barry the music fan could know that the basic elements of any service he subscribed to could be taken with him to any new service with a better set of features. Bait and switch would be significantly moderated, and investment would have to be directed into consumer benefit in preference to marketing and unsustainable discounts.

For producers, as sound recordings would need to be consistently and reliably identified the extra supply side discipline would help everyone. Also the temptation to use strategic withholding to pick winners would evaporate, ending the tendency to churn between anointed ‘saviours of the industry’ with consequent value destruction at each cycle.

Perhaps this would even give the industry a small nudge towards my much longed for fair and open wholesale marketplace for music rights, and end the poison of competitive block licensing, whether collective or private, we have currently. ‘Portability’ could be expressed in the wholesale market and flagged in the transfer metadata quite easily, with proper accountability to licensors, just as a ‘download’ now is differentiated from a ‘play’.

Consumers who do not wish to register their libraries with services would not get the benefit of regulated portability, but then they have opted out of the service model anyway so why should they care? They have their own kind of portability through the possession of files and metadata. Services which use DMCA-style exemptions for ‘storage at the user’s direction’ would remain free to operate, but would have to live without managed and regulated portability, and would be at a disadvantage if they had to lose the ‘portable’ flag on ingestion of a library. I am sure reasonable deals could be done behind the scenes to bring music libraries into the regulated environment, the costs of which would most likely end up being offset against customer acquisition.

OK, I have persuaded myself that this represents a trade-off of a big bundle of consumer benefit, is at the very least neutral on the rights owner side, and has a few significant collateral benefits in supply side and market reforms. The less good stuff is that we might have to accept a quasi-judicial whackamole with a faster harder hammer for a while, but over time the good actors and bad actors will become much more sharply defined and divided, as no regulated music service is going to transfer portability flags into a pirate.

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1 Response to Music Clouds, Portability, and Graduated Response

  1. Carl Morris says:

    Well, it could happen after a service pisses a bunch of users off.

    Have you seen http://www.dataliberation.org (a set of guides and portability promises from Google)? Not widely known among users though.