Sounds in the cloud: Cloud computing and the digital music commodity
First Monday

Sounds in the cloud: Cloud computing and the digital music commodity by Jeremy Morris

This paper investigates the rise of cloud computing, specifically for music. More than just new technologies for distribution, cloud services establish a fundamentally different relationship between listeners and their music. As the metaphor suggests, the cloud offers an infinite space where music is ever available, but cloud services also act as transient and enclosed spaces where the music we “own” is always at an ethereal distance. Cloud–based music services represent a particular cultural model of music distribution — one that enmeshes users in a network of technologies and a process of continual commodification.


Cloud formations
Music in the cloud
Conclusion — The promise of digital music




In a blog post entitled “We will only propagate exceptional objects”, the indie rock band Of Montreal described the launch details for their 2008 album Skeletal Lamping:

The concept behind the Skeletal Lamping Collection is this: ideally, every object that you bring into your home, should feel exceptional to you. […] A CD has little value, as an object, and the conventional, right angle plagued CD packaging, we’ve been forced to endure forever, has nothing new to offer us either. That is why, instead of following the tired path of the past, we’ve decided, to release a table top floral beast, a lantern, a collection of wall decals, a stallion shaped print, a collection of pins, and a clothing and tote bag line as our album packaging instead. (Barnes, 2008)

The different objects Of Montreal was offering (i.e., clothes, pins, etc.) came embedded with a link to a digital download of their album. Although a skeptic would dismiss the launch as a mere publicity stunt, Skeletal Lamping shows how drastically the music commodity has changed thanks to recent shifts in the technologies of its production and distribution. Music has migrated away from CDs, tapes and records and onto computers, the Internet and other digital devices. The decoupling of musical content and its packaging has opened up numerous possibilities for the presentation and consumption of music.

Music in its digital form can arrive on computers or mobile phones but it can equally appear, as Of Montreal has shown, on a giant floral print in the shape of a horse. Skeletal Lamping acknowledges that the music commodity is an increasingly mobile and shape–shifting one. Music as code is fluid and configurable. It is less bound to any one particular material expression. However, Skeletal Lamping also admits that digital music becomes physical in a variety of ways, through a number of interfaces, technologies and packages, and that these manifestations matter.

The complex nature of the digital music commodity [1], hinted at by Skeletal Lamping, is exacerbated by a recent trend: music in the “cloud”. Although à la carte models (i.e., pay–per–download) like the one pioneered by Apple’s iTunes Music Store have dominated the digital music retail landscape, we are in the midst of a push towards cloud–based music services. These include streaming and subscription services that offer users access to huge libraries of music as well as those that provide storage space for users to host their sound files. Instead of relying on users to download music to their computers, cloud–based services allow users to connect to their tunes from any number of Web–enabled devices. Part metaphor, part vision for the future business model of music, cloud music is part of a transectorial push to make personal music libraries more readily available for users and more profitable for producers and rights holders.

Accordingly, this paper investigates the technological and cultural implications of cloud–based music services. Combining critical literature on the digitization of the music industries with an overview of current popular cloud–based services, I look at the defining characteristics of cloud computing and what this means for our experiences of music. Through an analysis of press and industry sources, I trace how cloud services are part of a wider push towards the development of a celestial jukebox (Burkart and McCourt, 2006) built and managed by companies looking to control the shape and flow of the music commodity. Although cloud–based music services raise unique possibilities for the mobility of music and its discovery, they also act as transient and enclosed spaces where the music we “own” is always at an ethereal distance to us. As users outsource the creation, maintenance and storage of their music collections to cloud–based services, music becomes contingent and complementary. The cloud metaphor obscures the fact that the transition is more than a simple shift from music as a good to music as a service. Music in the cloud represents a particular cultural model of music distribution — one that enmeshes users in a network of technologies and a process of continual commodification of the music experience.



Cloud formations

By most accounts, the last two decades have witnessed extraordinary, though not unprecedented, upheaval for individuals and institutions involved in making, marketing, distributing, selling and consuming popular recorded music (Burkart and McCourt, 2006; Chanan, 1995; Garofalo, 1999; Jones, 2000; Sterne, forthcoming; Théberge, 1997; Tschmuck, 2006). Once an industry worth approximately US$45 billion in 1997 (Hodgson, 2007), recorded music has seen its value cut in half (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry [IFPI], 2010). As a reaction, the major record labels — Sony, Universal, Warner and EMI — and the industry associations that represent them — the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), etc. — have waged a fierce legal, educational, and public relations campaign against what they see as the culprit of the “crisis”: piracy via online file–sharing networks (RIAA, 2010; IFPI, 2011). The reality is likely more complicated, with research suggesting a tenuous link between file–sharing and lost revenue. Furthermore, increases in digital sales, touring, and other revenue streams are opening up new avenues for growth (Martens, 2010; IFPI, 2011). Sales of music in digital formats now make up over 29 percent of the value of the entire global music industry and that number is expected to grow significantly in the coming years (IFPI, 2011).

The crisis, if we have to use that word, is perhaps more accurately located in the changing relationship people have with music, or the changing role of music in the contemporary moment. The move to music as a digital file has meant a shift to music as software. It is now part of a network of technologies and blended into a multimediated computing experience. Phones come with music, as do Web sites, video games and new cars. CDs are routinely given away in newspapers and magazines as promotions (Straw, 2009). Social networking sites, search engines, and other such technologies use online digital music as a draw for their services. Rather than a commodity of its own, music is integrated into so many diverse services that it becomes difficult to talk about music as a specific experience at all. Music appears to be ubiquitous: it is both everywhere and nowhere (Kassabian, 2001).

This abstract ubiquity finds its epitome in the rise of cloud–based music services. Paul Jaeger defines cloud computing as “an emerging model of computing where machines in large data centers can be dynamically provisioned, configured, and reconfigured to deliver services in a scalable manner, for needs ranging from scientific research to video sharing to e–mail” (Jaeger, et al., 2009). Cloud–based services promise massive storage space for users’ files, playlists, preferences and information as well as remote access to that data regardless of device or location. While we used to rely on our own gadgets for our computing needs, increasingly we shop pieces of our daily activities out to the cloud [2]. Cloud computing represents a shift from using our own machines to control our data to trusting the network to store it for us (Hayes, 2008). It is the commercialization of services like data storage, information processing, and computational power (Jaeger, et al., 2009).

Cloud computing dates back to the 1960s, where computer visionaries like J.C.R. Licklider and John McCarthy described a vast network of connected computers that allowed access to all sorts of programs and services from all kinds of devices (Carr, 2009; Mohamed, 2009). Some of the Internet’s earliest founders and architects, like Vint Cerf or Bob Taylor, used clouds or other amoeba–like structures to represent the Internet since the “cloud” seemed like a fitting metaphor to map the Internet’s diffuse nature (Scanlon and Wieners, 1999). In many ways then, cloud computing is a return to previous models of computing where “users accessed information on mainframe computers from terminals that had very little computing power” [3]. It seems new now only because the last three decades have relied on a model of personal computing where processing power and applications resided on the user’s desktop computer [4]. As Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, noted sarcastically: “The interesting thing about cloud computing is that we’ve redefined [it] to include everything that we already do” [5].

If there is something “new” about the current edition of cloud computing, it is the vigour and resources companies are devoting to building storage facilities, the technical aspects of cloud infrastructure, and the hardware/software platforms used to access the cloud. On the business–to–business side, companies like Google, Microsoft and Amazon are renting out storage space and/or computer processing power to other businesses with far less technology infrastructure (Horrigan, 2008; Mohamed, 2009). On the consumer side, cloud computing is more prevalent and interwoven into our everyday computing practices than it has ever been. A recent Pew Internet study suggests that over 69 percent of all Americans used some kind of cloud computing services, even though many of them were not aware of the term “cloud computing” or what it meant [6]. Popular cloud–based e–mail programs (like Yahoo or Gmail) and other online document and collaboration tools (like Google Docs and Zoho) have crept into our online activities so gradually and seamlessly that most users barely stop to think that much of their data are already in the cloud.

At the heart of the push towards cloud computing lies a powerful metaphor that expresses a particular vision of computing. Clouds, on bright summer days, are big white fluffy concoctions. They are ubiquitous and highly dispersed. It is no wonder the metaphor is popular. The cloud is an idealized portrait of what we expect from our information: it should be always there, wherever we are. For the most part, clouds conjure positive images. They reflect “a whiteboard vision of heaven on earth” so the Internet as cloud is a kind of “holy condensation of bits” (Scanlon and Wieners, 1999).

However, the cloud metaphor conceals as much as it reveals. Like actual clouds, we take the data cloud for granted and reflect very little on how it forms or what constitutes it. Since the cloud “can be anywhere and everywhere one has access to a computer”, it is easy to overlook the server farms, energy warehouses or the geographical, economic, and political conditions that shape the cloud’s very existence (Jaeger, et al., 2009). There are, for example, over 7,000 data centers in the U.S. alone, forming what Jaeger describes as “the largest concentration of information and computing resources that the world has ever seen” (Jaeger, et al., 2008; Jaeger, et al., 2009). Yet, as one journalist reporting on data centers notes, “We have an almost inimical incuriosity when it comes to [the cloud’s] infrastructure. It tends to feature in our thoughts only when it’s not working” (Vanderbilt, 2009). Underneath the idea of an ethereal and distributed network of connections and traffic lies the cold hard physicality of warehouses, servers, generators and climate control devices: “In reality, the cloud is giant buildings full of computers and diesel generators. There’s not really anything white or fluffy about it” [7].

Some critics look beyond the metaphor and raise concerns about the push towards cloud computing. Richard Stallman, open source software guru, notes the trend smacks of marketing: “Somebody is saying this is inevitable — and whenever you hear somebody saying that, it’s very likely to be a set of businesses campaigning to make it true” [8]. Google’s cloud services are a prime example. As users send e–mail through Gmail, Google serves up advertising that matches the content of the correspondence. Similarly, the use of Google’s document hosting service, their chat feature and other services gives Google the potential to track users’ habits and practices and to coordinate this information for advertising purposes. The data Google gleans from the cloud is enough to fund the production of more cloud–based services. As Google Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt readily admits:

And so what’s interesting is that the two — cloud computing and advertising — go hand–in–hand. There is a new business model that’s funding all of the software innovation to allow people to have platform choice, client choice, data architectures that are interesting, solutions that are new — and that’s being driven by advertising. (Schmidt and Sullivan, 2006)

Cloud computing is a new business model for the computing industries, then, one that relies on renting storage and processing power as well as on utilizing the data the cloud’s activity generates.

Historically, the major record labels have been leery of cloud–based digital delivery services. They never really warmed to early streaming/cloud pioneers like AudioNet and RealAudio (Alderman, 2001; Rothenberg, 1999) and they are currently pursuing legal action against newer initiatives, as in the case of EMI’s lawsuit against MP3Tunes and its music “locker” feature (Stone, 2010). The current crop of cloud–based music services are popular, though not pervasive, and the business models behind most of them are still in question [9].

There are Internet–based streaming services like Pandora or GrooveShark that build on radio’s broadcasting model by creating personalized music streams [10]. Some of these rely on advertising; others allow users to upgrade to a premium ad–free version [11]. Companies like Rhapsody, Rdio, Napster 2.0, MOG or eMusic provide a more formal subscription service where users rent access to a massive collection of music for a monthly price. Users “own” and manage their music, though that ownership ceases once their membership ends [12] Finally there are “locker” sites like Mp3Tunes, Amazon’s Cloud Drive or Google Music Beta that provide storage space and social network sites like MySpace, Last.Fm and Soundcloud — hybrids of commercial broadcasting, social networking, and music magazines — that aim to build a community around the discovery of music and access to discussions, information, and other metadata about music [13].

The cloud–based service that seems most poised for success (as I write) is a Swedish company called Spotify (Van Buskirk, 2009). It provides on–demand access to over six million songs free on the Internet (with brief audio ads) though if users want to move their music to a portable device, they pay a monthly fee (Van Buskirk, 2009). The company has become the number one digital music provider in several European markets (Van Buskirk, 2009; IFPI, 2011). Spotify hopes to roll out its service in the United States shortly, though the company has had difficulty negotiating with the North American branches of the major labels (Van Buskirk, 2009).

Although these services differ in terms of what they provide users, they share a common desire to make music available everywhere users are. This has implications for how we listen. Anahid Kassabian, for example, suggests we are witnessing the emergence of a new mode of listening called “ubiquitous listening” [14]. Music is omnipresent in our lives, both in terms of how much is available for listening and in terms of the number of devices, places and contexts in which we encounter music. But even though music seems everywhere and all around us, it also has a certain “sourcelessness” to it:

Whereas we are accustomed to thinking of most musics (and most cultural products) in terms of authorship and location, this music comes from the plants and the walls and, potentially, our clothes. It comes from everywhere and nowhere. Its projection looks to erase its production as much as possible, posing instead as a quality of the environment. [15]

Music is so thoroughly interwoven into our everyday activities that it is possible to lose track of the specificity of musical experiences. The idea of ubiquitous listening acknowledges that most of our listening happens “alongside or simultaneous with other activities” [16].

Cloud–based music services intensify the development of ubiquitous listening. The cloud makes music accessible everywhere via the Internet yet it is nowhere on a user’s hard drive. The exact details of where cloud–based music services store users’ music and its associated metadata are secondary to the context of the overall service. For Kassabian, ubiquitous listening is evidence of the “non–linearity of contemporary life”; our lives increasingly involve taking in multiple media simultaneously instead of in sequence [17]. With sound as the background to so many of our activities, the act of listening melts into other practices (Adorno, 2002; DeNora, 2000; Kassabian, 2001). Users may very well use their music players to listen to music, but they also use them to make phone calls, to write essays, to take pictures, and to e–mail, network and connect. Music becomes merely one of many multimedia options.



Music in the cloud

One of the most critical distinctions of cloud computing is that software programs and data no longer necessarily reside on our personal machines. They exist out there, in the cloud. For the case of music, this raises obvious comparisons to radio, cable television, movie rentals, or other commodity arrangements that rely on broadcasting, subscription, or rental rather than outright ownership. After all, at first glance, streaming services like Pandora, Spotify or GrooveShark seem to offer more interactive versions of radio via the Internet. However, while cloud services allow for some legitimately novel and improved musical experiences, the cloud metaphor obscures many drawbacks.

Streaming, subscription, and other cloud services enter their users into service agreements that rent music out for a certain fee or under certain conditions. Compared to previous modes of accessing music, cloud–based services make different requirements of their users and they impose different conditions on the music itself. Music in the cloud allows other entities remote control over a user’s library and makes music contingent on the service in question. While music has always relied on the technologies of its production, distribution and consumption, music in the cloud is a highly technologized vision of music that requires numerous pre–conditions for the playback of music. It is a specific snapshot of music as a cultural commodity, one that sees music as indelibly networked to certain providers and technologies. Cloud–based services may feel familiar to radio, movie rentals and the like, but they nevertheless represent a significant shift away from the dominant mode of music consumption for the better part of the last century.

Tom McCourt and Patrick Burkart argue the shift towards music in the cloud is part of a concerted effort towards organized technocratic control over digital music (Burkart and McCourt, 2006). Through technologies like digital rights management and sophisticated behaviour/preference tracking software, McCourt and Burkart worry major record labels and technology companies are creating a “celestial jukebox” that will ultimately put “new and enduring constraints on music’s viability as a cultural practice protected from pure market functionality” [18]. Music in the cloud is a threat to music’s very status as a socio–cultural good:

In the audio–visual enclosures created by intellectual property law, contract law, and computer software, music collectors face a loss of property, control and usability, legal rights of first sale, consumer product protections, and other customary rights and privileges. It remains largely unclear who and what are in charge of the manner in which music reaches the music fan who has signed up for cultural services. [19]

Chief among Burkart’s oppositions is that music in the cloud is entirely dependent on the unregulated whims of record labels and technology companies. These music service providers are seeking to maximize value for the digital music commodity and, in the process, they ignore how users want to receive and use music in their lives.

Music via the cloud becomes what Jonathan Zittrain (2008) calls “contingent”. Contingency arises from devices, programs and goods that are “rented rather than owned […] they are subject to instantaneous revisions” [20]. Zittrain argues that tethered appliances lock consumers into certain services and patterns of consumption and, in doing so, exert an effect on the goods that pass through those devices [21]. He uses the example of a toaster that has two slots, or a record with a set amount of songs on it. If the company that manufactures the toaster wants to add a third slot or the artist behind the record wants to include a revised version of a particular song, users have to return the goods in question for service/updating or they have to purchase the new version outright. Instead, contingency creates a “continuing connection to a producer [and] paves the way for easier postacquisition improvements […] more features, instantly distributed” [22]. While this sounds like progress — and with certain products, it may be cheaper and more convenient — contingency pushes control over devices and their capabilities even further away from the consumer. The result is that services or products we use can be reprogrammed or defined without our knowledge or consent [23].

The cases of the MSN and Yahoo music stores are clear examples of the negative consequences of contingency. Both stores employed technologies that required the authentication of music files as legitimate purchases before they could be played. After a few years of limited success in the market, both stores closed shop. In doing so, they left their customers with music files that soon became obsolete because they were contingent on the authentication process [24].

Amazon’s recent “recall” of George Orwell’s novels on its Kindle e–book readers is an even more extreme case. After discovering that it had sold e–book versions of 1984 and Animal Farm without first obtaining the proper rights, Amazon decided to remotely erase copies that users had already purchased from their devices (Stone, 2009). Consumers were understandably annoyed: “I never imagined that Amazon actually had the right, the authority or even the ability to delete something that I had already purchased” [25]. One student who had been using his Kindle to make notes on his digital copy of 1984 lost not only the product but all the accompanying notes (Stone, 2009). Although Amazon admitted the move was wrong, their behaviour underscores the transience and instability of digital products that are governed by remote connections to the cloud. When companies treat cultural commodities as software, they gain greater, more sustained control over those goods and their associated devices. Just as clouds are subject to the whims of the wind, data in the cloud are often out of the control of the users who have invested time, effort and money into creating and maintaining that information.

It is not just content that is contingent. The devices for music playback are contingent as well. Many companies that manufacture digital music devices deliver regular software and firmware updates in ways that can significantly hamper a user’s experience of the product. Apple’s iPod Touch and iPhone, for example, are updated every few months with revisions to the operating system. For users who have hacked the gadgets to extend their capabilities (i.e., jailbreaking), these software updates can damage their devices. Apple’s software updates not only provide bug fixes and regular maintenance, but they also serve to “brick” the altered devices: to return the phones and music players to an un–hacked state and, in some cases, render them completely inoperable (BBC, 2007). The device is contingent on remotely controlled software updates that allow Apple to prescribe specific uses and to restrict others. While CDs and tapes only required one other device for playback (i.e., a CD player or tape player), music in the cloud is contingent on a network of technologies, devices and connections.

The cloud service itself is also contingent. Spotify, for example, ran into some early troubles with its service when a large number of user accounts were hacked. The hackers gained access to personal details like passwords, e–mail addresses, birth dates, gender, postal codes and billing addresses (Johnson, 2009). Signing up for many cloud–based services requires users to provide this kind of personal data. As a result, music in the cloud exposes users to different kinds of risk than those associated with previous media. With CDs or tapes, users worried about lost, stolen or damaged commodities. With music in the cloud, users have to be concerned with the network of information they make available that might potentially be vulnerable to exploit.

Users cannot simply opt–out of providing this information though. Most cloud–based services require some personal data as a way to authenticate the use of the service. Personal information serves as the connection between the various interfaces, devices and songs. Users of these services are thus at the mercy of a whole series of technologies (hardware and software), that must all function properly in concert in order to make music playable [26]. Compared to previous formats of the music commodity, music as software complicates the act of playing music by incorporating more data and technology into the process.

In these respects, cloud–based services present a serious affront to user rights. In a recently released highly critical report on cloud computing, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (2010) notes that cloud services offer users a worrying lack of control over data and services, lack of meaningful consent to advertising, and often lock consumers in to specific services by centralizing user data and not making it exportable to other services. Data in the cloud also opens up user information to misuse, obsolescence, and invasion, often without the knowledge of the user (Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, 2010). Whereas the loss of CDs or tapes could be considered an invasion of privacy, the loss of personal information in these instances hardly compares to the data that is potentially vulnerable through many cloud music services. Furthermore, because of the cloud’s imprecise location, it remains unclear which states, governments, private actors or other political bodies have jurisdiction over the regulation of the cloud, the data streams it generates, and users’ rights [27].

Beyond the question of rights, the cloud raises aesthetic issues for the music experience. Collecting music within the confines of an online music service provider puts the status of the collection in question [28]. Keeping music collections in the cloud means never really knowing where those files reside, and never fully controlling their management and organization. With music stored locally on personal computers, music collectors have access to, and reasonable control over, the sound files. They can order and organize them how they wish, and choose the interfaces through which collecting and playback occurs. They can change the metadata to suit their needs and customize its appearance. The move to the cloud surrenders these capacities to music service providers.

This has curatorial implications. Whereas traditional music collections can be thought of as (carefully or sometimes lazily) curated exhibits of the self, cloud–based services perform many the tasks of gathering, sorting and presenting music for the user. Part of the appeal of a music collection, or any collection, are the traces the collector leaves behind as they make decisions about the nature of their library. Questions about what music to keep, what to get rid of, what to show off, what to hide, how much to keep, in what format, etc. all reveal something about the collector. Even in the case of digital files downloaded from file–sharing networks, this holds true. Users still need to invest time and effort into their collections, be it searching for files, downloading them, tagging them, organizing them within folders, etc. and this provides much of the source for the cultural ownership they feel over their libraries. In the cloud, many of these activities disappear, or the service provides them automatically for users. Instead, music collections are instant and pre–selected. They are not compiled and tended to over time. Users are either part of a service or not. Digital collections in the cloud are digital in the purest sense. They are a one or a zero, an on/off switch rather than an individually selected expression of one’s own personal relationship with music.

The leveling of the collection has its benefits. Cloud–based services promise all their users access to the same sizeable collection of music for a fraction of the price it would cost to acquire those commodities individually. This makes it increasingly easy for younger or newer users to familiarize themselves rapidly and comprehensively with a particular artist or genre. It is also likely that no two users will navigate the cloud in same way, since playlists and other customization features allow users to carve out their own “collection” in the cloud. But the added benefit of being able to access all the same songs suggests that context has usurped content. In the cloud, with everyone sharing access to the same music, how information gets presented and made available is more important than the character of the information itself [29]. Different cloud–based services compete based on the kind of information about the music commodity they enable, and the ways in which they integrate that information into the overall music experience. Questions about “how and where is this music used/needed” [30] become as central as questions about what music to listen to. The music collection itself dissolves into series of interfaces, and formats, each with its own terms and conditions for accessing music.

Ultimately, for Burkart [31], the trade–offs for the music collector are far too great. The conditions set out by cloud–based services and the celestial jukebox are “incommensurable” with previous ways of collecting, using, and experiencing music: “Given their obsession with control over making choices about playing music, why would music collectors choose to become subscribers to a music service that extinguishes so many aspects of users’ control over music collections?” [32]. Why would lovers of music put up with a completely contingent relationship with music? For Burkart, this is clearly rhetorical. But it is actually the crux of the current crisis with the place of music in social life. The more entrenched music as software becomes, the more natural it becomes to view music as a service. The more ubiquitous music appears, the more difficult it is to conceive of music as a separate and distinct experience from our everyday activities.



Conclusion — The promise of digital music

As much as Of Montreal’s blog post was a press release, it was also a manifesto:

We find ourselves in the middle of an exciting epoch: A time, when new technology has shattered the conventional business model and has set a paradigm shift in motion. For some people in the music biz, this is terrifying. For us, it is a fucking miracle! While the kings are in a stupor, we are going to take full advantage of the changing guard. (Barnes, 2008)

Underneath the rhetoric of kings and miracles, Of Montreal point to what is really exciting about the move to digital music on computers, the Internet and other devices: it is a moment of technological change that opens up possibilities for a wide range of experiments with the music commodity. It is a moment that puts on display the codes and conventions that govern the circulation of music and allows us to interrogate them.

The band’s optimism is mirrored in the many musicians, labels and producers, who hold out hope that digital music might reorganize the traditional balance of power in the music industries. They argue digital music will bring a disruption of the economics (i.e., cost savings) of the industry and a disintermediation of the process so that fewer institutions will stand in between artists and their consumers (Byrne, 2007; Future of Music Coalition [FMC], 2010; Bailey and Bakos, 1997). Unfortunately, these particular promises have yet to materialize. Digital models like iTunes or Rhapsody are strikingly similar to their analog precedents (Bailey and Bakos, 1997; Byrne, 2007). In fact, as I’ve suggested here, the move to the cloud may even further limit the rights of users and musicians compared to previous music formats. Although music as a digital file offers the potential to disrupt the traditional ways of doing business in music, it also offers new forms of control and power (e.g., surveillance, data mining, etc). Disruption is unlikely, or at least highly overrated.

This is not to suggest that the digital music commodity is without promise. The migration of music on CDs to music as a digital file has opened up a wealth of opportunities for artists looking to communicate their art. Skeletal Lamping is just one of a series of recent experiments with the form and circulation of the digital music commodity. Radiohead’s “pay–what–you–want” model for their album In Rainbows is another (Byrne and Yorke, 2007; Ryzic, 2007). Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails seeded one of his recent albums on file–sharing services and encouraged users to download it for free (Rose, 2007). He also developed a live action “video” game with album–related clues that drove users to his concerts, his Web site and his music (Rose, 2007). Ambient pop singer Imogen Heap made use of social media sites like Twitter and YouTube to involve users in the actual production of the music and packaging of her latest album, Ellipse (Fusilli, 2009).

While these are undeniably high–profile (and slightly superficial) examples, there are countless independent and emerging artists all trying different models of making and circulating the digital music on sites like BandCamp, AmieStreet and Kickstarter. Taken together, these initiatives demonstrate the flexibility and multiplicity digital music provides. Songs can come out in batches of twos or threes, they can be priced at 10 cents or 10 dollars. They can have a variable price, or no price at all. They can be a services or goods or gifts. They can be sold as CDs or as well–crafted paper lanterns. It is this flexibility that is tamed in the attempts to create a one–size–fits all cloud–based music service.

Skeletal Lamping and other such attempts to re–imagine the presentation and sale of the music commodity re–engage both artists and users with music’s commodity form and its meaning. They ask us to reconsider our relationship with music: How much is music worth? What do we use music for? Where do we want to access music and what should it look and sound and feel like when we do? This kind of critical engagement with music is the moment the digital music commodity affords us.

Digital music, like countless other technologies, may never live up to all its promises. It may never fully disrupt the structure of music industries or reduce the number of intermediaries between artists and their listeners. As much as digital music promises greater accessibility, mobility, interactivity and control over music selection, this review of cloud–based music services shows that it also lends itself to contingent technologies, data mining, the exposure of personal information and the abridging of personal rights. But digital music’s less grandiose promise — to turn our attention back to the meaning and form of the music commodity and to re–engage us with the role of music in our lives — is already being realized. Despite the potential limitations that music in the cloud poses, Skeletal Lamping and other such initiatives are a reminder that artists, hobbyists and listeners are using digital music as an opportunity to call into question the codes and conventions music’s commodity form. In doing so, they make visible the promise of digital music: to focus our attention on the commodification process and force a reconsideration of the role music plays in the contemporary moment. End of article


About the author

Jeremy Morris is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa working on a project entitled “You can patent that? Technology and the business of patents”. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from McGill University. His research interests include the current state of the popular music industry, new media, and the digitization of cultural goods and commodities. Jeremy’s dissertation, Understanding the digital music commodity, is available under a Creative Commons license at his Web site, Jeremy is also a regular contributor and podcaster at Midnight Poutine (, a local Web site devoted to music, arts, culture and food in Montréal.



The author would like to thank Jonathan Sterne for his unending advice and insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks also belong to Will Straw, Darin Barney, and audiences at IASPM–US, CCA, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison for their thoughtful input.



1. The music on CDs is, of course, digital. However, the CD commodity — the packaging, the disc and the jewel case — is not. The digital music commodity refers to a particular combination of data and sound that exists as an entity in and of itself for sale or acquisition in online outlets via computers or other digital devices.

2. Horrigan, 2008, p. 5.

3. Ibid.

4. Hayes, 2008; Horrigan, 2008, p. 5.

5. Quoted in Johnson, 2008.

6. Horrigan, 2008, pp. 7–8.

7. Data Center Manager quoted in Vanderbilt, 2009.

8. Quoted in Johnson, 2008.

9. Wilkström, 2009, p. 106.

10. This is not the case with GrooveShark, where users can choose the song or the album they wish to stream, though the site’s legal status is currently in question.

11. Wilkström, 2009, p. 106.

12. Wilkström, 2009, pp. 102–107.

13. Wilkström, 2009, p. 106.

14. Kassabian, 2001, p. 16.

15. Ibid.

16. Kassabian, 2001, p. 15.

17. Ibid.

18. Burkart and McCourt, 2006, p. 359.

19. Burkart, 2008, p. 250.

20. Zittrain, 2008, p. 107.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Zittrain, 2008, p. 176.

24. Burkart, 2008, p. 249; Sorrel, 2008; Van Buskirk, 2008.

25. Kindle user quoted in Stone, 2009.

26. Burkart, 2010, p. 129.

27. Jaeger, et al., 2008, p. 277; Jaeger, et al., 2009.

28. Burkart, 2010, p. 128.

29. Wilkström, 2009, p. 175.

30. Bødker, 2004, p. 18.

31. Burkart, 2010, p. 134.

32. Ibid.



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Editorial history

Received 4 February 2011; accepted 8 April 2011.

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Sounds in the cloud: Cloud computing and the digital music commodity
by Jeremy Morris.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 5 - 2 May 2011

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