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Chris Palin uses a streaming-music application on his tablet computer. He lost the music he had saved on his hard drive after dropping it. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Chris Palin uses a streaming-music application on his tablet computer. He lost the music he had saved on his hard drive after dropping it. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Music

Will renting music make people listen and love again? Add to ...

For Chris Palin, the future began when he knocked his laptop off his bed last November and lost contact with the thousand hours of music it contained. All the copies of his many CDs and all the tracks he had downloaded from the Internet onto an extra-large hard drive were now "stuck inside this inert brick."

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So the 29-year-old Hamilton music lover signed up for Rdio, a U.S.-based subscription service that allows him to stream - rather than download - as much music as he likes for $9.99 a month.

"Within a couple of days, I had already re-established about 50 per cent of my music collection," Palin says, referring to the way the service allows him to compile playlists which he can access any time on any device, but are stored on Rdio's servers. "I am happy with paying to have access to all this music. It's more convenient than searching for a safe, grey-area download."

Palin's words should be music to the ears of those in the recording industry. As unpaid downloading of overcompressed MP3 files recorded at obnoxiously loud volume continues apace, CD sales keep falling: They were down another 16 per cent in Canada in 2010, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And now, the once-rapid rise of paid downloads is slowing, without ever having fully made up for those CD losses.

Can streaming save the music business?

As the North American music industry gathered at Canadian Music Week in Toronto last week and looked forward to the 40th-anniversary Juno Awards March 27, the talk was all about access replacing possession. "Streaming is the way it's going to go," says veteran Canadian artist manager Jake Gold. After all, he points out, "It's the way we consume movies and TV: We only rent them."

Ironic for a business so obsessed with unit sales that nominations for many Juno categories are largely based on those numbers. Nonetheless, for a battered recording industry, salvation may lie in subscription services like Rdio - known as "music in the cloud" - as well as both music-video streaming sites and Internet radio underwritten by ads.

And for fans, who are awash in uncurated free music and multiplying genres - but who have tuned out the prerecorded voice tracks and Top 40 playlists of terrestrial radio - those options might restore the sense of discrimination provided by the companionable DJs of old.

Whether they can actually restore music to the place of social veneration that rock 'n' roll enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century is another matter. Today's musical experience, offering an ever-expanding selection of genres that can be heard on an ever-expanding variety of devices, is an apparent necessity of daily life, and yet one for which many people seem unwilling to pay.

That paradox may prove hard to overcome.

"For 10 years, we gorged on music," says Alan Cross, radio host and senior program director of Corus Radio's online arm, describing the grab-and-hoard free-for-all that defined the Napster era. Hard drives were filling up - but was anyone really listening to the music? "There was no way we could keep up. We all spent too much time researching music … and not enough savouring it."

As a result, music recommendation will be key to the appeal of any new industry model: It will need to be more satisfying than the DJ-free, uncurated streams of Internet radio; and could become much more sophisticated than current engines, such as Amazon and iTunes, that offer suggestions largely determined by musical styles alone.

" 'You bought this, you might like this'; it's very, very primitive," says Don McLean, dean of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music. He thinks some combination of social media and computing algorithms could bring complex discussions of aesthetics and taste to the recommendation process.

McLean also wishes the product itself was of much higher quality. He and his colleagues have measured the physical reaction people experience when confronted with big musical moments - what musicologists call the "frisson" or shiver - and have found there is less of that response to digital signals than to analog ones.

"The lack of deeper emotional response means we are kind of dumbing down," says McLean: The compression of music to which younger fans are accustomed has actually reduced music's ability to move its listeners.

Kids listening to MP3 files on throwaway earbuds or through tinny laptop speakers might not agree: An eight-year-long study, completed at Stanford University in 2009, showed that each year's crop of students was more inclined to actually prefer the MP3 sound over CDs and vinyl.

Streaming is unlikely to resolve that debate - although some services do offer premium subscriptions that include larger files for higher-quality audio - but setting a real price and nurturing a critical environment might help restore some of music's cachet.

"The recommendations, social functions, and versatility of platforms are all huge pluses," says Rdio subscriber Quentin Burgess, of Toronto, who has stopped downloading, and compiled a 2,500-song playlist that he listens to on his phone. "I see streaming services like having a high-class gym membership with all the amenities," adds Burgess, 26. "I don't need to buy a Stairmaster for my apartment when I can access it anywhere."

Nothing, however, is going to restore music's long-lost scarcity value: Rdio currently offers eight million tracks. Meanwhile, music in the cloud faces two other significant challenges: the immediate logistics of licensing music for streaming, and the more remote spectre of piracy.

For streaming music to take hold, Internet music services and record companies will have to untangle the web of copyright issues raised by cloud computing (so-called because the data is stored up there on somebody else's server, rather than on the user's own computer). The rights to music are held both by record labels and their publishing arms, and by songwriters' and composers' collectives. Prices, meanwhile, are sometimes determined by deal-making between record labels and licensees and sometimes by national agencies like the Copyright Board.

What prices are fair, and how to speed up the multiple deals, were also hot topics at Canadian Music Week. There were the predictable complaints that Pandora, the leading American streaming service, is not available in Canada, because it won't pay the prices set by the Copyright Board. People also bemoaned the repeatedly delayed launch of Spotify, a service Europeans rave about. Some blame the record labels for making inflated demands of such services, setting high prices for every single stream.

Terry McBride, whose Nettwerk Music Group manages and records artists, accused the various players of engaging in a poker game while a "black cloud" gathers, saying "I just hope the legalized versions are allowed into the marketplace ... Politics have been keeping them out."

The big black cloud that everyone fears: an illegal version of a streaming service that might be created if users upload their collections to servers without paying the rights-holders. It hovers, raising the nasty possibility that streaming of digital files will do nothing to elevate music from its fallen state.

"I worry there is no concrete value assigned to music," says Corus's Cross. "I would guard my record collection with my life because so much of my disposable income went into assembling it. But if it's ones and zeros on a computer, how much do you value it?"

At least Palin can answer that: To him, his thousand-hour record collection is worth precisely $9.99 a month. The future of the music business may depend on whether the rest of us will join him in the cloud, but the music experience itself, expanded in scope yet compressed in quality, will never be restored to the privileged perch it once occupied.

(Editor's note: The original print version and an earlier online version of this article contained an inaccurate reference to the timing of the Juno Awards. This online version has been corrected.)

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