Spotify, AT&T & The Perils of Renting Our Music From The Cloud

This morning, for the first time ever, I jogged in silence. Other than my own rhythmic panting, my sneakers hitting the pavement and the urban soundtrack that my brain has long filtered out, I heard nothing as I ran across my neighborhood. For once, there wasn't music playing. 

Normally, I stream music from Spotify on my iPhone, but today the app -- or my data connection; I wasn't sure which -- was not cooperating. After waiting for "Connecting…" to disappear from the top of the application and for the track names to turn from grey to black, I force-quit Spotify. Then I fired it up again. And again. Same thing. I started my run without music, figuring I'd check back with Spotify in a minute or two to see if anything had changed. It hadn't. 

Running in silence was actually kind of nice, but it got me thinking. Do I really want to keep my music in the cloud? Suddenly, I was cut off from most of the music I listen to day to day. Sure, I could start searching for songs on SoundCloud or YouTube, but stringing together more than one track would be too tedious to do while trying to run. I do have several songs favorited on SoundCloud, but they're a random assortment of things and streaming them back to back probably wouldn't suit my situation or mood. On Spotify, I had entire albums starred and a playlist I made specifically for running. And now, if only for 45 minutes, I was locked out of it all. 

It was my own fault, mostly. For the past 15 months, Spotify's mobile app has been my chief source of music while I'm on the go. It's been a pretty good experience, on the whole. I actually let Spotify replace my iPod and haven't used iTunes to manage or sync my music since last summer. Other than predictable scenarios like flying in an airplane and riding the subway in New York, that experience had never been truly interrupted until today. Maybe I shouldn't be relying so heavily on the cloud for music. 

When I got back to my house, my phone connected to my home WiFi network and my music loaded instantly. The issue, it turned out, was with my phone's connection, not the Spotify app. In fact, my excessive music streaming is almost certainly leading AT&T to throttle my (grandfathered) unlimited data connection, which uses 33 GB per month. The biggest plan they offer new smartphone owners is 5GB. Yikes.

The Net Has Altered Music, But Let's Not Store It There

My phone wouldn't use so much data if I was storing all that music locally, which is actually something Spotify allows subscribers to do. Premium subscribers can sync tracks from its massive library to their devices (much like you can with Rdio), as well as transfer their own local audio files, iPod-style. The latter feature is one thing that sets Spotify apart from its competition. Unfortunately, every time I've tried to sync my playlists and transfer my own MP3s from the Spotify desktop client to its mobile app, I've run into problems. I'm not the only one. After I went back and forth with their support team, reinstalled the app and re-synced everything twice, the issue persisted and I gave up. 

Did AT&T throttle my connection? Did Spotify screw up its mobile app? Are my phone's OS and apps up to date? Did I try force-quitting the app and reconnecting? The mere fact that these variables exist suggests that the Internet isn't the best place to store our music. Not now. Probably not ever. 

The future of music is not, dare I say it, in the cloud. Instead, our music collections will be both Web-hosted and locally-stored and, like our books, both digital and analog. As long as a data connection can be interrupted -- by a subway tunnel, a natural disaster or a dictator -- keeping our most cherished things on some company's servers seems like a bad idea. 

We might, for example, stream from Rdio or Spotify to our phones, sync whatever will fit on those devices, keep a bigger-capacity iPod (or perhaps a Pono player) as a backup and hang onto some favorites in a physical, often analog format. Even if most of what we listen to is piped to our speakers over the Internet, we're still going to want to own some meaningful segment of our music collections. I don't care how fast and ubiquitous the networks get. They'll never be failproof. 

See Also: Screw The New iPods: We Need Better Music Players

If digital music's future indeed isn't primarily cloud-based, Apple doesn't appear to see it that way. The company that revolutionized music consumption with the iPod is in the process of phasing out its high-capacity classic iPods in favor of iOS-based devices that max out at 64 gigabytes of storage. When the new iPod Touch was announced last month, our own Jon Mitchell eloquently bemoaned this state of affairs, decrying these smaller and inherently cloud-dependent devices. 

By no means am I contemplating the end of my Spotify subscription. Aside from the annoying syncing issues, the service is excellent. Its third-party app platform offers some of the most promising glimpses at how we'll discover and interact with music in the future. But while I'll continue to stream music to several devices every day, I'm looking to the cloud as a supplement to -- not a repository for -- my music collection.   

Photo by Niki Odolphi