Matchmaker Matchmaker

Submitted by Andy on Sun, 06/12/2011 - 17:20

Even the silly number of Mac pundits that I follow have had a difficult time comprehending the sheer breadth of information that was thrown at them during last Monday's WWDC keynote. Analysis has come out in drips and drabs, some about iOS 5, some about Lion, and terribly few about iCloud. All of this was accompanied by a lot of handwringing that everything was different now, as though Steve Jobs had singlehandedly ushered in the Singularity. Needless to say there will be more and better speculation by more informed minds than I, especially now that they are all getting their hungover shells back from San Francisco. What I am interested in, at least from this perspective, is how the new service iTunes Match is going to affect the starving, scrappy, and clever that make up the contemporary art music community.

Match in the whatnow?

(Point of order: I haven't seen any breakdowns of how iTunes Match works on the side of the artist/producer. This is total speculation/thought experiment.)

iTunes Match, in a nutshell, allows a user to stream their music to any iOS device or Mac as long that as that music is available on the iTunes Music Store, irregardless of how it got in your library in the first place. Once the service rolls out, I can stream Queen II to my iPhone no matter if I bought it from iTunes (or Amazon!), stole it off of Pirate Bay, or ripped it from a CD I bought in Norway. The immediate uptake on the artist's side is that there is now a tremendous incentive to have one's music available on iTunes, as it adds this sort of functionality to every copy sold. The downside is that, to my knowledge, you can't opt out of this streaming. Given Apple's predilection for simplicity and the standing agreement with the major labels, I would be shocked if these sort of exceptions were possible.

The first wave of commentary has revolved around this input agnosticism as legitimizing piracy.1 People tend to go to Pirate Bay or a variety of even less savory websites for two reasons: they don't want to pay for something, or it is not (or with great difficulty) available through legitimate channels. Thinking back to what music piracy meant when you were a kid/before you were born, the albums behind the record store counter were live bootlegs, short run B-sides, and studio outtakes. None of these appear on the iTMS without authorization. Now if you downloaded the new Battles album because you didn't want to pay for it? Something tells me that you also find the $25/year premium2 Apple wants for the service to be about $25 too much.

So What Does This Mean for the Oshkosh Contemporary Chamber Players?

Let's say you are the music director for a underfunded but plucky band of new music performers. Your debut CD is coming out on one of the various Naxos imprints featuring the Debussy sextet (you know what new music is, right?), an oboe quartet by some guy from Missouri, and a piece for a clarinetist in a leotard by a man who thought he was from Sirius. Now, with this iTunes Match business, were the rights for streaming including in the recording rights? Whose responsibility is it to fix this? You're a hip, young director who knows about the Mytweets and the Facetube so you're okay with it, and the Missouri guy is also hip and young but he wants a cut now. (He has a wedding to pay for after all.) Luckily, the Frenchman is racist and dead so no one cares what he thinks. Unluckily, the man from Sirius is freshly dead, and his estate is pretty skeptical about this whole Interwebs thing. In between all of these hammer blows in your head, the second violinist muses aloud whether the whole Naxos catalog will get yanked since iTunes Match might be competing with the Naxos Music Library. Uuuuuuggggghhhhhhhh.....

This scenario just points out what many of us already know, ever since the Sixties art music has been an edge case at best for how the music industry is set up. A more straightforward example of this is what a calamity the metadata for a classical CD is. The composer tag, when used, helps matter but beyond that consensus is rare. If I were to put a CD of the New York Phil playing Mahler 7 under Bernstein into my computer to rip it, I could see any of the following as the artist.

  • Leonard Bernstein
  • New York Philharmonic
  • Gustav Mahler
  • New York Philharmonic (Bernstein)

And all of those are right, sort of (except for the third.) I showed my preference for punctuating the last one, but there are millions of variations. This isn't including further flies in the ointment, like the addition of soloists or choirs. If iTunes Match is going to operate on metadata, then we are screwed.

As Patrick Rhone pointed out in a clairvoyant article published the week before WWDC, all the infrastructure was in place months ago. I presume there were three reasons for the wait. First, iTunes Match would have seemed like an outlier without the rest of the iCloud set up and perhaps tipped their hand.3 Second, Apple may have been playing a very untypical gambit by letting Google and Amazon take the early fire with their cloud music services. It is easier to say that your service is like a pre-existing complex service only better than it is to explain it in the first place. Most likely, as reported in this Ars Technica article, the secret sauce to the matching will not be metadata but instead the technology acquired in Apple's purchase of Lala some months back.

Will technology be able to tame art music where metadata fears to tread? That remains to be seen. To return to the Mahler example, I have six different recordings of his Seventh Symphony. If the analysis only examines the first twenty seconds or so of each file, ambiguity could certainly still be present. If the analysis goes long enough to tell that Bernstein is fifteen clicks slower and that the mandolin is both miked and dreadfully out of tune, how long will the analysis of an entire music library take?

So, despite my misgivings about how the backend will work with art music, should you, Young and Hip Music Director, do it? Of course you should do it. Cloud music services are clearly the direction of the tide, and you certainly don't want to be perceived as antiquated in a field that is already thought of as such. Recordings are rarely a substantial percentage of an ensemble's income, they exist primarily to travel where the ensemble and composer cannot. Jonathan Coulton did not become an Internet demigod by keeping "Skullcrusher Mountain" behind a paywall. Besides, unlike subscriptions services, iTunes Match actually increases the value of a purchased recording rather than devaluing it. Your job is to remember what the large labels have forgotten, that access is king.

  1. In more conservative outlets, anyway. More liberal media were rankling about the possible return of dread DRM to the mix. ↩︎

  2. Where is that $25 going, anyway? It certainly wouldn't cover the bandwidth for streaming 256 kbps music over the course of a year, and I imagine that the resulting gains in revenue from further ingraining the iTMS into one's lifestyle would offset that cost anyway. ↩︎

  3. Well, perhaps no more so than when they let everyone know they registered ↩︎