It’s In the Cloud Whether We Like It There or Not

It’s been a curious week so far… I’ve been in some unusual places and reading some interesting things…

I spent most of the past two days in downtown Nashville at Billboard’s first annual (umm, how do they know it’s going to be annual if there’s only been one so far?) “Country Music Summit” – an incongruous place for me to be, considering my tolerance for country music these days runs about one-and-a-half songs on the radio, if that. But I got a deal on the registration through my premium membership in Digital Nashville so figured, what the heck, it was time to see how the other half lives.

As it happened, the conference started at noon on Monday – at precisely the same time that Steve Jobs took the stage on the west coast for his keynote at the World Wide Developers Conference. So while the panel on stage was discussing such exalted concepts as branding and sponsorship (you know, “we can’t actually sell records any more, so maybe country music can sell Fords and Doritos…), I was mostly fixated on my iPad and following a live-blog feed of the WWDC event via Ars Technica.

Everybody knew that Steve was going to introduce the new iPhone, but there had also been no shortage of speculation that Monday would be the day that Apple unveiled their plans for “iTunes in the Cloud,” i.e. whatever they’ve got up their sleeve since acquiring earlier this year – and shutting it down a week ago. Alas, the keynote was all iPhone. No CloudTunes (yet?).

Despite the Sorcerer from Cupertino’s silence on the topic, cloud-based streaming continues to gain momentum across the wider digital firmament. And – no surprise here – the subject was the widely ignored 800 pound gorilla in the room at the Country Music Summit.

On the streaming front, no sooner had closed its virtual doors than the guys who created Skype and Kazaa announced the opening of a new service called Rdio, which will offer streaming access to a similarly large library along with various social networking and playlist recommendation tools like Lala had (note to founders Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis: may I have an invite to the beta? Please?). And the topic has even been covered in The New Yorker, which this week offers a very favorable assessment of the advantages of a variety of streaming services, and does a good job of differentiating between the “push” services like Pandora and Slacker and the “on-demand” services like Spotify and the one that I am now experimenting with,

The broadcast and on-demand models are governed by different rules, but they share one important feature: neither depends on downloading files or finding storage space on a personal computer… An album “collection” is no longer relevant for many listeners. Limited only by the number of songs offered by any service—MOG offers nearly eight million—they can create as many playlists as they like, and access them from almost any device.

And there folks — whether it comes via Apple, Google, or some upstart that can’t spell the word “Radio” — is where it’s going. But you wouldn’t know that from listening to any of the panel discussions at the Country Music Summit.

It was totally revealing to witness the final panel discussion, the one titled “Not Your Granddaddy’s Record Label: Will The Last One to Abandon The Old Business Model Please Turn Out the Lights.” None of the panelists (save possibly one) was in any hurry to reach for the light switch.

Panelists included Scott Borchetta of Big Machine Records (basically the man who brought you Taylor Swift) and Charlie Anderson, a music merchandiser. Charlie cheer-leaded for the industry try to extend the life of the CD for another three-to-six years by coming up with low-priced alternatives; Scott insisted that his business cannot survive on “$6 dollar CDs…”

Would Somebody Please Listen to This Man?

On the same panel was CMT Music Strategy VP Jay Frank, who could barely get a word in edge-wise. While the label heads we rearranging the deck chairs, Jay kept trying to point out the iceberg looming in the waters ahead, which point had to be projected on a screen behind the panel via Twitter:

@repojay at #cms2010: We’re a cd biz transferring into the digital biz. But todays new fans are digital fans tranferring to cloud/streaming

So, you label heads keep arguing with each other over what’s the ideal number of tracks to put on a low-priced CD that nobody is going to buy, or how many to release each year to a public that is no longer buying them. I’m going to float around in the cloud and find out for myself what that crazy guy in the hat really sounds like, and if I can stand to listen to him for more than one-and-a-half songs.