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Streaming Services and the End of Music Collection

Amazon, the company that has made billions selling you tons of stuff, would like you to stop hoarding … digital music, that is. The company made as much clear when it recently announced the phase-out of its cloud music locker, which had allowed consumers to upload their own MP3s and then stream them to phones, Echo speakers, and other connected devices.

Amazon previously allowed consumers to upload up to 250 MP3s for free, but announced this past week that it was ending this program effective immediately. Consumers who have paid the company to upload up to 250,000 songs will be able to keep using it until their subscription expires, with the last plans scheduled to be phased out in January of 2019.

The e-commerce retailer is thus far alone with this step, as both Google and Apple still offer similar music lockers. However, considering the bigger picture, it’s easy to see Amazon’s decision not as an outlier, but a sign of things to come. Music collections, long the cornerstone of a fan-based music business, are slowly being replaced by music consumption. And there’s simply no room for your 10,000 meticulously tagged MP3s in a world of an always-available 40 million songs.

The music business underwent multiple transitions over the last 20 years: From physical discs to digital downloads, from copy-protected singles to DRM-free MP3s, and ultimately from one-off sales to monthly recurring subscriptions. The latter has been happening at breakneck speed, with streaming now accounting for 62% of the music industry’s revenue, compared to just 19% generated by digital downloads and 16% by physical disc sales.

But the rise of streaming isn’t just a business story, or a story about price points. Sure, getting access to 40 million songs for $10 a month is a great deal, considering that the same amount once wasn’t enough to buy just one album. But that value proposition isn’t all that new; music streaming pioneer Rhapsody (now known as Napster) offered much of the same when it debuted its all-access model 16 years ago.

What has also changed is how we consume music, which devices we use to listen to it, how we find and rediscover songs, and how we share them with the world. Mobile phones, smart speakers, and shared playlists have contributed more to the rise of streaming than the mere price-point ever could have. And all of these factors are now contributing to a trend that will ultimately lead to the end of the music collection.

It’s no accident that digital music in earnest started with Napster, back when it was still a file-sharing rebel. Free music was a huge draw, but so was the prospect of sharing it with the world. Chatting with friends and being able to send them an MP3 right then and there. For a subset of music fans, Napster and its many short-lived successors were all about acquiring and growing a huge collection of digital music. For many more, music simply became disposable. You’d download a song from LimeWire, play it a few times, and then delete it.

Some of those early collectors would go on and become the biggest customers of Apple’s iTunes store. Many of the drive-by consumers instead went on to embrace streaming on YouTube, and ultimately Spotify.

But while Apple and other download stores successfully attracted the music hoarders, they could never quite make up for the loss of sharing. Adding social components to download stores simply didn’t work. Remember Ping?

Spotify, on the other hand, embraced social with shared playlists, which have since become one of its biggest success factors. RapCaviar alone reportedly has more that six million subscribers, and the ability to single-handedly make or break chart toppers.

Music lockers were always meant to ease collectors into streaming music subscriptions: Give them a way to still listen to those obscure mashups they downloaded 15 years ago from Audiogalaxy, but also get them to pay $10 a month and warm up to the idea that you don’t need to own music to enjoy it.

The problem is that music lockers are inherently anti-social. You can still listen to those obscure tracks from way back when, but you won’t be able to share them with anyone via a collaborative playlist.

What’s more, user-uploaded music muddies the treasure trove of data music services have been collecting to use for automated playlists, new release recommendations, and more. Those tracks ripped from CDs or downloaded from file-sharing networks are often mislabeled, insufficiently tagged, or miss album artwork.

That’s even more of a problem in a world where voice is quickly becoming the primary way to access music. Alexa knows a lot more about the tracks that Amazon Music has in its library than the ones you uploaded yourself, which is why it’s no surprise that Amazon would be the first company to discontinue its music locker.

That’s not to say that music collectors will give up easily. Expect many to find other means to access their large digital collections. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that digital media center app maker Plex would introduce a dedicated music playback app the same week that Amazon made its locker closure announcement.

But in the long run, the move to streaming will lead to a shift to access over ownership, turning collecting once again into a fringe phenomenon. Amazon’s decision to discontinue its music lockers is just the beginning of the end of the music collection.

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