What 'Portable Music' Means in 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a half-hour presentation on the state of music apps at Berlin Music Week, before interviewing some prominent app developers on stage. You can view the slides below.

It wasn't too hard to think of a topic, because I've been a bit obsessed with how hard it is to collect music these days. It's easier than ever to find new music to like or love, but our mechanisms for collecting that music in a meaningful way haven't kept pace with all of those discovery methods.

I've been thinking about this a lot:

We have amazing music discovery tools these days -- the best, for sure, that humanity has ever had. Artist-based radio stations and the ability to "tag" songs playing around us, even on their own, would be amazing, but of course we have many, many more tools for finding music in the wide world of apps, and on the web. As of this morning, you can hear a crowdsourced playlist by tapping on a pretty picture, for crying out loud.

I spent many years reviewing the first "portable digital music players" for consumers -- everything from the first MP3 player to the iPod that eclipsed them all -- but now I'm thinking about a different definition of "portable music," now that music players have followed music from the physical into the purely digital domain (in that players are apps made out of ones and zeroes rather than actual hardware, the same way that songs are ones and zeroes now, rather than plastic discs or magnetic tape).

Here's a new definition of "portable" music that takes into account the world in which we now live:

  • When I buy a song, I get to have that song on any device, or service, for the rest of my life. I should be able to buy that song forever, regardless of future formats, devices, services, music lockers, and so on. This seems only fair, if I'm going to spend a dollar or more on a single track. Forcing people to re-buy music worked as physical formats replaced one another every decade or two, but now, the transience of digital music files and the pace of all these changes discourage people from buying in the first place. You don't buy something unless you're going to feel like you own it.
  • When I build an artist station or favorite an artist, anywhere, that needs to come with me too. It's astounding how many times we have to tell all of these different apps which artists we're into. Computers are supposed to be good at remembering stuff, so why do we have to remind them constantly?
  • If I pay for a music subscription, anything I "collect" (in the Spotify or Rdio sense of the word, meaning that I've grabbed that song out of all the millions in the world and selected it for inclusion in my cloud-based library), it comes with me if I, say, switch from Spotify to Rdio, Rdio to Rhapsody, Rhapsody to Google Play, MOG/Beats to Deezer, and so on.

With regards to this new definition of "portable" music, our music's actually less portable than it's ever been, even as we've gained the ability to stream just about anything from the cloud to our headphones.

"But," you say, "why would Pandora want people to bring their artist stations to iHeartRadio? Why would Rdio want people to be able to grab their collections and go to Rhapsody? And why would iTunes or Amazon want people to be able to grab all purchases in a flash and put them in whatever cloud locker they want?"

Yes, making music truly "portable" would require a level of cooperation never before seen between these competing services. However, it would make their digital music stores, streaming radio stations, and on-demand music services so much more valuable -- as in worth paying for. And that, as just about anyone can tell you, is sort of the core issue with music for the past 14 years.

Here's the slideshow I presented in Berlin, including a Steve Jobs-style "one more thing" at the end:

Follow on Twitter.