The paradise of infinite music

Make that "Ever-receding paradise. . . ."“The Paradise of Infinite Storage” was the title of a panel at the “Pop [Music] and Policy” conference at McGill University in Montreal.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

Make that "Ever-receding paradise. . . ." “The Paradise of Infinite Storage” was the title of a panel at the “Pop [Music] and Policy” conference at McGill University in Montreal. Great title, so I downloaded it. . . .

Princeton Professor Ed Felten was on the panel and wrote about it in his blog. The premise:

The panel’s title referred to an interesting fact: sometime in the next decade, we’ll see a $100 device that fits in your pocket and holds all of the music ever recorded by humanity.

Airy storage predictions make me reach for my calculator. And I'm calling it: baloney!

Infinity is bigger than you think, padawan How much music has been recorded by humanity? No one knows for sure, but here's an approximation: a lot!

The iTunes music store reports they have over 6,000,000 songs, not including the Beatles. But let's start there.

Coming in 2017 - the 24 terabyte iPod! The largest current iPod is 160 gigabytes. According to Apple's bonded and insured marketing it will hold "up to" 40,000 songs, presumably at Apple's anemic 128 KB AAC encoding, or 4 MB per song. That equals 24,000,000,000,000 - 24 TB - of storage, today.

Coincidentally, a couple of weeks ago I predicted a 10 TB 2.5" disk in 2017, based on technology currently in the lab. There's enough slop in the numbers that we *might* have a 25 TB notebook drive in 2017, but it won't be $100. Plus iPods use 1.8" drives. A 24 TB iPod for $100 in 2017? No way. 2020 at the soonest if the stars align.

But is 6,000,000 songs "all the music ever recorded"? Puh-leeze! Not even close. The Library of Congress reports on their website collection includes

2,834,692 audio materials, such as discs, tapes, talking books, and other recorded formats . . . .

Plus, according to their latest annual reports, they have another 800,000 audio items in "unprocessed arrearage".

Let's be conservative and say that half of those "materials" are music and average 5 tracks each. That is another 7 million tracks. Let's allow for some overlap - after all, iTunes does have 282 tracks of Gamelan music out of the tens of thousands recorded over the years - but if the LOC doesn't have another 5 million non-iTunes tracks I'd be shocked.

Don't forget Record-rama! The folks at Pittsburgh's Record-rama claim

The Largest Collection of Recorded Music Anywhere

with twice the popular music of the Library of Congress! If so, let's say that's 10 million tracks that aren't in iTunes. But it could be 20 million.

Oh, and nobody records anything for the next 10 years?

100 TB iPods? And what about the British Library's World and Traditional Music Section, described as

. . . one of the world's largest collections of recordings variously described as traditional, folk or 'world' music. It encompasses most musical traditions of the world with published and unpublished recorded performances dating from the infancy of sound recording to the present day.

A death wail recorded in 1898 underscores the point.

The Storage Bits take No way will you be carrying all the world's recorded music around in 10 years. But the point of the panel was the impact of cheap storage - and cheap piracy - on the economics of the music business and the beleaguered record companies.

There is nothing new in what is happening today. In the 1880s music publishing meant sheet music. Then the gramophone came along and sheet music publishing began a long decline, but audio started a very long upward growth curve through shellac cylinders, 78s, LPs, 45s and CDs.

Just as the Xerox copier did not kill sheet music or book publishing, piracy will not kill the music business. What the record companies need to understand is that

  • They are no longer exclusive gatekeepers to popular music
  • (Some) people are willing to pay for quality reproduction and added-value context
  • Stopping online music downloads won't stop piracy - or even make much of a dent - as the price of storage continues to fall

Audiophiles appreciate 192 KB - 4x CD quality - music. Why don't record companies? Great album art and music videos add another dimension as well. Piracy is here to stay. The key is to re-define your product so it is both harder to pirate and is perceived as more valuable.

And a note to you music pirates out there: chances are good that you are being tracked 100% of the time. A word to the wise.

Comments welcome, of course. Oh, and what about flash drives? Or nanowires? Anything is possible, but disk drive areal density is higher today than flash, and even with the promise of 4 or even 8 bit multi-level flash, patterned media and self-assembling polymers will win the density battle over flash. Nanowires are a long way from the market.

Editorial standards