TMV’s Laura G Thorne has been checking out the Catch Media’s “My Music Anywhere” app while considering the larger issues of data usage and metadata tracking.
As listener habits evolve – led by new platforms and formats, most notably smartphones and other mobile devices – consumers can now take their music collections with them wherever they go. That’s been true for a while – the iPod is now ten years old – but as WiFi and 3G (soon to be 4G) technology advances people are now expecting to access the internet virtually anywhere, relinquishing their dependency upon local devices to store and transport files. Individuals as well as business users are all jumping on the cloud concept express.
Catch Media neatly beat the mighty Apple to launch its cloud-based service (or as they call it, a “licensed digital rights locker platform”) in the UK in 2010, with a beta version made available in the US earlier this year. Branded as “My Music Anywhere,” the service is sold for £3.99 per month (£29.99 per annum) through US/UK Best Buy stores and Carphone Warehouse shops in the UK, with a 30-day free trial. One of its unique selling points is its cross-platform versatility, running on any Android, Blackberry or iPhone device (as well as desk or laptop computer).
Customers log in to the CatchMedia site to set up their account, which then reads the metadata associated with the user’s digital music collection and stores it on the CatchMedia server. The principle therefore is that no actual files are transferred (perhaps not that significant to the user, but important from an industry perspective as no files are copied). What the customer is hearing via the My Music Anywhere player then is not their “original” music file, but rather My Music Anywhere’s version as identified by the data match. Over eight million tracks have been licensed to Catch Media thus far, and the app syncs automatically with the user’s music library and uploads any new tracks to the cloud.
There are limitations to this approach however. Obscure and/or older music may get lost in the shuffle as it were – of the 648 tracks in my collection, 66 were skipped and therefore could not be accessed via the service. Admittedly, these tracks were either indie-label or self-released, but given that they are some of my favourites I felt the loss.
In addition there were also data matching errors: some versions of the songs I ended up with were not the same as the original versions. For example, I had the studio version of “Tell Me Something Good” by Chaka Khan, but what I got was the live version. (This cut both ways – I ended up with the studio track of Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded”- which I prefer – rather than the live version in my collection.)
Of course the flaw that causes this result is within the metadata itself, which industry insiders recognise is often chock-full of mistakes (poor spellers or lousy typists, take your pick). As the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. However, record labels rely upon the correctness of this data in order for payments to be attributed to the proper source (and for marketing purposes as well). It is quite certain that the existing process is compromised to some extent; the question is by how much. Companies such as Decibel now exist to tackle the metadata issue head on and at some point the situation is likely to improve, but in the meantime some data is just plain unreliable.
Decibel CEO Gregory Kris confirms this: “Metadata and live music are the two fastest growing sectors in the music industry. It’s an open secret that the data in the music industry is not fit for purpose, but positive steps are being taken by the most innovative companies in the sector to rectify this. Figures now show that better quality, accurate, normalised, rich data can increase sales revenues by up to 28%, can increase internal efficiencies, and reduce internal costs significantly. This is reflected in an industry-wide increase in metadata spend by over 150% year on year.”
As with all cloud-based systems, My Music Anywhere operates on the principle that the user’s documents and other digital assets such as music, movies and photos live on a remote server. However, the MMA app in fact does fastcache 500 of the user’s most popular songs onto their phone, where they can be played when on or off line. While this might be seen as a plus – and of course in that sense it’s like an iPod or other storage device – the potential issue is one of data usage. If the average song’s file size is two-to-three MB, downloading 500 songs when one’s data plan provides just 500MB or 1 GB per month could easily result in overage charges (not to mention the storage space required for the files themselves on your local device). There are few unrestricted data plans available (only 3 and T-Mobile offer them in the UK) and US service providers are phasing out unlimited usage plans as well.
Apple’s iCloud offers 5GB of free storage, but again the fine print is about what your phone service provider is going to charge you for downloads. Given that the world is moving toward the smartphone as the funnel through which all media and communications will pass, this isn’t just an abstract concern. As with any commodity that becomes indispensible (as mobile phones most certainly have done), customers are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the marketplace. Talk to almost anybody these days, and they will have a story where they themselves or someone they know had cardiac arrest upon receiving their phone bill, having unexpectedly been charged hundreds or thousands of dollars/pounds/euros for going over limit on their data plan (and if you want to check email or the internet in a foreign country, forget it – that may cost you your entire monthly paycheck).
One could avoid all this messy hoo-ha by using the My Music Anywhere app exclusively via Wifi, but our user experience was inconsistent on that front. The free Wifi service available at coffeeshops and other public spaces was often inadequate and error messages (“cannot connect to server” or “your network is too slow for playback”) were frequent. When connected to fast broadband however it’s smooth sailing and the app works very nicely.
Such is the nature of new technology and the perils of the early adopter however, much of which has nothing to do with the My Music Anywhere app specifically. All of these services will no doubt evolve in response to customer feedback and may shapeshift into something quite different than they are now. It’s whether a service offers something of value to you at a price point that makes sense given the potential drawbacks. Given the current options for cloud-based music services – and particularly if you don’t have an iPhone – My Music Anywhere could be just the solution you are looking for.