In 1994, law professor Paul Goldstein popularized the term “celestial jukebox” to refer to his vision of a networked database of consumable on-demand media. In the face of copyright law that was ill-suited to the rapid rate of technological change, he described a system in which consumers would pay-per-play rather than purchasing and owning individual works. In his book Copyright’s Highway, he predicted that, “the pace of technological development is so fast and the forces of market demand so strong that the celestial jukebox, however configured, will be in place sometime early in the twenty-first century.”
The explosion of broadband and mobile internet access has made that viable, and countless startups have taken a stab at implementing the vision. One of the biggest challenges for these companies has been compiling a library of licensed works that is comprehensive enough to attract a critical mass of users. In the music market, the pay-per-play model has generally given way to monthly subscription or ad-based models. I’ve been a casual user of Last.fm and Pandora, but my listening habits haven’t been fundamentally altered. That changed last week when I finally decided to try Spotify. Spotify may be the first real contender for a mainstream “celestial jukebox” of music. But is that a good thing?
First, here’s what I think sets Spotify apart. (And by the way, I have no financial interest in Spotify.) Spotify allows you to choose to listen to a specific song or album at any time, unlike the awkward workarounds that Last.fm and Pandora rely on in order to fall into “webcaster” blanket licenses. It’s also easy to “star” favorite tracks in order to compile your music library, to build playlists, and to share your lists with friends. With the premier paid-tier subscription, you can listen to Spotify on your mobile device and to keep a local cache of your music that you can listen to when you’re not connected to a network. The most comparable service is Rhapsody, which has been offering a similar product since 2001. Rhapsody does not offer a free tier, which may explain its slower adoption rate than Spotify. It also supposedly has a somewhat smaller catalog. I never seriously considered Rhapsody because I wanted to own “my” music, but enough of my friends had raved about Spotify that I eventually compromised and decided to try the premium service. My listening habits in just the past week feel reinvigorated as I choose from the huge catalog and listen from my computer, phone, or in my car (bluetooth from my phone). The catalog includes a surprising amount of music within my somewhat obscure tastes, including many artists that are new to me.
I feel a little bit dirty. I want to own my music, and I don’t like the idea of losing my whole library if Spotify goes out of business or loses license deals or if I decide to stop paying $10/mo. But I also really like Spotify. Have I made a Faustian bargain? Later in his book, Goldstein notes that:
The capacity of the celestial jukebox to post a charge for access, and to shut off service if a subscriber does not pay his bills, should substantially reduce the specter of transaction costs. As these costs dissolve, so, too, should the perceived need for safety valves such as fair use.
Uh oh. Spotify has indeed been criticized by the Free Software Foundation as being “defective by design” because the files are subject to restrictive Digital Rights Management. DRM does not traditionally leave much room for fair use. Spotify stands in contrast to sites like Soundcloud in this regard. Soundcloud is a self-publishing site for music artists and DJs, which has grown rapidly in the past couple of years. I use Soundcloud extensively for listening to DJ sets, following up-and-coming artists, and listening to the many creative but often unauthorized remixes from new producers. Many artists make their tracks available for free download. Soundcloud is not for listening to the full catalog of established artists or for building an extensive music library, but it is an extremely vibrant hub of musical creativity. I can only imagine that Soundcloud has to rely heavily on the DMCA notice-and-takedown regime for legal protection. The social norms of the DJs on the site are certainly not to obtain authorization for every single track included in their mixes, nor would that be practical in such a highly dynamic environment.
When I signed up for Spotify, the first thing I did was step through the tracklist of one of my favorite DJ sets on Soundcloud and search for each track on Spotify. I found about one in four tracks on Spotify, which I added to my library and used for recommendations to find other tracks that I might like. I found plenty of good stuff, and at the moment I am really enjoying my listening. Something is very good about all of this, but at the same time it seems like a tenuous balance. It’s not clear that the Spotify business model is viable in the long term, and it’s not clear that the artists are yet making their fair share.
At the moment I’m singing along, but I’m not sure that the celestial jukebox will ultimately live up to its divine vision.