Head - and Music - In the Clouds

We're about to go through another paradigm shift in the way we listen to and control our music collections: cloud-based storage.

This has been tried before. In fact, the concept goes all the way back to the late 90s, and the ill-fated Mp3.com website. The site's "My.Mp3.com" service allowed subscribers to store music on the company's servers and stream it wherever they were. The downfall of Mp3.com was that it took a "digital fingerprint" of the music you owned, and then streamed you it's own copy. The site was sued by UMG Recordings (of course) and shut down the service.

Fast-forward to 2011, where there are several new cloud-based music sevices getting off the ground, using three very diverse business models. First off is Amazon, with their new Cloud Player. Amazon offers 5Gb of storage free, with the option to upgrade to 20Gb for $20/yr. Music purchased on Amazon does not count toward storage limits, and purchased music can be "deposited" directly into the music locker. Non-Amazon music has to be manually uploaded through a web interface, and music can be played back through any web browser and up to 8 (non-Apple) mobile devices.

Apple offers a completely different type of service with iCloud. iCloud syncs with iTunes, has no web-player available, and has no streaming; music must be downloaded to the iOS device you are using. On the other hand, iTunes will - like Mp3.com - figure out what music you have, and replace it with it's own high-quality AAC version, which means no time-consuming uploads. Like Amazon, 5Gb storage is included for free. Unlike Amazon, if you wish to sync music you didn't purchase through iTunes, you'll have to pony up $25/yr for the privilidge. That does boost you to unlimited storage, however.

The 800-lb gorillia in the room, of course, is Google. Music Beta gives you free storage of up to 20,000 songs. You can upload your own music for free, and you can stream it on any web browser or 8 (non-Apple) mobile devices.

The interesting thing about Google and Amazon's approach is that they are not licensing anything from any record labels, instead relying on two legal precedents: first, the "Safe Harbor" provision of the DCMA, which makes remote storage of this type fair use. Since they are creating unique copies of your uploaded music at your request, they feel fair use applies. The second is CNN vs. CVC, in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Cablevision's remote DVR technology does not violate copyright. OF course, this has the suits over at the RIAA in a snit, so expect a flurry of lawsuits. Apple, on the other hand, has worked out licensing agreements with several major labels, hence their "deduplication" strategy. It will be interesting to see if Amazon and Google have shot themselves in the foot, or if Apple has wasted millions of dollars on uneeded licenses.

In the end, the service you choose depends largely on your hardware. If you use an iOS device, you are limited to iCloud. If you use and Android, Blackberry, Windows Mobile or desktop, pick one of the others. I plan on checking them both out and reporting back in a future post. But I'm curious as to people's general opinion of cloud-based music, so if you have a thought, put it in the comments.


  1. I wonder if we're 'not getting it' with music, and these services are a way of monetising something that many have missed.

    Kids grew up listening to the radio. Music was always free - it was broadcast everywhere on the radio! All these streaming services are doing is offering the equivalent of 'radio on demand' without the annoying DJs, and playing the tunes people want. The old paradigm of owning a copy of the music hasn't disappeared, but instead people are treating music as they've been taught by several generations: that it should be everywhere freely available, and you only buy it if there's a reason.

  2. Toni, you're getting cynical in your old age! :)

    The difference in the two paradigms is that the paid cloud services become ad-free, which is more important to some than others. Personally, what I hate about terrestrial radio these days is the length and quantity of ads. I've actually made eight-to-ten-minute trips and no heard anything other than commercials and promos on some music stations. Ten bucks a month to not have to deal with that, or to be able to select my own playlist is sounding pretty attractive.

    It's a myth that radio is "free." Radio is paid for by ads that assault the listener. If "All these streaming services are doing" are getting rid of ads and insipid DJ's, that's worth quite a bit to many listeners, no?

    What will be interesting to see, I think, is how these cloud-based services square off with Spotify and Pandora.

  3. When I grew up commercial radio was generally cool, with ads that were often imaginative and neat, sometimes funny, occasionally straight and boring. And they weren't all-pervading. Some commercial stations here still manage this, although the ads are more intrusive than they used to be (I don't think this is memory/imagination) and definitely go on for longer - Jack FM in Oxford is a good example. Of course radio isn't free, but there's no direct monetary cost to the listener, and even with our nationally operated radio stations (the US doesn't have an equivalent of the BBC) although it's funded from taxes & license fees, the cost of this is invisible to the casual listener and particularly to those who grow up with it.

    I wasn't being cynical - quite the opposite, trying to find a sociological reason why recorded music is expected to be 'free' to the listener. Over here the music industry was up in arms about home taping from the radio, and some radio shows were well worth taping (I had a tape of a Fluff Brown show with Golden Earring, Steppenwolf and a bunch of other cool bands). I think this is a key part of societal development that has been overlooked.

  4. I kinda hate making my own playlists - but having songs "recomended" to me, based on what my friends like is even worse. Maybe I need friends with better taste.

    That's my jokey way of saying that I miss good radio, I miss DJs who were really passionate and informed about genres and sub-genres and discovering good new music, or great old stuff that I had never heard before.

    To make a potentially self-destructive analogy, I've never been "faithful" to my record collection. While, I've been married to the same woman for over 17 years, in the same time I've changed, over and over, the music I listen to. Is there such a thing as musical promiscuity?

    Nowadays every device seems to offer me the chance to plug in my iPod, from the rental car to the home theatre system. But, I find myself thinking, "why bother?" It's just the same music on another device.

  5. I actually hate making playlists as well. But... I love listening to entire albums. Spotify works well in this regard, as do these services. Click on an album and let 'er rip. I find Pandora's selections to, well, stink. And modern radio, both terrestrial and satellite, tend to be quite repetitive regarding their music selections.

    This morning, when I pulled into the parking lot at the dentist, there was a Journey song playing on the radio. (a local classic rock station.) When I left the dentist some time later and got in the car... a Journey song playing on the radio. QED


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