Head - and Music - In the Clouds
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.