Thursday, March 31, 2011

Music in the Cloud

music notes with violin keyphoto © 2010 photosteve101 | more info (via: Wylio)I've been looking for a feasible way to stream my music from the Internet since before the Internet was being called "the cloud."

My first stab at it was something like seven or eight years ago. I found a service that would let me upload some of my MP3s and play them back. It worked, but it was SUPER-clunky, and frankly it was unreliable as well. I used it a little bit, but eventually I just got tired of it and gave up. I don't even remember what the name of that company was; they've since been swallowed up by another company which is all about cloud-based storage and not particularly interested in music. Good thing I kept copies of my MP3s!

In the years since then, I've occasionally taken a look at music-locker services as they appeared, but nothing has really met the requirements of what I wanted. The last service I really remember looking at didn't actually allow you to upload music at all... it just scanned your local copies of your music library and then allowed you to play the (licensed) copies of those same MP3s from the cloud! Ingenious, but no good for some of my more obscure tracks... the ones I prize the most because I've had them a long time or because I worked hard to track them down in the first place. So I didn't waste my time with that service. Others felt so obscure and fly-by-night to me that I decided not to waste my time again until something came up that I felt I could trust to stay around for a while.

Meanwhile, I had discovered that for less than the price of a single CD per month, I could listen to almost any song I could think of by subscribing to Rhapsody. With the right subscription, I could even download the tracks to my portable music player and listen when I'm not at my computer! (Notice that this marginalizes the "scan your tracks and play back our copies" to complete irrelevance... with Rhapsody I can play any track, even if I don't have it in my library already.) Rhapsody doesn't take care of some of my most obscure tracks, but it adds a lot more tracks to the mix, some of which are more obscure than any in my collection. (Rhapsody isn't the only "subscription" music service by a long shot... the retooled Napster is another contender with a similar plan, and there are others if you look for them.) Color me VERY satisfied with Rhapsody, but it STILL doesn't let me play the rare songs from the dusty corners of my music collection from the cloud.

Earlier this year when I heard that Google was working on a new cloud-based music service I got really excited. I already use Google for my documents, my RSS feeds, my calendar, my telephone calls, and of course my email, so a streaming music service would fit in there nicely. (I don't use them for everything I keep in the cloud; I keep my bookmarks in Xmarks, my passwords in LastPass, my pictures in Flickr, etc., but I generally have good experiences with Google's services when I need them.)

After weeks of waiting impatiently for Google to release their service, suddenly this week there was a surprise: Amazon beat them to the punch! Amazon Cloud Drive was introduced a couple of days ago: 5GB of free space to store any files you like, but the part of that service that has garnered the most attention is that MP3 or AAC files stored on your Cloud Drive can be played back using Amazon Cloud Player. This was exactly what I had been looking for! 5GB is nowhere near enough space to store my whole music collection, but it's a start... and it's enough space to store the rare gems... anything I can play back through Rhapsody, I don't really have to store in a music locker, do I?

So I tried it out. It works as advertised: you upload your music, you see it, you play it back through your browser. You can also play it back using an Android phone if you have one, but I don't have one so no luck there, but I happily filled up most of my 5GB with songs that aren't on Rhapsody that I might want to listen to on the go. The player isn't particularly feature-laden, but it plays back the songs. It starts the playback quickly enough, and you can even "scrub" through to the part of the song you like, provided that part has streamed out to your browser. There's playlist support, play entire album, play all songs, that sort of thing. Not a bad start!

But what of Google? When I found out that Amazon had actually thumbed their nose at the music industry (who inexplicably believes that people who have purchased music should have to pay again to listen to that exact music online) and told them that they don't need any stinkin' license to do what they're doing... storing users' files and allowing the users access to those files. The music industry is seething, but they don't seem to have figured out a way to attack Amazon yet; I'm sure they will try to penalize Amazon somehow, because if they don't then other music locker services will also turn their noses up at licensing (it's pretty obvious that this is what's holding up Google, and probably Apple too; both of them have similar plans in the works). Kudos to Amazon for having the guts to push the issue. There is no technological reason why we don't have cloud-based music delivery of this kind; it's all music industry foot-dragging. This forces their hand; after the courts decide what's legal and what's not, I expect these other services to pop up almost immediately.

Will I continue to use Amazon's service after Google and Apple and whoever else get their services running? That remains to be seen. There is of course a lot of Google inertia in my case, and if their service is comparable to Amazon's and not inferior, I'll probably use Google's just because I'm using Google for so many other things. It's unlikely that I will use Apple unless they have a positively amazing service in store; iTunes is such awful software on Windows that it would take a totally mind-blowing service to get me to use that.

But let's look at another option. What if Rhapsody, or Napster or one of the other subscription music services, adds a music locker option to their offerings? Would I use that? Certainly I would! That would put all music that I had any interest in in the same place, behind the same login. I would likely even switch, for example, from Rhapsody to Napster if Napster offered a good music locker and Rhapsody did not.

The thing that makes me the happiest is that thanks to Amazon, the cat's out of the bag. They are too big to ignore, and the next move the music industry makes will determine how quickly or slowly more cloud music services appear, but they will definitely appear. People want them, and people will pay for them if they are good enough. People wanted to be able to obtain music online; the music industry didn't want it so people did it illegally anyway, and eventually, we got iTunes and Amazon MP3 and Rhapsody and hundreds of other legal outlets. If Amazon had to go a little bit rogue to get them to make this next advance, so be it. It will be fascinating to watch what happens in the coming weeks and months. It's going to be an exciting time for music lovers!