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What Is All This “Cloud Music Service” Stuff, Anyway?

Posted by on June 16, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Earlier this month, I went over the merits of Apple’s new iTunes Match service and found it was a fine solution for backing up your non-iTunes purchases if you already had Apple products, but now that I’ve had a bit more time with the competition, I have to ask again: is all this hullabaloo about cloud services for music worth all the rabble? Let’s dive in…

At A Glance

iTunes, Amazon Cloud Storage and Google’s still-in-beta Music service are all touting to do the same thing: back up your music and make it available to any device that you can get an app for. To give you some context, let me explain my current musical sitch:

Right now, my music oracle is the Zune software on my PC: all of my sources pipe right into it. Zune arranges all the album art, makes everything orderly, and I maintain my playlists with it. When I want a new song or album, I use my subscription-based Zune Pass and download it straight to my computer. Music from the Pass only works with Zune, but for the most part that works out because the rest of the music I’ve acquired over the past twelve years has been in vanilla MP3 format. (Except for those hundreds of dollars I sank to buy DRM-protected music from iTunes that only works on that player.) When I can’t find a song on Zune Pass to immediately download, I purchase it on Amazon as an MP3 and Zune automatically detects it and adds it to the library. On the flipside, Zunes and Windows Phones are the only portable devices able to use my Pass content, which makes up about half of my total library and most of what I’m listening to. While the Pass gives me ten free MP3 downloads a month, it’s not enough to cover all the music I listen to. So by proxy, when trying out Amazon and Google’s services, I didn’t have all the music I really wanted on my player, a knock from the beginning.

The problem with my solution is that I have to back up all my music manually. Sure, Zune keeps a receipt as to what I’ve already purchased and downloaded, but anything else I’ve bought or acquired I’ll have to reload from elsewhere. I imagine one day Microsoft will have their own similar service to this that’ll keep me kosher, but until then I have to do all the safekeeping myself. As I mentioned, the point of all three services is that you spend some time uploading your music and then you can send it to another PC or a mobile device without having to physically transfer all your music from drive to drive. With an initial, lengthy upload, you can then stream that content elsewhere. Let’s take a look at the big three:

iTunes Music Match

While I won’t go into far too many details here that I’ve already covered elsewhere, the gist is simple: iTunes is a powerful library of music. Sure, you could upload all your music to their service, up to 25,000 songs, but they find that ridiculous. For $25 a year, iTunes will scan your music and probably find it in their library, negating the need to upload most of your music, which Apple says will take ‘weeks’. You can then take this music and then download it on your other iOS devices such as iPod Touches, iPhones, and iPads. If you’re invested in that ecosystem, it’s a decent option.

Google Music

I recently got an invitation to Google’s attempt and as of the time of this writing, I was still about 3/4 through downloading all my music after nearly two days. Hardly the ‘weeks’ that Apple describes, but still a lengthy period. Google’s Music service is probably the closest you’ll get to a straight up, no thrills warehouse. You download a program that lets you pick which folders your in and it begins the process. The player itself, like Amazon’s, is browser-based, ideal for OS-free OSes like Chrome. The mobile app works fine enough, with a few quirks:

– The program forgets simple settings, like when you want to shuffle (which for me is all the time)

– Its simple Android-esque interface isn’t terribly pretty, feeling like it was hobbled together in a week, but it works. The Twist-esque top-level category switching is kinda janky in motion. The murky backgrounds just pull from your album art, which is better than nothing, but a little depressing looking (the stock Android image gallery works the same way).

– Android’s built in fast scroll usually covers music options (see below), making it a pain to build playlists.

– No music store. On some tracks, you’re given an option to ‘buy more’ from an artist, but it just links you to a Google search page, usually littered with outlets selling the CDs. Supremely janky.

Google’s Music isn’t available to the public yet, but it’s understood that it’ll be free. There’s no thrills here, just a place to dump your music into and a serviceable mobile app.

Amazon’s Cloud Player

In many ways, Google and Amazon have almost identical services. Amazon gives you 5GB of storage for free, charging you for usage beyond that. Upload to the Cloud Server and playback on PCs happens entirely via browser. The mobile app, while functionally identical to Google’s, is a little prettier although there seems to be a little bit too much chrome. Amazon has a huge advantage in that they were the first major internet outlet to sell MP3 format music while their competitors (yes, even Zune) were still pushing DRM-protected music that only worked with their respective players. The built-in store works great and allows for easy access to tons of great music.

So Is It Worth While?

My answer before was ‘maybe’ and it still is. In the end, it depends on which service you’ve already invested in. Since I’m a Zune guy, only being able to send a significant portion of my music to my phone or elsewhere, rather than all of it, is only a half-blessing. It’s nice that the music is protected in the cloud in case of a failure locally, though. The price of free makes Google’s Music appropriate for my needs. As far as Amazon goes, the 25GB worth of songs I have on my computer makes their option financially unrealistic for my needs (when I already pay $14.99 a month for the Zune Pass). iTunes? As much as I’d like to have regular access to my ‘lost’ music I purchased from them bit by bit over a number of years, it’s not worth moving all my music back over to them. (Nevermind that I hate the monstrosity that iTunes has become.)

Now Microsoft, if you could just figure this out and make it cheap (or free), I’d be set.

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  • Brandon Kessler

      I miss my Zune, and I’m already invested too heavily into Android to jump to WP7.  Out of all of the desktop media players I’ve used, Zune was the best.
      I’ve been Using Google Music Beta for about a week now and I’m rather impressed.  All of my music is DRM-free, usually purchased from Amazon, so I don’t have any of the same limitations that you do.  It took about 4 days to do 5000 songs or so, so not terrible, and once uploaded, it streams wonderfully.  That being said, Google Music Beta is not so much a backup for your music, but a streaming location.  As far as I know, you can’t re-download music from Google Music.  Amazon, however does allow you to.