It only makes sense, really, that a medium often referred to as the aether should now be associated with the cloud. For those who haven’t been paying attention to the interwebs for the last couple of years, the cloud refers to idea of data being available on nearly ubiquitous servers, anywhere on the internet. Gmail is email in the cloud, and in 2011 online music truly moved into the cloud, too.
Of course, easily accessible online music has been with us since the early 2000s. Apple’s iTunes Music Store first opened in 2008, and the Rhapsody subscription service has been with us since 2001. But it took until 2011 for the idea of an always available music service to hit critical mass.
The European service Spotify made its eagerly anticipated US debut in July of this year, providing access to an enormous catalog of music, featuring all the major labels, from a PC or mobile device. Spotify offers a free version of its app-based player for computers, while a paid subscription is required for mobile access. Then in October another European-based service, Rdio, answered Spotify’s challenge by offering its own limited free service that provides immediate access to specific songs, albums an artists in the browser.
While the likes of Spotfiy and Rdio attempt to offer the equivalent of a global jukebox, the major internet powerhouses Google, Amazon and Apple jumped in to offer their own cloud music services intended to let you access your own tunes anywhere there’s ‘net access. Amazon fired the first shot in March with the introduction of its Cloud Drive and Cloud Player platforms. When you subscribe to the service Amazon lets you upload an unlimited amount of music files that you can then play back on any computer or mobile device with an internet connection. Additionally, any music files you buy from Amazon can be automatically added to your Cloud Drive.
In May Google jumped into the fray with the public beta of its Google Music service. Like Amazon’s Cloud Player, Google lets you upload music files to its servers for playback anywhere. Google Music is free, but limits you uploading a mere 20,000 songs. The service went out of beta and became available to all in November. At the same time Google introduced its own music store, which also makes your purchased music available in the cloud.
Apple’s iCloud service opened for business when it released its newest iPhone in June. Like Google’s and Amazon’s services, iCloud lets you store the music you purchase in Apple’s iTunes music store. But Apple’s adds a unique twist to how it stores the music you already own. Instead of uploading your music files, iCloud scans your iTunes library and then provides you with a copy of any track that’s available in the iTunes music store. If you have an old, poorly encoded or low bitrate MP3 file you end up with a higher-quality iTunes music store version, which is a nice bonus. Then the only files you have to upload are ones that aren’t available in the iTunes store. Apple lets you store up to 25,000 of these songs, in addition to whatever new music you buy from their store.
Finally, I would be chastened if I did not mention Matthew’s favorite service, turntable.fm, which went public in May. As Matthew notes, turntable.fm is an interactive service built on a much more social experience than just listening to music by yourself. Instead of seeding a playlist or selecting tracks outright, turntable.fm lets you play DJ for virtual rooms full of listeners. Or you can be one of those listeners and let other online DJs take over. Either way, all of the music is delivered from the cloud.
What I find amazing is that, aside from Apple’s iCloud, a free version of all these services is available, provided you’re willing to put up with certain limitations on storage or mobile device access. I’ve been using all four of the free services this year, and find each of them useful for different reasons.
As I mentioned in my reviews of Spotify and Rdio, while each service’s catalog is impressively large, for my tastes there are a sufficient quantity of omissions to keep me from ponying up for their paid plans. I have uploaded some music to both Google and Amazon, though nothing close to my whole collection (which, admittedly, runs into hundreds of gigabytes). While both companies offer a desktop app that will upload your music in the background, it’s still a slow process. However, it is nice to make a portion of my collection available for anywhere listening, especially using a browser-based player that works on almost any computer.
Admittedly, in many ways I’m nitpicking with my criticisms of all these services. Ten years ago it was a pipe dream that we could access so much music, whether from our own collection or from an enormous online library, from just about anywhere in reach of a wi-fi or cell signal. Even if such a service existed, the cost would have been much greater, and certainly not free.
At the same time, these services face real limits not of their own making in the mobile space. The days of inexpensive unlimited mobile bandwidth are over, with the top three carriers all setting limits of about 2 GB per month for their basic data plans. At the common music data rate of 128 kbps, this works out to about 34 hours of listening in a month. The premium services and Apple’s iCloud offer higher quality files that use more bandwidth, reducing the listening time to more like 17 hours a month.
If you do most of your listening on a wi-fi connection, like I do, then this limitation isn’t much of a concern. But for folks looking to listen while in their cars or otherwise on the go where there isn’t wi-fi, these limits have more impact. Someone with a hour of commuting a day will probably make it through a month of listening, but much more will require upping the data plan.
Nevertheless, when you add in the services that debuted in 2011 to those already available, like Pandora, Rhapsody and last.fm, there’s an amazing array of customizable music available to play over the internet. While we may not yet be at the point where there’s global jukebox containing every recorded song and album, there’s an awful lot to choose from. The question for 2012 is if mobile bandwidth can keep up with the demand to listen to all this music anytime, anywhere.