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Your Music in the Cloud

Music in the Cloud

The safety of my collection has been one of my largest concerns as music has made the digital transition.  With CDs and vinyl, you may damage or lose one or more albums and unless your entire collection is stolen, it's unlikely that you'll lose access to all of it at once.  Digital music is a different matter, however.  Unless you've backed up all of your songs to a secondary storage device, one bad electrical storm could separate you from your tunes forever (and remember, backing up means having two copies of each file, not just storing your music on a single portable hard drive by itself).  With the push toward cloud (or distributed) computing and storage, new services are cropping up to help us not only back up our music offsite, but which allow us to take our music with us wherever we go.  

One service that I've been using for years is mp3tunes.com, to which I pay a monthly subscription fee and in turn receive space online to backup all my music to and the ability to stream it to any computer.  New contenders include Google Music (currently in beta testing), iCloud from Apple (coming this fall with their iOS 5 update for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch), and Amazon Cloud Drive, which is available now.

As of right now, mp3tunes.com has multiple packages for varying amounts of storage offering 2GB for free, then going to 50GB, 100GB, or 200GB, each more expensive than the last.  Convenient though it is, users do have to spend a considerable amount of time uploading all their music to online storage.  Depending on the size of the collection and upload speed of the Internet connection, users could potentially spend weeks transmitting everything.  The online interface is a little clunky and the apps offered for mobile devices are difficult to use.

iCloud looks to be much more convenient.  Any music Apple customers have purchased from iTunes in the past, so long as they’re still using the same account, will be added automatically to their online storage.  Music can then be streamed or downloaded to any iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Mac or PC associated with the same Apple account.  There is no extra charge for storing music purchased from iTunes beyond what’s already been paid for the song of album.  In fact, this feature is already available to iDevices that have been upgraded to iOS 4.3 and computers running the latest version of iTunes. 

In the fall, a new feature of iCloud called iTunes Match will be launched to allow customers to remotely backup and stream music not purchased from iTunes.  An exciting feature of this is that users will not actually have to transmit most of this music to Apple; iTunes will simply scan its library against what has been purchased from Apple and automatically add the other music from its own servers, provided Apple sells the music in question.  The annual price for this service, as listed on the iCloud features page, looks to be very competitive. 

The only concern I really have is that the music provided to the online storage through the iTunes Match feature may be of a lesser quality than the music stored on a customer’s computer.  For instance, when I made the transition away from CDs to an entirely digital collection, I ripped my CDs at 320kbps, a higher bit rate than the 256kbps offered by Apple.  From the perspective of someone who would be using iTunes Match as a backup for music rather than a convenient streaming solution, this is a little like paying more for lesser-quality music that I already own.  Still I suppose that Apple can't store everyone's music collection, especially if they've been ripping CDs using the lossless quality option which does not compress music at all; streaming of lossless-quality music would also use up most people's cellular data plans very quickly.

Amazon Cloud Drive is, to my way of thinking, a little more confusing than iCloud and a lot more confusing than MP3tunes.com.  Amazon was the first major retailer to sell digital music without copy protection, meaning that it could be played on any device, burned to an infinite number of CDs, and backed-up without having to worry about remembering a username and password.  Kudos to them for that. 

The new Cloud Drive service, however, is a little quirky.  First of all, when purchasing digital music, customers must manually choose to retain the music in their Cloud Drive or to download it immediately.   If customers choose to store it in the Cloud Drive, they may download it to a device later as many times as they'd like and the music will not count against the storage limit set by the plan they purchase from Amazon.  However, if they choose to download their music immediately at the point of purchase, it will not be stored in the Cloud Drive and storing the music there later apparently does count against their plan's storage limit.  I don't like to play the part of Apple fanboy, but the ability to redownload any of my purchases any time for free without having to choose this option is a fantastic bit of added value. 

This lack of functionality may (or may not, who knows) have something to do with licensing agreements between the record labels and these different services.  As of writing this article, Apple is in negotiations with many record labels to ensure they are on litigation-free ground when it comes to what the recording industry sees as a broadcasting service for which they are owed royalties.  Neither Amazon nor Google, at this time, are making strides in that direction

Speaking of Google Music, it is a bit of an unknown quantity right now.  As I mentioned, it is still in beta testing by invitation only, so a limited number of users currently have access to it.  Testers are currently running the service for free and there is no documentation to indicate what the storage limit will be when it is unveiled to everyone or how much it will cost.  As Google is well known for starting pet projects and abandoning them in a relatively short amount of time (see Google Wave, Google Lively, or their newspaper scanning project, to list just a few), it's hard to trust them with something as precious as one's music. 

There is also the problem of platform compatibility.  Apple's iCloud will only work on their mobile devices, the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, as well as Macs and PCs with iTunes installed.  Google and Amazon will only work with Android devices, as well as PCs and Macs.  These three companies have managed to recreate the copy protection nightmares that existed in the early aughties. 

It's exciting to see this type of service being offered, but I might wait another year or two before committing to any one of them.  There are bound to be many changes along the way and probably not all of them will be for the better.  I hope that down the road we'll see the same kind of resolution to the multiplicity of these services that came about when music downloads were first being offered.