In recent weeks both Amazon and Google have launched cloud music services. Persistent rumors have it that Apple will follow suit sometime soon. Throw in a wide-range of independent streaming services and we may be on the verge of the next digital music revolution: the age of cloud storage, high speed broadband access, and the ability to stream our music wherever we want it.
I’ve been a loyal iTunes user for almost seven years. It made sense to me. I acquired music, placed it in a convenient storage location, and accessed it as needed. It was basically how I had been listening to music my entire life, just using hard drives and digital files instead of physical media and stereos.
I was suspicious of streaming services for a variety of reasons. I believed in the “I want to own my music” argument. When I buy or download something, I want to control my access to it. I don’t want to be dependent on an Internet connection to listen. And I didn’t want to invest in an industry that seemed to change every six months or so. If I selected a service and it went out of business, I would have to begin building my library from scratch again.
For the past couple months I’ve been using the <a href=”http://www.rdio.com/”>Rdio</a> service. I still download a ton of music each week and listen to it through iTunes, but I’ve been spending more and more time in Rdio. Why the change?
For starters, it feels like the streaming services are more mature than they were five years ago. There are fewer holes in their collections, new music generally pops up on Tuesdays when it should, and with media-friendly mobile devices I’m no longer tied to the desktop to access the service. Rdio, and most of the other streaming services, have put together user friendly interfaces, as well.
I see three big benefits in streaming services. First is the price. For $10 a month, I can access my Rdio account from a computer, my iPhone, our Roku box, or a number of other devices. I imagine I spend in the range of $50 each month on music as it is. Reduce that to $10 and access a lot more music is an easy win. When I need to own a file, I can still go through iTunes or Amazon and add those to my hard drive.
The second is the broadness of access these services provide. In the digital age, I’ve generally read reviews of new albums, noted the tracks that get the highest marks, then scoured the internet for sites that have those songs. Next I would go to iTunes and fill in the holes. It’s been rare that I purchase/listen to an entire album by an artist I wasn’t excited about. But with Rdio, each Tuesday I fill my queue with every new album that interests me and work through them over the following week. I weed out the songs I don’t like, keep the ones I enjoy, and by the weekend I have a nice new collection of brand new songs.
Finally, as we add more and more digital media to our collections, the space requirements increase. As Solid State Drives become more common, that extra space can be precious. And it opens up uses for older computers. As long as you can run a modern browser, you can be rocking a tiny hard drive and still listen to thousands of songs.
The service is not perfect, though. While I can sync music to my iPhone, that music stays on the iPhone. I can’t sync it across to my MacBook Air and then on to my iPod. I don’t run with my iPhone, so there is a disconnect between what I’m listening to on Rdio and the music on my iPod. That’s a minor quibble, but an issue nonetheless. I still download a lot of music I find on blogs and would love a way to keep that stuff in sync with my cloud library. Except for music I sync to my phone, I’m reliant on an internet connection to use Rdio. Outages are less common than they used to be but do still occur. And it’s annoying to have a song freeze for 10 seconds if you lose your wireless signal momentarily. There remains the uncertainty of Rdio’s future. Will I need to shift to another service in six months or a year?
For the most part, I enjoy using Rdio. It’s changing how I listen to music and what I listen to. But it definitely feels like a middle step on the way to something bigger and better.
Most reviewers say that Amazon’s service is a little clunky at this point, but has it’s useful points. Google’s is a mess, but is brand new and should, hopefully, improve. What Apple will do is the big mystery. Rather than just launch, as their two rivals have done, Apple is allegedly working with the record labels to make sure everything is licensed to their satisfaction. A solid integration between your hard drive’s iTunes library and the cloud iTunes library would put Apple ahead of everyone. The most recent rumors make it sound like anything you buy from iTunes, you’ll be able to access and play through the cloud as well. But Apple has traditionally had issues with online services, so I’m not getting too excited about it just yet.
These are the first moments in the next music technology revolution. Five years from now, we may look back on the iTunes decade and laugh, the way we look at 8-tracks, cassette singles, and other antiquated music delivery systems. Regardless of what happens, you know the music industry is praying someone finds a way to make us pay again for music we’ve already paid for many times.