The cloud music age is upon us. After years of loading MP3s onto iPods and portable hard drives, there are now several options for streaming that same music to any device with an Internet connection, while gaining access to many more songs we don't already own.
Streaming services like Pandora, Rdio and GrooveShark already existed, of course, but now we have or soon will have Spotify, Google Music, Amazon's Cloud Drive and Apple's iCloud and iTunes Match.
As someone with a 60GB, 12,000-song collection, moving all my music to a cloud service would be difficult, and Internet access isn't widespread enough yet that I'd want to give up offline access. But a more portable music collection is appealing to me, and I therefore have been testing the Spotify, Google, Rdio and Amazon services to determine the best method of making my entire music collection available on any Internet-connected device while giving me access to new songs. iTunes Match isn't yet available, but we know enough about it to draw some conclusions.
In this blog post I will describe the process I used to upload my music collection to each of these services, and will conclude by spelling out the pros and cons of each one. I won't declare a single winner, because each accomplishes different tasks and I believe each one will satisfy different types of users. Your own listening and purchasing habits as well as the type of mobile device you own will help determine which music service is for you.
For those who prefer to skip the rest of the article, I'll say Google Music and Amazon Cloud Drive are the best services today for uploading all your music to the Web, with the caveat that Google's is available only in beta and Apple's iTunes Match could be better than both when it is released this fall. The Google and Amazon services are excellent for people who own Android devices, but users of iPhones and iPads will want to wait for iTunes Match. For purchasing new music that can be available online or offline, Amazon and iTunes will probably be the winners, but for access to large quantities of streaming music at a flat, monthly rate Spotify and its competitor Rdio get the nod.
In my mind, the ideal online music service will stream your entire collection to any Internet-connected device, provide access to new music and offer easy-to-use applications across PCs, smartphones and tablets. By that measure, the best service available today is Amazon Cloud Drive - but only for people who own Android phones, because Amazon doesn't have an iPhone app. Because no one service does everything perfectly, some users may want to use one to store all their existing music and another to access new songs.
The upload process
Google's Music service is still in beta, but as an attendee of the Google I/O conference in May I gained access. Users can hand out a few invitations, so if you know someone in the beta, be nice to them. Amazon Cloud Drive is available to all, and Amazon is, at least for now, offering unlimited music storage to anyone who purchases a subscription. Plans start at $20, but I was able to get a year's worth of unlimited storage by purchasing a Lady Gaga album for one dollar (no, I am not proud of that purchase).
Uploading to the Google Music beta and Amazon Cloud Drive is relatively easy, but incredibly time-consuming. Both Google and Amazon provide small applications that scan your iTunes library or local folders and let you choose which files to upload. Both were capable of uploading my entire music library, with the exception of a few dozen songs I purchased on iTunes before the iTunes store went DRM-free in 2009. The vast majority of my music collection is from CDs I either bought or borrowed, and songs that originated on CDs uploaded just fine.
The Google upload process stalled once or twice a day, and it always seemed to happen in the middle of the night, so I lost a lot of uploading time. It also stalled shortly after I left on a three-day trip, so a process that should have taken a few days ended up taking a week.
The Amazon tool was a lot more stable and had uploaded nearly 12,000 songs before it stalled even once, and the whole process took about three and a half days. I did the whole upload process on Amazon via Wi-Fi and the Google upload was split between Wi-Fi and a wired Ethernet connection.
With Spotify, there is no obvious way to import your music, but you can import iTunes playlists and Spotify will automatically compare the songs in that playlist to the songs on Spotify's servers and stream the ones that match. By creating an iTunes playlist of my entire 12,000-song collection, I was able to import everything into Spotify very quickly. Since you're not actually uploading any songs, the process takes just a few minutes. Unfortunately, you are limited by what music Spotify has in its own collection. Spotify claimed to match about 6,000 songs, but many are listed despite not actually being available for streaming, bringing the total number down to perhaps 5,000.
Spotify's rival, Rdio, has a much easier process for importing iTunes songs, and a better interface on mobile devices, but has a smaller catalog of music that matched only about 4,000 of my 12,000 songs. iTunes Match, when it becomes available, will be able to stream your whole collection by matching songs already on Apple's servers and letting you upload songs that Apple doesn't have. That's an option not offered by Spotify and Rdio.
Next: the pros and cons of each music service
Amazon Cloud Drive
Pros: As I said earlier, Cloud Drive comes the closest to offering an ideal music service, with the caveat that it's only ideal for someone with an Android phone. Amazon stores all your music for streaming and lets you buy new music for download, and offers an excellent app for Android, which lets you play music from the application or install a home screen widget to play and pause music, and skip to the next song.
Cons: DRM-protected songs I purchased from iTunes could not be be uploaded, and Amazon hasn't gotten any apps approved for the iOS App Store. Amazon did optimize its website for the iPad with great results, but it is basically unusable on the iPhone. Testing Cloud Drive on an Android tablet (a brand new Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1) I got some delays while searching my collection for specific songs.
Here's a shot of the Amazon uploader:
Pros: Allows upload of your entire collection (minus DRM-protected songs) and can stream to any device with a Web browser. Naturally, Google offers Music apps for Android devices, and the service is free while it's in beta.
Cons: The service is not available to everyone because it is still in beta, and buggy. Album cover art is often applied to the wrong album, and the upload tool stalled frequently in my usage. Google offers access to a small selection of free songs, but you can't purchase new music. There is no iPhone app, and while the website works on the iPad it's not optimized for the device the way Amazon's Cloud Player is. Just like with the Amazon service, I got the same delays while searching my music on an Android tablet.
Here's a shot of my Google Music collection:
Pros: With 15 million songs, Spotify is one of the best subscription services for discovering new music. If you purchase a lot of music from iTunes, paying a flat fee of $10 per month to gain unlimited access to music could be a good alternative, as long as you understand that once you stop paying, you lose access to the music. On mobile devices, Spotify gives you a shuffle option that works across your whole collection.
Cons: A funny thing happened while I was using Spotify: I discovered its competitor, Rdio, and ended up liking Rdio better. The problems with Spotify are that it requires a workaround to import your iTunes collection, and the app for the iPhone lacks any way to organize music by artist and album. Perhaps even worse, there is no iPad app so to use Spotify, so on the iPad you use a blown-up version of the iPhone app, which looks terrible. In my usage, the iPhone app stalled frequently on both devices.
Spotify's desktop interface:
Pros: Costs the same as Spotify and provides a much better mobile experience. The iPhone app sorts your music by album and artist, an obvious feature but one that Spotify doesn't offer. The app is also better than Spotify's for discovering new music from the artist you're listening to and artists similar to the one you're listening to. The ability to import your entire library from iTunes is easy to identify and use, and it has an app specifically designed for the larger screen of the iPad. The Rdio apps didn't stall on me like Spotify's does.
Cons: Rdio has a smaller music library than Spotify and the mobile apps, for all the good features they offer, lack the ability to shuffle through your entire collection. You could develop an amazing mobile experience by combining the best features of Rdio and Spotify into one. Unfortunately, the services each offer an incomplete app, but Rdio's is better.
The Rdio iPad app:
iTunes Match and iCloud
Pros: For $25 a year, you can store your entire music collection on Apple's servers. Apple has 18 million songs in the iTunes store, and will match any song in your collection without requiring you to upload them. Apple lets you upload songs iTunes doesn't have, so you should be able to store everything you own and stream it to any Apple device or PC. Like Amazon, iTunes Match and the iCloud storage service let you purchase new music that will remain in your collection permanently.
Cons: It's not available yet so we don't know how well it will work in everyday usage, and it's unlikely Apple will release apps for Android devices. Music purchased from iTunes before 2009 may be incompatible with other services because of DRM restrictions. As I mentioned earlier, I was unable to upload older songs I bought from iTunes to the Amazon and Google clouds. Upgrading older iTunes songs to the non-DRM format costs 30 cents per song.
Conclusion: If you want to store all your music online, have a great mobile experience and be able to access new music on a whim, one service may not be enough. Android owners will do well in storing their music with either Amazon Cloud Drive or Google Music, while iPhone owners will probably be better off with iTunes Match.
Amazon and iTunes let you buy new music, but you'll pay every time you buy a song or album. For infrequent buyers that's no problem. For people who want virtually unlimited access to new music, the Spotify or Rdio subscription services are probably a better deal. For myself, I will likely use iTunes Match to store my collection and am considering an Rdio subscription to access new music.