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
Jon Brodkin writes about Microsoft, Google, browsers, operating systems, PCs, mobile devices, cloud computing, virtualization, open source and a bunch of other tech stuff for Network World. He also cares just a little bit too much about Boston sports teams. Follow Jon on Twitter @jbrodkin.
Policy on comments: Respectful discussion is welcomed! However, comments that use inappropriate language, consist of name calling or personal attacks, or include accusations of wrongdoing are not appropriate. Those comments will be deleted or edited.