Music pirates are, like their seagoing namesakes, approaching obsolescence. Back in February, Ars Technica reported that music files account for a marginal 2.9 percent of files managed by common torrent sites. Mojo might linger on college campuses, but we’re just an isolated, compact local network, and requiring users to browse without a global search function — going through peer by peer — works with 1,800, not 18 million. Amazon, iTunes and other good, legal music services have spelled the downfall of illegal music file sharing, not gibbeting some teenager through the imposition of a $100,000 fine.
But it’s very old-fashioned to purchase a track and keep it in one place, even if it was a digital download that cost a buck. Cloud computing means liberation from one specific box of hardware, the freedom to pay for your files once and then access them from anywhere you choose. That’s the next phase of digital music distribution, and it’s a tripartite battle being waged right now between some of the strongest firms in the business. Apple and Google have each put forth rather straightforward solutions, but it’s a little Swedish service that deserves the most attention.
1. iTunes Match
Apple is the clear frontrunner here, and starts off with an outstanding lead over the competition: the iTunes Store has sold 16 billion songs as of Oct. 4, 2011. In 2008, Apple reported that its little online marketplace was now the top music retailer in the United States.
And that’s where Apple’s advantage ends. iTunes is, to be frank, the worst piece of popular software that Cupertino still releases. A decade has passed since its release, and the program still lacks a built-in timer or alarm clock or a method of cleaning duplicate songs that doesn’t require hours of manual labor. People use iTunes because their iPhones and iPods need it and because it’s familiar, not because it’s good.
iTunes Match doesn’t add much to the equation except a price tag, a limited locker and some restrictions. For the annual price of $24.99, a user can match tracks on their computer with tracks in the store, allowing them to download those songs in a higher quality format to any other supported device. You cannot, however, download more than 25,000 songs. You cannot download those files without installing iTunes and logging in on your own account, and you cannot stream them over the web. The fee isn’t large, but it’s an excessive price for what amounts to a program-specific, size-limited music locker.
2. Google Music
Google Music also provides a music locker and, while you sacrifice a bit of size, it’s easier to stomach the cost and access options.
Google allows you to upload a maximum of 20,000 tracks to the web for free: zero dollars and zero cents, zilch, nada, nothing. Just make a Google account (if you don’t already have one), download the Music Manager program and tell it which tracks to upload. Once uploaded, those tracks are accessible from any computer with a web connection. The site sorts them, retains your playlists and even offers an “Instant Mix” feature that resembles iTunes Genius. You can still, if you wish, download them using Music Manager, although not through the web interface.
Free is a nice price for a music locker accessible via web interface with such large storage space. That said, 20,000 songs is still a limit, and you’ll still have to pay if you want any actual new tracks. It’s a feature-rich, free locker, but it’s an empty one.
This Swedish service offers 15 million songs, iTunes integration, a radio function based on user preference — all for free. Well, you do have to listen to a few advertisements, some of which sound as if the robot apocalypse is upon us (here’s looking at you, John Wall and Reebok), but that’s not intolerable. You can log in anywhere, fire up a song stored on one of your lists or something you just heard, and not pay a dime.
There are, however, some downsides. If you want to get rid of the ads, you’ll have to get an unlimited account for $5 a month. If you want to listen on an iPhone or Android or to your tracks without an internet connection, you’ll need a premium account, which costs $10 a month. Free accounts might see time limits imposed in the future, as was the case in Europe, and indie artists make next to nothing from their streamed tracks. There’s also no web interface, so you’ll have to install the app anywhere you want to listen.
You don’t own any of the songs and you can’t sync them to your iPod, but it’s quite nice to be able to listen to almost any song for the staggering low price of zero dollars.
All in all, we yearn for a hybrid of these three services. iTunes ties into a well-established music store, Google offers a portable music locker and Spotify gives you a wealth of free music. It’d be nice to combine them all somehow, but I suspect that’s the exact sort of idea that scares the RIAA, the trade organization that represents the recording industry distributors in the U.S. Until then, take each for a test drive and see which you prefer.