Digital Downloads are so 2010, Cloud-Based music streaming is the way to go

Record companies (and music artists) still mourning the death of physical media (Compact Discs and DVDs – which are fast going the way of the 45RPM vinyl single, the cassette tape, and the old 8-track tape format) are being hit with another whammy when along comes a new form of digital distribution in the form of audio streaming straight from the cloud. Who needs to download an mp3 when you can listen to music on the fly streamed directly from music servers in that big internet cloud in the sky?

In a one-two punch the past couple of weeks, both Apple and Google have opened up their own cloud music services. Apple has iTunes Match, a $24.99/year service, and Google has Google Music, a music store and free cloud storage solution (you can store up to 20,000 songs for free, but you must upload them to your account yourself) for your music files.

Apple’s service is available only on Apple devices, while Google is accessible as an app on Android devices, and as an HTML5 web app for Apple devices.

Both allow you to stream music directly from the cloud, eliminating the need to mess around with local storage. This makes sense considering many smartphones and tablets (which these services are aimed at) have limited storage captivity. But armed with an unlimited mobile internet plan (or Wi-Fi) you can keep all you music on the cloud and stream as needed, without having to download them.

Both services are currently restricted to US-only users. However there are creative ways for non-US users to sign up for these services, using proxies that give you a US-based IP address. Engadget even published a post explaining how. Or if the circumstance presents itself, you could do as I did, sign up for Google Music while in the US during a quickie visit.

Apart from Google Music, I signed up for Spotify, that Swedish based music-streaming service now making headway in America thanks to its patron saint Sean Parker and his ties to Facebook. Spotify’s links with Facebook are so tight that you need a Facebook account just to sign in.

Spotify usage is likewise blocked in the PH. However if you signed up for Spotify in one of the countries supported, you can continue to use the account globally.

I signed up for the “Premium Account”, which for $9/month allows you unlimited use and the ability to use Spotify on both PC and mobile devices (a wide range of smartphones are aupported from iPhones to Nokia Symbian devices).

Spotify boggles the mind. This service eliminates the need to download any music at all. Any song you care to pull out of your nostalgia banks is stored somewhere in a Spotify server. You only need to search for it. Having found the the track, you can play it immediately, or add it to a playlist. With no need to download it to your device.

I use an iPod touch to access the service, and I can literally listen to hours and hours of music streamed from the cloud. Hook up the iPod to a decent speaker dock or pair via bluetooth and this is unlimited party music.

Through Spotify I was able to pull up music I hadn’t heard in years – Jimi Hendrix, The Who’s Tommy (allegedly the first rock opera ever) , old Quincy Jones albums. You can search by Artist, Album, or Track name. You can do amazing things like pull up almost every cover of any song ever recorded.

For example, searching for Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff” brings up not only the original reggae classic by Bob Marley and the Wailers, but the Eric Clapton cover, live versions by the aforementioned artists, a children’s lullaby version, and a godawful bossa nova cover.

Searching for “Purple Haze” will bring up not only all the studio and live versions Hendrix ever did, but also the disturbing string quartet version by the Kronos Quartet.

Well,  not all music is on Spotify. Some notable exclusions include the usual holdouts to digital distribution – the complete Beatles catalog (Paul McCartney solo tracks are there though), and anything by Led Zeppelin. The Rolling Stones catalog however is amply represented. You can however, bring up scratchy indie recordings by the early Beatles from before they were signed to Parlophone.

There is even a surprising amount of OPM on Spotify – all this despite the service’s non-availability in the Philippines. For example, almost all (but one) of the Eraserheads albums are on the service. You can find all the Regine Velasquez albums you want, even old Gary Valenciano albums from the 80s, back when he was a skinny lad wearing Star Trek suits.

The presence of OPM tracks also brings up an interesting question – are the artists being compensated for being on Spotify? But we’ll tackle that in a future blog post.

Suffice to say I believe that the revolution will not be downloaded – it will be streamed.

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