Why Apple’s iCloud will hit a sour note for music fans

May 31, 2011
Finance

Whatever Apple (AAPL) ultimately reveals about its iCloud storage system next week, music fans should prepare for one big disappointment. The future of music will eventually be dominated by subscriptions and licenses, not downloads. Consumers won’t “own” songs — they’ll stream any music they want from a cloud-based service for a monthly fee. In all […]

Whatever Apple (AAPL) ultimately reveals about its iCloud storage system next week, music fans should prepare for one big disappointment.

The future of music will eventually be dominated by subscriptions and licenses, not downloads. Consumers won’t “own” songs — they’ll stream any music they want from a cloud-based service for a monthly fee. In all likelihood, the recent, massive rush to download Lady Gaga’s new album Born This Way will eventually look like the last blast from a dying era.

But that’s not the future Apple is expected to bring you. The company broke news on Monday saying that iCloud will be officially presented by Steve Jobs on June 6 as the opener to the annual World Wide Developer Conference. The service should have the legal blessing of most of the major record labels, and will be a twist on the already-boring concept of a cloud-based digital music locker.

Apple, Google and Amazon still stuck in the past

The iCloud service would scan your collection of music on iTunes, and unlock those songs for you in the cloud. The effect would be that you’d be able to stream all the songs you own to any device connected to the Internet, without having to go through the tedious process of uploading actual copies of all your music to a remote disk drive.

To be sure, this is an improvement over services recently launched by Amazon.com (AMZN) and Google (GOOG). And it’s definitely an improvement on the current system most people use: physically owning files of songs that you have to copy among your PCs and devices.

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To use iCloud, you will probably have to pay a subscription, maybe $99 a year. Which means you would still have to buy the songs you want to hear, and then pay some more for a service that would stream those songs over the Net. Though Apple will likely make it easy to use and attractive, the whole concept still clings to the rapidly devolving idea that people need to own tangible copies of music.

By contrast, look at the mini-explosion in innovative ways to let people tap a vast universe of music without ever owning or storing any of it — for a monthly fee. Many of these services add a social element, so users can find new music through friends.

Why subscription-based services will ultimately rock

One service getting a lot of attention is Rdio, which Business Insider says is, “everything iTunes Ping wants to be, plus everything the iTunes Cloud is directly up against.” For $9.99 a month, users can stream as much music as they want to any computer or mobile device. Rdio has apps for iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone.

A different approach — and one that gets around (for now) record label lawyers — comes from DAR.fm. It’s basically TiVo (TIVO) for the radio in the cloud. It lets you cherry-pick programs and music from online radio and save them in the cloud, for playback on any connected device. DAR.fm apps are available on multiple platforms including Airband for iOS, MP3tunes for Android and Roku video players.

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Other subscription music services have been around for years, including Rhapsody (available on iOS and Android devices), Napster (also available for iOS and Android) and Zune Pass for Microsoft (MSFT) devices. All cost about the price of buying a CD a month, and give users complete control over millions of songs, allowing them to stream the music to connected PCs and smartphones.

No service, though, has gotten it completely right — thanks to resistance from record labels, which are understandably trying to protect their businesses. No service yet introduced has a broad enough collection of music — old and brand new — to offer. And most of the services make users put up with some clunkiness or restrictions in the way they work.

But the pressure from consumers and entrepreneurs is pushing toward subscription music — pay a monthly or yearly fee, and get any and all streaming music you want on any device you want. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re likely to get from Apple this time around.

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