As we are all too clear, wireless bandwidth is a finite resource. Mobile users on most networks can no longer buy all-you-can-eat data, as provider after provider switches over to tiered plans that only let you use so much data per month. In addition, many tablet users choose the WiFi-only models, leaving a whole category of mobile devices without cellular plans, limited or otherwise. Finally, the cloud makes Steve Wozniak nervous, and that should be enough to give anyone pause.
Without internet access, a phone feels like an expensive paperweight. Fortunately, there are apps that can still give you access to cloud-based music when you're offline or "watching what you eat," bandwidth-wise, so you don't run into these listening limits. If you're looking to conserve your cellular data plan, or if you're out of range of a wireless network, follow these tips to take five kinds of music cloud with you -- music lockers from Google, Apple, and Amazon; unlimited music subscriptions; streaming radio services.
Make it rain:
Grab Google Play
Google Play (formerly Google Music) lets you store up to 20,000 of your songs in the cloud and stream them to your phone or tablet for free. It's one of Android's most appealing and popular features (and you can also tack it onto iOS with gMusic). Android's music app lets you mark albums, artists, playlists or individual songs for offline access, which are downloaded in the background and stored locally. (iOS users: Yes, you can do the same with gMusic.)
If you suddenly find yourself internet-less, all the songs selected for offline access will still be playable.
One drawback with most "offline modes" is that the songs available offline can only be played in the app designed to connect to that service -- in this case, Android's native music app (likewise with gMusic on iOS). The songs are cached in a proprietary database that isn't readable by other players like Winamp, and won't show up when it scans the device for music.
If you dislike using Google's music app or prefer using another Android music player, there is an easy work-around with no equivalent that we could find on the other platforms (score a win for Android). Cloud Music Sniper "snipes" your offline music from Google Play and makes it readable and saves it elsewhere on your phone. After that, you can listen to your tunes in any media player app you like, or even transfer the songs to a computer.
Access Apple iCloud
Apple has its own cloud service called iTunes Match, which runs a user's music against songs in the iTunes store, and puts copies of them into your iCloud account. (Any songs that can't be matched get uploaded to iCloud one-by-one.) iCloud can store up to 25,000 songs, which users can then download to any Mac or iOS device at will. (iTunes Match also cleans up your library and removes any duplicate songs.)
Unlike the free Google Play, this costs $25 annually, because Apple had to pay copyright holders a pretty penny to offer the feature.
In typical Apple fashion, iTunes Match is fairly easy to use (see Apple's video). First, you need to subscribe to the iTunes Match service; then you activate it within your computer's iTunes program. To access iTunes Match music on your phone, simply go to Settings > Music on your iPhone, and turn on iTunes Match. (We recommend leaving Use Cellular Data turned off, to avoid downloading lots of songs over your cell connection; if you leave it off, your iPhone will use WiFi instead).
In your regular iOS Music app, you should now see all of your computer's music listed there with little cloud icons next to each song. To download them to the phone, tap the cloud symbol or press the button for Download All, to grab them all in one fell swoop. Now, when you're out of range or trying to avoid eating your wireless data, those tunes will be at the ready.
Amazon Cloud Drive's newest update includes the ability to scan-and-match songs from the user's collection, making it similar to Apple iCloud. But there's a twist: The first 250 songs can be uploaded free; for $25 a year, you can upload or match up to 250,000 songs to their servers -- ten times what iCloud allows. (If you buy music from Amazon's MP3 store, those songs can be streamed for free and don't count towards your quota.)
Once you start running the Cloud Player app for iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire on your device of choice, you can easily toggle between your cloud library and your device's. Choose the Cloud option to see whatever music you've stored in Amazon Cloud Drive. A simple tap of that orange arrow symbol (top right of the image) starts the songs downloading to your device, where you can play them without using your cellular or WiFi connection. Simple.
Unlimited On-Demand Music Services with Offline Mode
Some people like to collect music and upload it to the cloud; others just want to collect it in the cloud in the first place. If you're the latter type, you'll want to subscribe to MOG, Rdio, Rhapsody, or Spotify. Luckily, all of them include an offline mode that lets you grab music from the cloud and take it with you on your device. Clearly, all of these services see the value in letting people download music -- even if, unlike Wozniak, they believe in the cloud. However, if you want to use the mobile version, you'll need to pay for a subscription.
Assuming you subscribe, here's how you grab music to play offline from each of these cloud-based music services:
In MOG, all you have to do is look for the down arrow wherever it appears, and tap it to store that music locally. Here's how that looks in an artist search result (we're downloading an album):
In the playlist-oriented Spotify, simply navigate to the playlist(s) you wish to store on your device and toggle the "Available Offline" switch to on... and if you want to be sure you're not using your connection, you can select "Force Offline Mode" in the settings menu. Here's how you toggle a playlist for offline playback:
Rdio lets you browse millions of songs and albums and add them to your little subset of Rdio with one tap, from within the app. Then, you have a choice: You can add that music to your collection (which means streaming), or, you can choose Sync to Mobile. The latter option puts the music on your phone (pretty image courtesy of Rdio):
Like Spotify, Rhapsody lets you download any playlist to store it offline, and lets you "force offline mode" to be sure you don't play any music that's not stored locally on your phone. Simply tap the download icon, and you'll see this start to happen:
Streaming Radio, Captured For Offline Streaming
I only found one streaming radio service with an offline mode: Slacker Radio. Users with a Radio Plus or Premium account can save entire radio stations to their device (or you can do it for free on a trial basis with the free version).
This works both for your custom-created stations based on one or more bands, or with any of the expert-programmed stations. Either way, you can listen to hours of "streaming" music without an internet connection. (A Premium account lets you cache playlists, albums, or stations to one device, whereas a Plus account lets you save stations to one device.) Hopefully this feature will come to Pandora and the rest someday, because it's pretty neat, but probably not.
Its no fun to be stuck without your music. Luckily, it's getting easier to take little bits of the cloud with you.