Music Beta, Google's long-awaited music service, marks the mainstreaming of the cloud. Once a service found in the minor leagues of technology companies, online storage and playback of music files has suddenly jumped to the major league.
Just how mainstream is cloud music? Two consumer technology titans have already launched their services and another is on the way. Amazon launched its cloud storage and streaming services at the end of March. Google debuted Music Beta on Tuesday. And Apple is expected to roll out its own service in the near future.
The reach of these three companies is staggering. comScore traffic numbers show the companies' reach on the web in March: Google sites attracted 176.8 million unique visitors in the U.S. while Amazon sites had 91.6 million and Apple had 70.7 million (some visitors may have visited more than one company's sites). In Europe, comScore puts the companies' unique visitors at 330.3 million for Google, 88.7 million for Amazon and 66.7 million for Apple.
Until recently cloud music services were the domain of smaller companies. In fact, Amazon and Google are showing up relatively late to the party. Early adopters have long had their pick up services to store their music collections and access them from a variety of devices. MP3Tunes launched its Oboe music locker service back in 2006. Since then, doubleTwist, mSpot, Audiogalaxy and others have launched similar services.
And that's just one corner of cloud music. It's not a coincidence that news of Music Beta comes just days after Billboard's latest issue detailed the rise of cloud computing (subscription required) in both mainstream America and the music business. Cloud services are everywhere and some of music's fastest-growing startups (such as SoundCloud, which just passed the four million-user mark).
New subscription services have launched to give Rhapsody and Napster a run for their money. But there are differences between Amazon's and Google's foray into cloud music and the kind of services offered by Rhapsody, Napster, Rdio, MOG and, in Europe, Spotify, Deezer and Simfy. Those differences can be boiled down to one factor: licenses.
Not for lack of trying, Google does not have licenses from the four major music groups to either sell music or operate anything other than a personal storage locker. "[A] couple of major labels were less focused on innovation and more on demanding unreasonable and unsustainable business terms," Google director of content partnerships Zahavah Levine told Billboard. That means no bells or whistles.
Without licenses, a music storage service requires a user to upload each song individually. In effect such a service acts like a very remote external drive from which the user can play his or her own collection of stored MP3s.
But movement into the cloud won't be stopped. These consumer technology companies are going forward even without licenses. The proliferation of connected devices has created a race in which Amazon, Google and Apple must provide their customers with anywhere-anytime access to their personal media collections. In addition to books and video, music is a key component in these companies' strategies.
Even without a license to offer a more feature-rich storage service, these companies have the ability to turn out valuable products. For example, Amazon has integrated Cloud Drive with its MP3 store to allow consumers to buy music and immediately store it remotely. "When you distill it down and remove the friction of where you buy and where stuff is getting delivered to or fulfilled to," Amazon's Director of Music Craig Pape told Billboard, "it creates a seamless usage experience."