The promise of the much-heralded “cloud” music model is the ability for users to access their music anywhere, from any device. But a new report from Forrester Research pokes holes in that selling point, noting that most music fans tend to stick with a small number of preferred devices rather than spreading their listening habits across multiple
products.

"It's not realistic to expect the average consumer to use large number of devices for music consumption,” says Forrester analyst Mark Mulligan. “It's much more likely that they will consolidate their behavior around a couple of devices."

The new study—“360 Music Experiences: Use the Cloud to Target Device Use Orbits”—relies on data from a third-quarter 2009 Forrester survey of 5,264 North American adults 18 and older. In it, Forrester found that the leading device remained the home computer, commanding 41.6% of digital music consumption. MP3 players ranked second at 32.5%, music-enabled phones at 12.1% and home streaming devices at 11.1%. According to Forrester, only 23% listened to music on both their PC and MP3 player--the two largest categories--while only 9% used both a PC and mobile phone and only 5% of consumers accessed music on all four. Mobile access to music services through smartphone apps, while certainly an area of great activity, has yet to make meaningful dent.

"There's been a good organic increase in the amount of people using phones [for music], but it hasn't changed the music device landscape,” says Mulligan. “Mobile music still remains heavily skewed towards the younger user.”

Of the Forrester survey respondents listening to music via mobile phones, 63% were aged 18-24, which Mulligan says is the largest demographic skew among all device categories. And of the way they listen to mobile music, sideloading MP3s to phones was more popular than streaming music to a smartphone app. Of the total time U.S. adults spend listening to music, 9.7% is via sideloading to a phone while only 4.9% is streamed to the device.

Now much of this is due to the fact that despite all the recent talk about cloud-based music service, few are actually in operation today. Spotify remains barred from the U.S. market as the company continues to negotiate licensing deals with a skeptical music industry, and neither Apple nor Google have so much as publicly announced what cloud-based music strategies they may have, let alone launched them yet. And it's worth noting the Forrester survey took place before some of today’s cloud-based services launched--such as MOG, mSpot and Rdio--but others like MP3Tunes and even veterans Rhapsody and Napster had.

Even once cloud services become more widespread, Mulligan expects users will continue to access them from a device of choice rather than a range of devices. The challenge, and the opportunity, is to increase the number of users who choose, say, a home stereo unit over the computer. That’s because users who opt for streaming music through their home stereo are different people from those who opt to connect via the PC or mobile phone. Those home stereo streamers could grow the overall market for digital music beyond where it is today.

The living room is of particular interest, as sales for home stereo equipment are down along with CD sales. Convincing the iPod-less to buy new home stereo equipment with access to cloud-based services built in is the best way to expand today’s base of digital music consumers, Mulligan says. But it will take up to three years to make that transition. The near-term opportunity, meanwhile, is to get iPod owners to stop simply connecting their devices to home stereos via a docking station and instead pay for monthly access to a cloud-based service, since digital download sales are flattening.

“Among digitally engaged music consumers, the majority are not buying digital music on a regular basis,” says Mulligan. “Even if you’re not growing the installed base by one person, but more effectively monetizing the existing base, that would be a win for the music industry.”