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For a Song, Online Giants Offer Music in a Cloud

Once again, the way to buy music is changing.

For years, the legal digital music world has seemed relatively simple to grasp. There were two basic models: the online stores, where you bought singles or albums and stored them on individual computers or devices; and the subscription services, where you pay a monthly fee or listen to ads for access to an online trove of songs.

Walt Mossberg reviews new services from Amazon and Google that store music in the cloud and allow you to access and play your library from any computer with an internet connection as well as some mobile devices.

Of the two approaches, the download-and-own model has been the clear victor so far, and its prime exemplar, Apple's AAPL -1.92 % iTunes, has risen to become the biggest merchant of music. Now, a new hybrid approach is emerging, one where you own your music, but also can access it all from the cloud and stream it to many different devices via a Web browser or mobile app. This approach is typically called the "music locker." It is being developed because each of the two existing models has drawbacks.

The iTunes buy-to-own method, which is also offered by Amazon and others, makes sharing or accessing your whole music collection among multiple devices difficult, because songs are stored on each individual device, rather than in the cloud.

Meanwhile, the access-oriented services, like Rhapsody, Pandora, Slacker and many others, have been held back by a confusing array of pricing schemes and rules, often imposed by the record labels. They can cost $10 or $15 a month, and require Internet access for use of all their capabilities. In some cases, they let you store songs locally for offline use, but the songs become unplayable if you stop paying the monthly fees. Some place limits on things like how many hours of music you can hear a month, how many songs by a given artist can be played in a given time period, or how often a user can skip songs in a playlist or an online radio "station."

Google's Music Beta on Android ENLARGE
Google's Music Beta on Android Google
Amazon's Cloud Player on the Web ENLARGE
Amazon's Cloud Player on the Web Amazon

Recently, two online giants, Amazon and Google, have launched rudimentary music lockers, which allow you to store songs you own online and listen to them on a variety of devices, at no cost or for relatively low fees, and with few if any limits. Apple, meanwhile, is reported to be working on an even more sophisticated version.

Amazon's music locker is called the Cloud Player, and Google's is called the Music Beta, both of which I've been testing. Amazon's is available now, but Google is currently only allowing users to sign up for invitations, which it then will parcel out.

I call these two new services rudimentary because they have a major pain point: Before you can use them, you must upload all your songs to the cloud service. Depending on your Internet connection (which is often much slower for uploading than downloading) and the size of your collection, this can take days.

By contrast, the Holy Grail of music lockers is one where no uploading is required. It's sometimes called "scan and match." Under this approach, the music service would first buy from the labels the rights to stream a huge catalog of music, and, with your permission, scan your computer to see which of those songs are present. Then, it would simply assign you the rights to stream those songs you already have via multiple devices of your choice, and even preserve your playlists of those songs.

This is believed to be the system Google was trying to launch until it couldn't negotiate the rights with the labels on terms the parties would accept. Apple is thought to be trying to launch just such a scan-and-match system, though the company hasn't said so. Such an approach offers benefits beyond just the avoidance of painful uploading. With the proper rights, users could share music with others, or sample new music. There could be a variety of pricing and advertising models. But the music labels have been unwilling to allow this system in the past, partly because they know that much of the music people possess might have been stolen, or at the very least copied from legally purchased CDs, and thus hard to verify as having been bought.

I've been testing the Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music Beta, and found that both work as advertised. While the two services do have some differences, they are basically similar. Each works either through a Web browser or an app for Android devices. Amazon says it is working on compatibility with Apple's mobile devices, but Google says it has nothing to announce on that front. (You can use both through the Web browser on an iPad or iPhone, but they worked poorly on those devices in my tests.)

Amazon's service is priced by the amount of storage you use. You get 5 gigabytes free, enough for over 1,000 songs, depending on the quality, length, and thus the size of your song files. If you buy an album from Amazon's digital music store, you get bumped up to 20 GB free of charge for a year. Other plans are available, ranging from $20 a year for 20 GB to $100 a year for 100 GB. Google lets you store up to 20,000 songs for the beta version, and says it will be free for "a limited time."

I uploaded the same 1,400 or so songs to each service, and was able to play them back just fine on the major Web browsers on multiple Windows and Mac computers, and on an Android phone and tablet. Each imports music using a small computer program you download. In my case, with a limited test collection and an unusually fast Internet connection, the upload process took several hours.

Google has a few nice features—it has a clever instant playlist creator, and, when uploading, it tries to prioritize your most played songs. But, overall, I preferred the Amazon player, mainly because it gives you much more control over exactly what you want to upload or download, down to the individual song. Google will upload only large collections, such as your iTunes library or main music folder. If you want to upload only certain songs, you have to create a folder containing only those songs. If you want to download only certain songs on your Android device, you must first make a playlist of those songs.

Also, the Amazon service found all my iTunes playlists, but the Google service omitted some. In addition, Amazon sells digital music and can deliver it right to your Cloud Player. Google doesn't sell music. Neither service will upload or play back copy-protected music.

These new music lockers provide a new option for digital music lovers, and if the tech and music industries can ever agree, even better options could be ahead.

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