Music is moving into the cloud. Access is replacing ownership of albums and song files, online streams are replacing desktop playback and mobile access is renewing interest in on-demand music subscriptions. So how come I’m still not ready to pay for any of it?

Music is moving into the cloud, right? Access is replacing ownership of albums and song files, online streams are replacing desktop playback and mobile access is renewing interest in on-demand music subscriptions. Older services such as Rhapsody and Napster now appear prescient, though they never quite went mainstream, and newer ones such as Spotify and MOG are attracting big VC dollars.

So how come I’m still not ready to pay for any of them?

I’m a voracious music listener, one with varied but quite specific tastes and as such, a large collection of albums and songs in both physical and digital form. After taking several different subscription services for a test-drive, however, I found that they provide a good — but still very flawed — experience. Here are five reasons why:

There are still significant gaps in the catalog. As I’ve noted, the services may offer all you can eat, but their menus aren’t always complete, and they keep changing. It’s frustrating to pay for a service that doesn’t have songs you want, and even more frustrating when songs that used to be there aren’t anymore.

I still can’t merge things I own with things I just want to stream. Nearly all music fans have songs in their collections that aren’t on any subscription service. It could be an unlicensed mashup, your friend’s band, the Beatles or Led Zeppelin. But there’s still no subscription service that lets me make a party playlist that includes both Beach House and the Beatles. I choose not to own the former, and I’ve got MP3s of the latter, but I can’t have them both side-by-side. (Spotify, for one, may be working on a remedy for this, but as far as I know it hasn’t gone live anywhere yet.)

Ownership of music still provides a smoother listening experience. Try listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” or any live album with applause between songs on these services, and you might start wondering where your CD player is. When the next song doesn’t load fast enough to pick up where the previous one leaves off, you’ll hear an abrupt silence –- a major turnoff during album-length pieces with continuous “banded” tracks that run together. When I use iTunes, there’s sometimes an audible seam but no pause, with an option to crossfade; physical formats have no such issues. In this respect, the cloud-based experience can be a degraded one.

I can only share music with fellow subscribers. If playlists are the new mixtapes, as Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said this week at SXSW, I’d like to share them with my friends. In a market as fragmented as music-as-a-service is shaping up to be, playlist sharing won’t be that compelling until we’re all using the same service — or at the very least, compatible ones. This isn’t as big an issue when there’s a free component, as with Spotify and Rhapsody, but in general, until a critical mass of my friends are subscribing, there will be better ways to share. (I miss you, Imeem. You too, Muxtape.) The MP3 file is very flexible; cloud-based subscriptions still aren’t.

I can still hear things that I don’t already own without paying for them. I’ve already got a lot of music, and there are still new records I’d prefer to own, and for which I will happily pay. (You might be very different.)  But I can also hear an awful lot of on-demand free music via both legitimate and legally questionable channels: Hype Machine, Lala.com, Grooveshark, Play.me, YouTube, Blip.fm, FreeAllMusic, BeeMP3.com, Skreemr, MySpace and elsewhere. Pandora and Last.fm help me discover things through a sort of customized serendipity, while the blogosphere provides curated discovery. Yes, an on-demand subscription gives me more, sometimes in a better-quality experience. But for things I might not choose to own, free options are often still good enough. (Remember, more than 95 percent of Spotify’s users think the free version is good enough, too.)

Music subscriptions are improving, and I imagine that most of my quibbles will be dealt with in time. (See my further discussion of the services in this GigaOM Pro piece, sub req’d.) But for now, I still view subscription services as supplementary — not primary — sources of music, and ones that haven’t done much to change my preference for a hybrid of music ownership and free options.

As I said, I’m a voracious music listener with varied but quite specific tastes. And if subscription services’ numbers are any indication, there are millions of subscribers out there who are quite satisfied with what they’re paying for. So I’d love to hear more about how subscriptions work for you -– or don’t.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user itchy73

Related content from GigaOM Pro:

Rankings: Spotify Leads the Streaming Music Scene

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com

  1. While I agree with the points you make, I must confide something to you. I pay a monthly subscription to use the Zune software. Gasp! What’s that you say? Before you get all worked up let me make it painfully clear that I am not a microsoft fan in any way shape or form. In fact, I had given up all hope of ever seeing anything barely resembling innovation from the Gates squad.

    This all changed the moment I became acquainted the latest Zune software. It is actually a product that software that I enjoy using, and the best part is it doesn’t resemble iTunes in any way, shape, or form.

    I understand, that this article is primarily about music moving into the cloud but hear me out. First, your second gripe about not being able to merge songs you want to stream with songs you own is negated. The Zune software does this effortlessly. All the music is stored in your Zune library just as if you own every track even though that isn’t the case.

    Secondly, the above also eliminates the complaint about breaks in the audio stream; like I said, it is like you own the music even though the majority of your tunes are yours via the subscription.

    Next, as Zune allows you to share one mp3 player with multiple pcs it is easier than ever to distribute and share music with friends. Yes, even though they don’t subscribe. Of course the number of pcs you can sync with aren’t unlimited, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too right?

    In summary, yes there are some things I don’t like, still overall the Zune software is working out great for me and I don’t mind shelling out the $15.00 a month to keep it. I mean, I get to choose 10 tracks that are mine to keep every month. How awesome is that? At least the money I’m giving them is affording me an actual product that I will get to keep when/if I choose to cancel my subscription.

    If you haven’t already, you should check it out. You just might be surprised.

    1. Steven, this is about as strong a testimonial for the Zune service as I’ve ever heard, and it’s enlightening me. Thanks so much.

    2. Coincidence of sorts for me. I was on the sidelines and was doing some research on Zunepass when I saw this article. I was surprised to see that Zunepass was not discussed in the original article. Thanks to Steven, I got the thumbs-up and an in-depth review I needed to take the dive.

    3. The part about syncing on multiple PCs to share music doesn’t sound easy or legal.

      Easy is emailing a link to a playlist. Difficult is having to install Zune software, log in at someone else’s computer (since I expect you aren’t giving out passwords), and physically connect your device to their computer.

    4. Johnny Roberts Friday, March 19, 2010

      It sounds to me like this person has been paid by Microsoft to make this comment.

      1. Actually, I doubt it. Pretty much anyone who sees me using my Zune pass will end up AT LEAST asking how in the hell I’m doing this so effortlessly. I don’t even have to download a song, I can just stream the full track in an instant. It’s pretty easy to get all wrapped up in it’s “wow factor” and then feel the need to tell others how awesome it is. Imagine a kid forcing cotton candy into people’s mouths after their first taste, they have to know that others love it too. Really, the software sells itself.

      2. Apple fan, huh? Or maybe you’ve never used the Zune software.

      3. Let me say with the new Windows Phone and Zune.. its a no brainer.. I can’t believe how much music I have on my computer now. I find a new artist I can download all thier stuff, and try it all out. Yes there are gaps in some music availablity. I.e. AC/DC and BOb Seger have yet to get on ANY of the sites.. (iTunes included). But I just pop those CDs into my computer Zune rips them and puts them in my collection. They also seem to hav a large colelction of indy music too.. which is also awesome.

    5. One thing that I would add is that the Zune Pass allows you to use your song credits on songs that are not available as part of the subscription. For example, John Lennon’s catalog on Zune is not available to Zune Pass subscribers, but you could choose to use your 10 free songs on those tracks.

  2. I use Grooveshark a lot & subscribe to their VIP account. With Grooveshark you can upload your own music, create combined playlists and share them with anyone. VIP access only give you additional interface options. I find the depth of the catalogue is pretty impressive now too.

    Grooveshark’s legal battles seem to be settling – hopefully they’ll stick around for a while longer. They’ve done an impressive job of fighting back and maintaining a full catalogue so far.

  3. Yeah you can hear alot of stuff right now without buying it. There’s even old fashioned radio.

    Hell I wouldn’t doubt that in the future iTunes and Amazon let you listen to the full song at least once. I can’t see why not except bandwidth costs go up ~6-8x. But bandwidth will only get cheaper.

    Zune plan sounds neat because you get to keep 10 songs. But you have use it or lose it every month. I hate being on the clock to buy stuff. My music discovering comes in spurts. Subscriptions run according the rise and setting of the sun.

    IF I take a break from buying music for a few months I can still listen to what I have.

    Plus, and this is a biggie, once they get you on subscription there’s no reason they can’t raise the subscription price. The deals you’re getting now are to get you hooked on the candy. They aren’t the deals that are making these companies any money at least from what I’ve read.

    I’m older though. I’m not a 15 yr old. The kids are who you have to look at to see if these things will succeed or not. I have to think kids don’t have the money to pay $15 every month. College-aged kids don’t either.

    The buy one song at a time model fits them much better. Combine that with radio, internet radio and streaming sites (at least while they last financially speaking) and … they get enough.

    I mean who has the time to wade through everything anyway? Few do. Most will learn about music through a friend and go buy a song or something.

  4. As Steven said, in Zune Marketplace your collection lives alongside your subscription tracks. Lala also merges the two, but is obviously a slightly different kind of service.

    The high quality option in Mog’s forthcoming mobile app shows they get this, but for many high bit rate is a very important factor (at least 320) if your attempting to replace your collection with subscription tracks. Also the mobile offering has to have off-line access to everything, not just your playlists.

    Most important to me is that my library is used for the majority of my listening, but that there’s also a discovery element. Zune’s Smart DJ does this nicely; it makes a mix of only my music or my music plus similar things I don’t own. Slacker has a similar ability with Artist Discovery when you fine tune a station made of artists in one genre of your library. I’ll be interested to see what their on-demand offering looks like.

    Also, not everyone wants a cloud/browser only solution. I like desktop clients.

  5. Music is moving into the cloud. Access is replacing ownership of albums and song files, online streams are replacing desktop playback and mobile access is renewing interest in on-demand music subscriptions. So how come I’m still not ready to pay for any of it?

  6. paul, remember that 15 million(?) people pay for satellite radio in the u.s.

    i hear your criticisms loud and clear and we’re working to close the gap. i can’t say the space between songs is a big one. maybe 5 reasons sounds better than 4? : )

    although i agree with your issues, i’d still rather pay $5 for MOG than pay for 5 downloads. by a longshot.

    1. Paul Bonanos Friday, March 19, 2010

      Thanks, David — and fair enough, although I have to say that when I discussed this with some musician friends, the seamless album playback issue was probably the thing they reacted to the most.

      I may be insisting on a dream service here; like I say, I’m interested in what does and doesn’t work for people, and everyone’s different. MOG’s very good already, and if this is constructive criticism, I’m looking forward to the next update.

  7. Regarding sharing – if you share MP3s with your friend, aren’t you breaking the law?

    1. No.

      Did the music industry’s scaremongering advance to the point already that people actually believe that they are breaking the law?

      The music industry wished that it would be that way. That doesn’t make it so, no matter how many ads they place saying “it is so”.

      At least where I live – Austria – there is the “right for private copy” – which we pay for, mind you -, so of course we can give a copy of the MP3 (or anything else) to our friends, since we are paying for “the privilege” anyway.

  8. Richard Urwin Friday, March 19, 2010

    Psonar is one worth checking out.

    It’s a free cloud-based solution which is focused on allowing users to do more with music that they own, unlike streaming services where you effectively ‘rent’ the music as long as you continue to subscribe (and hope that the music doesn’t get pulled by the copyright owner.)

    With Psonar you can upload the music you own to the cloud, so it’s accessible everywhere, from any internet-connected device.

    You can also search and listen to 30 second clips of any other track uploaded to the cloud and buy that music if you like.

    Psonar also provides web-based iTunes-style management so that you can drag and drop tracks to any device that you can connect to a PC via USB. This enables you can have your music on your device when that’s best, but also in the cloud. This means it is great for backup, as Ben – one of my team – discovered the other day:


    So – it’s perfect if you love your old MP3 player, want to keep your music on an inexpensive memory stick or for when you don’t have an internet connection and thus offers you the best of both worlds.

    Finally, by utilising the cloud, we can do what the cloud is great for – discovery and social. We’ve got basic discovery with lots more innovative discovery and social stuff on the way very soon.

  9. I would never pay for it

  10. I’m enjoying the irony of reading a story about a reluctance to pay for premium music subscription services on a site that then prompts me to pay for a premium subscription to read their study about the topic.

    Maybe I’ll write a story on the 5 reasons I’m not willing to pay for a subscription to GigaOm Pro…


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