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I'm not buying cloud-based music as the future ... yet

Does your music belong in the cloud, as some folks have been claiming, or should it live on your devices?
Does your music belong in the cloud, as some folks have been claiming, or should it live on your devices?
  • Google this week launched the beta version of Google Music, similar to Amazon's Cloud Drive
  • You also can pay for music at iTunes and Rhapsody, or stream free with Pandora or Last.FM
  • Cloud music could be the way we all store our digital song collections
  • But columnist Chris Taylor isn't sure consumers are ready for this kind of model

Editor's note: Chris Taylor is San Francisco bureau chief of Mashable, a popular tech news blog and a content partner.

(CNN) -- After offering to store your mail and your documents online, Google now has an eye on your music collection.

At its annual developers conference in San Francisco this week, the search giant launched the beta version of Google Music, a service that promises to upload your iTunes collection, store it on its servers (or in the cloud, as tech parlance has it), and then let you stream it to any device.

As with a similar new service from Amazon called Cloud Drive, Google Music has thus far fallen far short of its promise. The music labels are refusing to cooperate, which imposes important restrictions on how you can use it.

Uploading can take many hours and is capped at 20,000 songs, which seems a reasonable limit until you hit it (which I did more than 3,000 songs back). Playback is restricted to Android devices at the moment, and the long-term monthly fee hasn't been announced yet.

Google branches into music, movie streaming

All those problems aside, however, I have to wonder if Google and Amazon aren't barking up the wrong tree. Does music belong in the cloud, as some folks have been claiming for more than a decade, or is it the kind of thing that will always live locally?

I believe the latter, and so far, the evidence bears me out.

Now, I have no problem with cloud services in general. I use Gmail, Google Docs and storage service Dropbox all the time. But music is a different beast. Your collection of tunes, lovingly corralled over the years and crafted into playlists, is one of the most personal and sentimental things you own.

And we do want to own it. Even when that music is just 1s and 0s on an iPod or a desktop PC, we like to know that it's ours, that we can have as much of it as we want, when we want, and that it will never be taken away from us -- not by a dearth of data coverage, not by server outages, and not by greedy music label lawyers.

Consider this quote from the Amazon Cloud Drive terms of service: "You give us the right to access, retain, use and disclose your account information and your files." So what happens when the RIAA comes knocking?

Amazon enters the streaming music business

In any case, do you really want to pay for the privilege of accessing something you already paid for? I'm not just talking about the monthly fees, but also the data charges. Considering how few carriers now seem to believe in unlimited data plans, cloud music could get real expensive real fast.

Sure, there has long been room in the marketplace for online music services like Rhapsody, where you pay a monthly fee and get all-you-can-eat tunes streamed to your computer, not just the stuff you own. For some users' tastes and lifestyles, it works better than anything. As of January, Rhapsody had a very respectable 750,000 subscribers.

But that pales in comparison with the most popular music service of the last decade -- indeed, of all time. The iTunes music store has more than 75 million users who have downloaded more than 10 billion songs.

The pace of downloads has significantly quickened in the last two years -- ever since Apple removed the restrictions imposed by the record labels on how you could use those tunes.

There are exceptions to the rule of ownership. I'm a big fan of Pandora, which is about the best thing to play in the background at a party, or any other time you want to maintain a consistent mood and have the benefit of speedy Internet service.

But what do I (and millions of Pandora users like me) do when I discover a great tune on Pandora? I click on the links to iTunes or Amazon and buy the track, so that I'll always have it with me, even when I don't have the benefit of speedy Internet service -- and so I don't have to wait until it comes around in the rotation.

Services like Pandora and Last.FM explicitly describe themselves as radio, after all. And if radio was all we wanted, no one would ever have bought an LP or a single. We are an inherently acquisitive species, and we really don't like anything that gets in the way of accessing our favorite songs. We'll pay a fair price, but we'll only pay it once.

To be fair to Google Music, it does seem to understand something about the ownership desire. If the labels play ball, Google's service has the ability to store your recently played music and some favorite playlists in a local cache. But how big that cache can get, and how much control you have over it, remains to be seen.

Will enough people pay for the privilege of music storage to make it a viable business model? Will I be able to listen to my tunes anywhere, no matter what data dead zones I run into? If the answer to both of those questions turns out to be yes, I will gladly admit that cloud music's day has come.

In the meantime, I'm going to continue to enjoy taking my iPod, stuffed with fully paid-up music, for long hikes on trails where cell service can never be found.


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