Friday, June 24, 2011

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: Hey! You! Get Onto My Cloud!

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 24, 2011

I felt like Cinderella being invited to the royal ball.

Last week, buried in my email among my music press releases, pleas for money from politicians, notices of car dealers and Albuquerque restaurants I’ve never heard of following me on Twitter, and fabulous business opportunities from widows of high-ranked Nigerian officials was my invitation!

It was from Google Music Beta. It had been weeks and weeks since I’d sent my request for an invitation. (To be honest, having to request an invitation made me feel cheap and tawdry. But I like that feeling.)

(If you haven't already, you can request your information HERE.)

For those of you still trying to figure out this internet fad, Google Music is the latest major entry into the realm of “cloud” storage for music. It joins Amazon Cloud Player, which launched earlier this year. And before the end of the year it will be joined by Apple’s iCloud.

The “cloud” has been a big internet buzz for the past couple of years among music fans. Those of us who listen to music over our computers do so using a player, such as iTunes or Windows Media Player (I understand there are still people who use that) to play MP3s or other music files stored on our computer or external hard drive.

But with the cloud, you upload your music files to big ol’ computers somewhere far away — probably located in nightmarish sweatshops in hideous countries where child labor is forced to work 16-hour shifts to keep dangerous machinery running just so you can listen to your lousy Coldplay MP3s whenever you want. (Just kidding, just kidding. Nobody sue me, please.)

I set up my Amazon Cloud Player when that first came out. And now with Google Music Beta, I could upload even more of my collection to a home up in the clouds. My collection is nearly 227 gigabytes (GB) — well more than 42,000 “items” (mostly individual songs, with several podcasts, radio-show soundchecks, etc.).

What is the advantage of having music on the cloud? You can access both Amazon Cloud and Google Music from any web browser on any computer. For those of us with huge digital music collections, that means we don’t have to lug around our external hard drives everywhere we go to enjoy thousands of songs. Your computer blows a gasket, your hard drive freezes up, your house burns down, and your music, or at least a good chunk of it, still will be available for you online.

Cloud wars: I've found both cloud systems easy to operate from my laptop. And I’m no audiophile, but to these ravaged ears, the playback sounds as good as it does from iTunes.

Most of the comparisons I’ve read — written by people who know a lot more about this tech stuff than I ever will — have tended to give the edge to Google over Amazon. Google Music uploads your music faster, critics insist (both take a long time to upload your tunes), and Google lets you upload more music for free.

Amazon currently allows you to upload five gigabytes of music for free to their Cloud Player. But if you purchase any MP3 album from Amazon, you get 15 more GB for free for a year. (I took advantage of that, buying the North Mississippi Allstars’ latest album, Keys to the Kingdom, when it was on sale for $5.)

What happens at the end of the year isn’t clear. Can you renew by buying a new album? Will you have to cough up $20? Will the company zap 15 gigs from your library if you don’t? Time will tell. There are various plans for additional storage at Amazon Cloud. They all work out to $1 a year for each GB, up to $1,000 for 1,000 GB.
Are these clouds or chemtrails?

One cool thing about Amazon. When you buy MP3s from the site now, they automatically go to your Cloud Player stash. And these songs don’t count against your limit. One uncool thing, though — you have to manually upload MP3s you bought from Amazon before the launch of the Cloud Player — and these will count against your limit. So far I’ve used nearly all of my Amazon allotment. That’s more than 4,000 songs.

But over at Google Music Beta, you can upload 20,000 songs for free. You don’t even have to buy an album. In fact, you can’t buy an album there, for reasons best known to the captains of the music-industrial complex. As of now, I’ve only uploaded nearly 9,000 songs. (Note my personal figures are updated than the ones published today in Pasatiempo.)

But will this free storage at Google Music last forever? An article at speculated last month, “Chances are you’ll have to pony up in order to keep things there once the beta label is yanked.”
One factor in Amazon’s favor is that you can download your music from the cloud. This is a huge advantage if your computer or hard-drive crashes — though I’d hate to guess how much time it would take to download 20 GBs from Amazon. Google doesn’t have this feature.

There is free music available from Google Music when you first set up your cloud player. You get to select from several genres. I didn’t want to clutter up my online library too much, so I just chose blues and alternative rock, The free blues selections were good, with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Elmore James among them. The “alternative rock” selections were fairly useless (though there was some good Social Distortion tracks). But heck, they were free, and deleting duds is easy.

Both the Amazon and Google services can be accessed on Android phones. Neither is supposed to be accessible from an iPhone (there are no iPhone apps for them), but there’s a backdoor way in through the Safari browser.

Just log into your Amazon account and go from there — simply ignore the warning that the service isn’t compatible. Once you’re in, just add it to your home screen for easier access in the future. That’s good news, at least if you want to listen when you’re someplace where your connection is steady. I played it in my car, and it worked for several songs in a row, but several times the streaming music got choppy. This won’t replace my regular iPod.

Speaking of i-things, Apple’s iCloud is bound to shake up the fledgling music cloud biz. The only free storage Apple is going to give you is for the stuff you buy on iTunes. But for $25 a year, you get unlimited storage. For those with big collections, that’s a bargain.

Whichever service becomes the most successful, I believe a lot more music junkies are going to have their heads in the clouds.

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