The braintrust at Apple is known for being trailblazing, if only because it manages to beat rivals to the technological punch. And when said rivals do catch up—well, Apple’s products still look prettier. Just last week, the company caused a stir by trumping its competition once again: According to Reuters, Apple “has completed work on an online music storage system.” Music Locker, as it’s called, has been breathlessly hailed by insiders as the next sonic wave. Sure, it may be good for the music business, but what does it mean for us—you know, the folks who’re actually listening to music?
First, a primer. This “online music storage system” is frequently referred to as cloud-based storage. Essentially, the idea behind a cloud service is that your music collection is located on a centralized server, such that you can stream it via the web from different locales using any device of your choosing (an iPad, your mobile phone, your mp3 player...). In theory, this would free you from worrying about having the hard-drive space to save all your digital files. Plus it would liberate you from the frustrating task of uploading your music onto each of your devices—that is, if the mp3 you bought will even let you double-dip. In this new “cloud” scenario, your music collection would literally be like a jukebox in the sky, always unobtrusively within reach. Now, isn’t that a lovely image?
Of course, the business behind this is not so pretty. The heated battle to unleash the most desirable cloud mainly involves Apple and Google, both of which amped up plans to create such a service after Amazon did it first in March with its Cloud Player. (The ominously quiet Google is presumably still plugging away at its own cloud service.) In Amazon’s model, customers get 5GB of free storage (more memory will cost you) and can manually upload whatever mp3s they own from their home computer to Amazon’s server. One very controversial glitch: Because Amazon didn’t make any licensing agreement with major labels (they reason that if you’ve has already bought the music, you can play it wherever you please), you cannot upload any DRM-protected tracks to Amazon’s service. That includes much of iTunes' catalog.
Apple, for its part, has reportedly begun to negotiate licensing deals with labels—only logical, given their symbiotic relationship on iTunes. This means labels will get paid each time one of their artists’ tracks is played. In theory, this should make labels happy because while they've been busy fretting at how far CD sales have dropped, digital sales have stalled, too. Though a tough sell on any new technology, labels are more eager than ever to find for new ways to generate cash.
And that’s (finally) where you come in. First, the bottom line: How much will a cloud service cost? If you’re OK topping out at approximately 1,000 songs, Amazon’s model is free. But with Apple—and most likely Google—playing it by the book with licensing deals, these companies will likely charge fees to offset costs paid to record labels. Many industry insiders, meanwhile, point to Europe’s successful Spotify—a free web-based application developed in Sweden. It’s an online streaming service that generates revenue for labels through ads, which a listener can bypass by purchasing a membership.
Given Apple’s influence in the digital-files market, access to their catalog may very well justify any fee. Anything you buy from the iTunes store will automatically be uploaded into your Music Locker. The assumed drawback: If you don’t buy it from Apple, you might not be able to upload your songs to their cloud. Then again, we’ve come to expect this sort of red tape from Apple.
But the biggest question mark in all of this may simply be one of logistics. If you don’t have reception for a stable Internet connection (hello, 3G!), you won’t be able to hear your music. Commute on an underground subway in the morning? Access your Music Locker from a troublesome iPhone? These are very real, frustrating concerns. And last week, Amazon itself provided the biggest red flag of them all: a reminder that servers can crash. The economics of running a label or a music destination is undoubtedly complicated in this post-post-Napster age. But the best pitch to us consumers is the most obvious one: listening to music should be simple.