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Taking Bets To The Cloud

Handicapping the odds on the dominance of iCloud, Google Music, Spotify, and more

Several weeks ago, Google announced Magnifier, a Google-sponsored blog that ties in with their cloud service Google Music. Magnifier is not complicated. According to, uh, itself, it's going to periodically recommend you music and let you download it to your Google Music account for free. It's like any music blog you read, just less frequent and run by Google. If nothing else, it'll be interesting to see how Google positions Magnifier in regard to the music listening public. Their first artist was My Morning Jacket. Do they continue down the indie route? Do they become more experimental, appealing to hardcore music fans? Or less, trying to appeal to a broader base? It's too early to make that call, but I'll certainly be watching with interest.

To be honest, though, I have no idea how Magnifier factors in to Google Music's attempt at the online music market share. Its contributions seem miniscule in the face of the hundreds, if not thousands, of similarly positioned music blogs in the world. Its inclusion of free downloads is nice, but it's not as if it's particularly hard to find this music to download, even legally.

This year has seen a lot of major players step up their online music services. Google, of course, has their Music Beta ongoing, still invite-only. Amazon launched their Cloud Drive. Spotify finally made it to the United States. And Apple announced the iCloud. They joined some long-running, but less corporate-sponsored alternatives like Pandora, Slacker, Grooveshark, and Rdio. It's a crowded field. And while we here at Prefix could launch a silly debate about what services are better than which and compare and contrast, we decided to do something a little different.

In sports, what team should win and what team does win only occasionally line up, so instead of offering you a battle royale, we're going to handicap the field, placing odds on each major music service, related not only to the quality of their service, but also factoring in public perception, name recognition, and what I'll affectionately call my own personal score keeping (read: bias). And we'll count it down, so the ones least likely to make an impact will be listed first, with the heavy hitters coming at the end.

As a final note, we didn't include the streaming service Rdio in this list, due to possible conflicts of interest. Or did you not notice that huge Rdio playlist we come out with every week?

Let's get on with it.



Contender: Napster
Odds: 5,000 to 1

Explanation: hahahaha jk (TM Das Racist). Napster, once the vanguard of the online music world, is now a neutered, Best Buy-sponsored music service that is pay-to-play. Its DRM-free library is just as large as any other service's, and its price points are in line with industry norms (roughly $5/month for normal services, $10/month for mobile device inclusion), but the fact is that Napster's name is mud for any serious music consumer. Their refusal to disclose subscriber numbers since 2008-- when the number had dwindled from 2007's 830,000 to 760,000 as of their Best Buy acquisition-- seems to support this idea.



Contender: Slacker Personal Radio
Odds: 500 to 1

Explanation: Slacker is, depending on what you think of it, either a poor man's Pandora or a Pandora alternative. I don't have a dog in the fight, but I do think Pandora's ubiquity gives it a leg-up, at least in the overall scheme of music services. It doesn't use the Music Genome Project, but its algorithm for figuring out what you want to hear from user inputs can't be too different. According to reviews and customer accounts, Slacker does pull deeper and has less repeats and skip-worthy tracks than Pandora, but its also a little intimidating to jump right into; its opening web page being significantly busier than Pandora's clean setup. Finally, check the subscriber numbers to see just how wide the divide is between the two: Slacker's numbers are right around 400,000 as of earlier this month, while Pandora recently came out with a press release stating that their user numbers had topped 100 million. Ultimately, without allowing the user to save their own music, and without allowing users to dictate the music they want to listen to, the possibilities for Slacker are limited, giving it its long odds.



Contender: Grooveshark
Odds: 250 to 1

Explanation: Grooveshark has an awkward interface, a mobile app that you have to pay ($9/month) to use effectively and which actually got booted from the Android market, a lot of fake songs, and it loses a lot of its popular new songs very quickly. It doesn't have many of the biggest names, it's in the middle of one lawsuit, may be inviting some more, and the site itself takes up more bandwidth than it seems like it should. So what does Grooveshark have going for it? Well, firstly, its playlists are easy to create, with a visualized bottom bar that allows for easy switching between songs. If Pandora is a little freewheeling for your tastes, the control Grooveshark allows is nice. But the big thing that Grooveshark has is embeds. Like I said, songs often disappear quickly, as Grooveshark must struggle with cease and desists from labels, but the fact that bloggers can use Grooveshark to embed tracks, including tracks the user can upload, gives it an advantage to anyone who owns a website. If Grooveshark can suss out some label deals, it could become the next Lala, meaning it'll be immediately swallowed up by a larger company as soon as it displays a modicum of mainstream success.



Contender: MOG
Odds: 200 to 1

Explanation: MOG has got one thing going for them: it's price ($5/month), which is notably lower than many of the others. Additionally, it has partnerships with online LG and Roku devices, and it streams only high definition audio at 320kbps, a boon for any audiophiles out there. They also include a streaming radio aspect, which while cool, neither helps nor hurts their chances in the court of public opinion. The problem MOG will run into, as many of the streaming services will, is the fact that people want access to the music they already own in addition to the music they can stream. Besides that, there's an anonymity to MOG that hurts their chances; their subscriber numbers aren't disclosed, which always sets your odds-predicting teeth on edge. They're definitely trying to move forward, however, as they've recently partnered with Verizon and started an HTML5 player, setting them ahead of the curve for many of their Flash-based online counterparts, but with cloud services and Spotify's hybrid service jumping into the fray, it may not be enough for MOG to make a dent.



Contender: Pandora Internet Radio
Odds: 90 to 1

Explanation: Pandora, despite its brand recognition, and its ubiquity (100 million users) is in the same boat as Slacker. Personal radio is great if you can't be bothered to think too hard about what you want to listen to, but its lack of definition means that it'll be mighty difficult for Pandora to become a favorite of the public for all its music needs. Despite that 100 million number, Digital Music News guestimates that only around 500,000 of those are paying subscribers. Its steps to include itself in cars will help its chances, but the idea of Pandora as anything more than supplemental product is a pipe dream. Especially given its problems with repeating songs when on the same station for too long, and its skip-limitations for free accounts. And why would I pay even three bucks a month for something I know isn't going to be my dedicated music listening service?



Contender: Rhapsody
Odds: 75 to 1

Explanation: We're getting to the real meat of it now as we start exploring some of the more popular music streaming services. At the bottom of the list was Grooveshark and MOG, and now in the middle of the pack comes Rhapsody, who I remember first thinking seriously of during those commercials that featured Justice's "DVNO" a few years back. Still, I'm not a huge fan. Why no love for Rhapsody? Well, aside from the fact that its website experience is akin to an "As Seen on TV" infomercial product's website, Rhapsody just has nothing to hang its hat on. Its music catalog is neither astounding nor problematic, its interface nondescript, and its pricing ($10/month for streaming + 1 download per song, $15/month for streaming + 3 downloads per song) a bit high compared to whats coming out in the near future, and even what's out right now. What they've got going for them is a very large user base (800,000 paying users as of earlier this year), and some modicum of brand recognition, but whether that will be enough to push them to play with the big boys remains to be seen, and seems unlikely.



Contender: Amazon Cloud Drive
Odds: 20 to 1

Explanation: The cloud services are the "big boys", for the very simple reason that people still like to have music. Stream and radio it up all you want, people still have speakers for a reason. There's something defining about your music, and if you're just streaming it, then there's an idea, however misguided, that the streamed music "belongs" to everybody. In the realm of the cloud services, Amazon's Cloud Drive has the highest handicap. Why? Well, because it's not positioned well in comparison to its competition. It has no major label deals, uploading your catalog onto Amazon's servers takes forever (I had a friend inform me that it took two full days to upload her 3,000 songs), and its prices (starting at $20/year) while fantastic in compared to the streaming services, are looking like a "you pay for what you get" situation. That said, they're still currently the only cloud service out there that's available to everyone, which counts for something. Plus, it'll save your Amazon MP3s for free. Hah! Gotcha! I know nobody uses Amazon MP3.



Contender: Google Music
Odds: 10 to 1

Explanation: Google's attempts to put their hands in everything has meant that, despite good intentions, their reach often exceeds their grasp. For all the hoopla Google+ engendered in its initial week, who uses it now? And what the hell is Google Buzz, anyway? Which is why it's interesting to see Google Music still in its Beta phase, even as the search engine giant comes out with features like Magnifier for it. It suggests that Google is intent on doing the thing as "right" as possible. The big obstacles in Google's way? Well, first that awful upload time from your computer to their cloud. My collection of music took an astounding six days of constant uploading to complete. Playing the music on my phone, while satisfying, has also proved challenging, at least if I want to pair it to my Last.fm; the two apps seem to work against each other. The interface is also too busy, a surprise from the people who brought us Gmail. But here's the biggest break either way: price. Currently the invite-only Google Music Beta is free to store as much information as you want. When the service finally goes live, where those price points fall may well determine if Google Music sinks or swims. And if Google can somehow afford to keep it free, then its odds fall down to tourist bet territory.



Contender: Spotify
Odds: 7 to 1

Explanation: Here's what Spotify has nailed that no one else is doing: it's merged streaming music services with cloud music services, meaning not only can you visit Spotify's huge library of songs you don't have to find some new stuff, it also allows you to carry your entire music library with you, via the cleanest programs and apps I've used for any of these services. It also has a free option, something none of the other streaming services can claim, and the price points on its unlimited streaming ($5/month) and its ultimate plan ($10/month) aren't outlandish, either. Not only that, but it also instant-matches from your iTunes library, meaning the wait times that plague Google and Amazon are nill. Within only a few months of its U.S. launch, Spotify has roughly 200,000 paying subscribers in this country, putting them at over 1 million paying subscribers globally, a huge leg-up on the fledgling cloud market, whose numbers, due to the short time they've been around, have yet to be disclosed. The biggest issues I had with Spotify were in what it seemed to promise but didn't deliver on. Why link with my Facebook account when you're not going to inform me my friends are using Spotify? Or allow me to chat with them? Or even give me a sort of feed letting me know when they've done something. If Spotify could incorporate the excellent social networking aspect of Rdio, it'd have the ideas of just about everything right. The devil for Spotify is in the details, where the Windows program uses too many system resources and has refused to close for me on occasion, or how there are way too many cover versions of popular songs polluting its search results. And the limitations on the free account are oddly strict (10 hours a month max listening? Jesus) But if it cleans things up, Spotify's combination of cloud and streaming makes it one of the best bets.



Contender: iCloud
Odds: 5 to 1

Explanation: Name recognition. Instant iTunes matching. Free storage of all iTunes downloaded purchases (huge in capturing the semi-tech savvy mom demographic). Seamless push to all of your Apple devices. It's the one that appears ready for the big team right out of the box. The problem? Well, uh, we haven't seen it yet. The iCloud Beta currently doesn't include its music cloud service, nor iTunes Match, so there's no telling if iCloud-- in practicality-- will end up like the iPod or like (gulp) Ping. Reportedly, from those inside the iCloud beta, price points are slightly higher than those currently on Amazon, though the interface and useability of the thing is rumored to be as you would expect from an Apple product. The biggest thing-- aside from the higher prices-- it'll have to deal with? No streaming, or at least only as much as iTunes currently allows. If anything can either ensure or completely break the iCloud, it'll be how important that streaming aspect is to potential customers. Now, Apple did purchase Lala, which had both streaming and-- as I mentioned when talking about Grooveshark-- the ability to embed tracks. If Apple builds either (or both) of those into the iCloud, it could probably run the table. But if it's simply an Apple-branded alternative to Google or Amazon's services, it'll give everybody else on this list (except Napster, let's be honest) a chance to fill that void.
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