Google Music Beta

Are we reaching the end of recorded music's evolution?

This week I had the opportunity to take advantage of one of cloud computing's much-promoted advantages. And I certainly hadn't planned on needing it.

At the beginning of the week I received (along with probably ten million other Gmail users) an invitation to join the Google Music beta. Google Music is the internet giant's foray into streaming music service, an area that's heated up recently with the introductions of Amazon Cloud Player, Best Buy Music Cloud and Apple's iCloud. I thought I'd give it a shot for my music collection: 76 GB / 13,200 music tracks in varying formats, though predominantly MP3. (And yes, all are legit. I'm married to a professional musician, and they can be pretty picky about such things.)

The first step to migrate your music to Google Music cloud storage is to install the Google Music Manager locally.  A straightforward interface, it basically allows you to upload local files from your iTunes library, Windows Media library or another folder to the storage you've been allocated (a limit of 20,000 music files). Needless to say, uploading thousands of multi-megabyte files is a time consuming process; it took the Music Manager a nonstop 2 1/2 days to upload most of my music over a 25 Mbps uplink. A total of 1900 files didn't upload due to unspecified errors and DRM issues, and there's no retry capability. (The Music Manager won't upload DRM-protected files.)

Once up there, it's pretty simple to use - which is another way of saying there's not a lot of different things you can do with it. The music player is simply the default page at once you're signed in, and you can play pause, jump ahead or back, and shuffle or repeat. You can also make playlists based on whether you've given a track a thumbs up, based on your current playing selection, or build your own. There are no sharing capabilities built into the service at all, though it does have the ability to play your music through an Android phone, and no way to download the music out of Google's cloud to another machine (though you can delete them).

This music service worked out really well for me, however. Literally hours after the upload completed, the system drive in my main home network server (DHCP, DNS, AD, WSUS, file sharing, etc.) crashed and rendered my home network inoperable. After splinting up the network for internet access, the whole house could keep enjoying our music from my Google account while I made a Fry's run to replace the drive (1.5 terabyte drive for $67 - insane).

The last step for recorded music?

This whole situation makes me ponder the future of recorded music. We started with records, and then CDs we personally owned. We could hold them in our hands, and they were OURS, regardless of what any media company lawyer might have to say on the matter. One of the differences between LPs and CDs, of course, it's that it's easy to rip them to a digital media format such as MP3...which suddenly makes ownership a whole lot murkier.

The advent of streaming music services complicates matters even more. You can use a free service such as Pandora to stream music to your computer or home audio system if you have a media adapter like Logitech's Squeezebox; you don't own this music, but you can play it. Or you can use a subscription service like Rhapsody to play music in the same manner; you're paying a licensing fee to choose the music you want to hear...but it's not YOURS.

Now these personal streaming services really confuse things. The music was (let's assume) originally yours from a CD, or purchased from iTunes and de-DRMed so you could use it like you'd use a CD, and uploaded to private storage in the public it's yours and you can play it, but you can't put your hands on it any more .

How long will it be before the ubiquity of public cloud services, and the means to access them widely, cause the concept of "MP3 files" to be relegated to the same dustbin as 78s, LPs, and CDs? Oh, the format won't be going way any time soon, but it will be so disguised, embedded and abstracted from the user interface that when you say "MP3 file" the next generation will look at their parents the same way the current generation looked at their parents when they talked about long-playing records. Music will have become either a live performance - or metadata about a composition, playable from anywhere. And that’s the final step in the hundred-year evolution of recorded music, isn’t it?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @shorinsean.

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