The Mess that is Digital Music

It used to be so simple... you had a pile of CDs, you carried a small collection around in a case of 10, swapped them in and out of your portable player or your car stereo. Then MP3 happened, then iPods, then iPhones and now the Cloud. It all used to make sense, but now it's all a mess. As new services have appeared, our family and number of mobile devices has grown, we've adopted them one by one. As of this writing, this is what we're using:
  • iTunes with a library of 30+ Gigs of music, mostly from ripped CDs, iTunes purchases and MP3 from Amazon's MP3 store.
  • Amazon Cloud Player, containing all the MP3s purchased at Amazon.
  • Pandora. We're paying for the monthly subscription.
  • Spotify. We're also paying for this one. Our two teenage daughters can listen to whatever they happen to be into this week without having to purchase a bunch of albums that quickly go out of their rotation. Unfortunately only one person can use it at a time.
When I want to play a particular song, I need to figure out where to find it. If it's on iTunes, there's no guarantee it will be sitting on the limited space on my iPhone. Spotify might have the song, but a large number of my catalog is from exotic parts of the world and can't be found. Pandora plays what it wants, not what I want when I want it (though it's very nice as an alarm clock!). The point is that there's currently no solution that does it all for me, and it's annoying. Yeah, First World problem, I know. Still... a good opportunity to revive this blog and think out loud.


In an ideal world, I would like the perfect solution to do the following, in prioritized order:
  1. Allow me to play anything from my collection at any time from any device without using the limited memory on the device.
  2. Work on the desktop, iOS and Android.
  3. Be usable concurrently by multiple members of the family.
  4. Support some sort of offline mode, for those rare times when you don't have internet (on an airplane, driving in remote areas, etc)
  5. Play music without consuming my limited data plan.
  6. Allow me to discover new music and play albums I don't "physically" own.

The various options

The are so many options: iTunes, Amazon Cloud, Google Music, Spotify, Pandora, etc. Some of these can be ruled out pretty much immediately though. Pandora and Spotify are out immediately, as I cannot stream every song from my collection.

iTunes, Google Music and Amazon Cloud allow me to play my collection, by doing some sort of music match and uploading the rest to the cloud. iTunes and Amazon charge $25 per year for this privilege, while Google lets you upload 20,000 songs as part of the $9.99 per month All Access plan.

The cross platform requirement removes iTunes from the equation. Google and Amazon have clients on all platforms.

Both Google and Amazon allow multiple devices to stream at the same time but in both cases you need to use the same account to log in. We already use a single Amazon account for the whole family and we all have individual Google accounts. Due to deep integration of Google sign-on on Android, it might be messy to have another member of the family log in to the music player using someone else's account. Amazon has a slight edge on this one.

All these services allow you to designate tracks for offline mode. It takes some planning to prepare for trips and such, but it's not a huge deal. I've already been doing it with Spotify...

On the data side, if you have an "unlimited" data plan, you don't have any issues. I use T-Mobile which recently launched Free Music Streaming: music streaming does not count against your data usage as long as you stream from one of Pandora, iHeartRadio, iTunes Radio, Rhapsody, Spotify, Slacker, and Milk Music. They also note that they will be adding more services "all the time" (though they have not added any in spite of various petitions). In the meantime, neither Amazon Cloud Player not Google Music are on the list. Bummer. While it's more likely that T-Mobile will add Google before Amazon, due to overwhelming customer demand, there's no guarantee that anything will happen. Maybe I can live with this. I mostly play music on Wifi at home or work and data usage only becomes an issue during the commute. Google has a slight edge here, as it's more likely it will be added by T-Mobile sooner than Amazon.

Finally, again, Google and Amazon have "radio" stations and a large collection of music you can listen to for free. This is not that important to me.

Amazon charges $25 per year to upload up to 250,000 songs. With Prime Music you get free access to a large catalog that does not include most recent releases. You also get radio stations. Google All Access, on the other hand, costs $9.99 per month, allowing you to upload up to 20,000 songs. You get access to a huge catalog, including new releases and you can also create radio stations. With Amazon I need to purchase (how quaint!) any new music the family wants to listen to. Assuming an average album price of $10, if I need to purchase 10 or more albums per year Google ends up being cheaper than Amazon. Looking at my usage of Spotify last year I see that I added more than 10 albums in a year, and I have no idea how many my kids added to their playlists. For our particular usage patterns Google wins on cost. Furthermore, Google lets you try All Access for free the first month, so there's no reason not to do it. (Amazon charges the $25 upfront if you want to upload more than 250 songs).

The decision

The table below summarizes the differences between Amazon and Google:

[table width="600"]
Access to Full Collection,"Yes: you can upload up to 250,000 songs","Yes: you can upload up to 20,000 songs",Tie
Cross Platform,"Yes: iOS, Android and Native Mac Client", "Yes: iOS, Android, and browser based client", Amazon (Google has no native Mac Client)
Concurrent Usage,Yes,Yes,Tie
Offline Mode,Yes,Yes,Tie
Free Data on T-Mobile,No,No,Tie (Google has a slight edge as it's more likely it will be added first given its larger user base)
Discover Mode,Yes: but limited Prime Catalog,Yes: catalog includes new releases,Google
Cost,$25 + cost of purchasing new albums,$9.99 * 12 = $120,Google (based on our family's usage patterns)
Try it cost,$25,Free,Google

Since I only have 10,000 songs, and Google allows me to try their service for free, I'm going with Google. I'm going to try it out, move the whole family over and stop paying for Pandora and Spotify.

The Google All Access Experience

I signed up and downloaded the music uploader. Then I pointed it to my iTunes music folder and let it run. In about a day it had imported my 10,000 tracks, over 6,000 could not be matched and had to be uploaded. Album art and metadata survived the transfer without problems.

It was easy to set up the iPhone App to log in with my account in my kids iPhones and it did not confuse other Google applications. On Android it's more complicated, as you are actually adding another account to the whole device. The person owning that device can use your credentials for any Google application. This implies that multiple concurrent usage is not intended for family use. That said, it works, so we're using it, but you have to be comfortable sharing your account with someone else's Android device.

Usage experience has been good. I'm not crazy about the browser based client on the Mac, but the iOS app is fine. It's easy to create new playlists and add content to them. We use playlists to keep each other's music separate. I asked each member of the family to create a playlist with their name and dump their music there. I found and added all the albums I had added using Spotify. Finally I created some offline playlists for air travel and we're done.

After months I feel reunited with my music collection. I've been playing music I have not heard in a long time and enjoying it tremendously. Streaming it through the cloud means I don't have issues with memory on my 16Gig iPhone 5S. And I do spend most of my time within Wifi reach, so I remain within the limits of my data plan (2.5 Gigs/months/person with T-Mobile).

It will take a while to see how this evolves, and I'll update this post if anything changes, but for now I'm satisfied I was able to make some sense of the plethora of options around.


  1. UPDATE: Spotify has just announced a family plan:

    For a family of 4 that is $25 per month rather than $10 for Google Play. And you still cannot upload your own music library to the cloud...

  2. And T-Mobile has announced a bunch of more services. Google Play is going to be added "later this year".

    Amazon should be on that list but isn't.


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