Like most people I know, I almost always listen to music while I walk. But I don't own an iPod. I don't own a Zune. And I don't own a Walkman (they finally stopped making those last week). Instead, I have a smart phone with an app called Grooveshark. For $36 a year, I can search and listen to almost any song on my phone, at any time.
Does that sound fantastical? Well, it gets better. On my work computer, I can log into Grooveshark.com, line up some songs, and listen on my phone during an afternoon walk. If the walk takes me to the library to do research, I can sit down at a different computer, log back into Grooveshark, and press play on the same music lineup. When I walk out of the library, those changes are saved on my phone app, and I can keep the tunes rolling. Unlike Apple iTunes libraries, which live in the memory of one computer or one iPod/Pad, my personal Grooveshark music lives online, and I can access it any Internet connection.
There are techies out there that will read those paragraphs and sigh at me like a late-adopter Luddite. It's true! I am a late-adopter Luddite. But the fact that a fogy like me can fall so desperately in love with Grooveshark is proof that the promise of "cloud music" is real -- and a real threat to a la carte music like iTunes.
The Grooveshark app isn't the only cloud music app out there, and I'm sure it's not the best. You've got big names like Rhapsody, Rdio and Spotify and smaller names like mSpot and eMusic.
Apple is moving on cloud music, but softly. The company has developed an app that lets you upload your music into Google Docs and play songs from anywhere with an Internet connection. But that still requires you to buy the music, $0.99 song by $0.99 song. The beauty of Grooveshark is that I can create and delete my entire music every day from an infinite buffet of music. If you like scrolling through your e-library of music, cloud music isn't for you. But take it from a guy who lost 5,000 songs when my old computer broke last year: Since I downloaded Grooveshark, I haven't missed the library.
This is a testimonial, but it's also a story about information. Information wants to be free, right? Well, the webification of journalism, music, movies and more has made it easier than ever to get your hands on free media. The interesting catch is that while we trick ourselves into thinking information escapes cost, we pay through the nose for access to that information. The average cable bill is $900 a year. The average Internet bill is $500 a year. Smart phone bills can easily run you above $1,000 a year. That's information, that's media, and we're paying a thousand dollars a year to experience it "for free."
The move to the cloud is inevitable, not merely because of the arithmetic ($3/month < $9.99 an album) but also because the cloud medium elevates access over content, reducing friction between the consumer and the new music. A world where all is prepaid is better than a world with pop-up purchase options. I remain convinced that users will pay for information in all of its forms -- written, spoken, sung and video'd -- even if we think we're getting it for free. The trick is for publishers to find new ways to make that information both solvent and frictionless.