New Lockers, Old Tricks: Amazon and Apple's New Toys Could Be Music-Subscription Training Wheels

Do you find it difficult to remember to synch your iPod? Have a hard time keeping track of your mp3s every time you get a new computer? Solutions to these and other first-world digital struggles are being released almost by the hour. And in the past three months, two of the world's biggest tech companies and one of its biggest retailers decided that what their customers really need is an efficient way to listen to all their music on all their devices, without having to move their music every time they pick up a new iPad or smart phone, or walk from the living room to the office.

In March, Amazon unveiled its Cloud Drive, a digital "locker" that allows users to store and access their music. Google followed in May with Google Music Beta, and last week Apple announced that it would be releasing the iCloud in the Fall. In all three services, users upload their mp3 collections to the company's servers and stream them back on their PCs and Android-powered smart phones, much as e-mails are stored remotely but accessed locally (music purchased directly from Apple's iTunes and Amazon MP3 don't always have to be re-uploaded). The services start at free, and include modest storage fees depending on the options and a record collection's size.

If you think it's a good idea, you're not alone. But it's hardly a new one--subscription services like Seattle's Rhapsody have been doing just this for over a decade. "Imagine a service where you can access virtually any song you want, or will ever want, anywhere, on any device. You're not in the future--this is Rhapsody, in 2001!" said Brendan Benzing, Rhapsody's chief product officer, in a tongue-in-cheek press release last month.

Rhapsody is just one of a handful of subscription services that have long offered many of the benefits of these recently announced lockers. The difference is that its services don't stream your personal collection. For $10 a month, users can pull from Rhapsody's library of roughly 11 million songs (depending on the service) and stream them on the same devices that the tech giants are offering.

David Hyman, CEO of Rhapsody competitor MOG, says that the attention that Amazon and the rest are bringing to streaming gives him confidence that cloud-based music businesses are the future. But he doesn't see them as direct competitors. "The competition is getting people to stop buying new music and use a subscription model," says Hyman. "I'm convinced that in the next five years CDs will be gone. Eventually, when there's ubiquitous broadband, local files will be gone, and there'll be cloud-based music and there will be vinyl."

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