The Cloud is more than a hard drive in the sky. Photo (CC-BY) wheresmysocks.

Indies, don’t fear the Apple. The world with Apple’s iCloud doesn’t appear to be that radically different than the one we had before. And that’s a good thing: the Web, not any one cloud sync service, is still the most revolutionary technology for connecting music to listeners.

Updated: commenters online read this as complaining, so let me clarify: cloud sync has already had unfair expectations placed on it. It remains a no-brainer for Apple to implement. The question is, from an artist’s standpoint, what expectations should you have about the impact of the technology on what you’re doing. In the short term, some of those prove to be more limited, and now that there are some details, it’s worth analyzing those details.

I expect developers granted an early test version of iCloud and music will be breaking their NDAs shortly so we hear more details, but here’s what we know.

The Service: Useful, Maybe, Just Not Earth-Shaking

I think Apple’s value proposition is stronger than Google’s or Amazon’s. It looks far more complete, far better-designed, and genuinely usable.

On the other hand, like those other services, what it actually does remains relatively conservative:

Automatic sync – if you buy from iTunes. iTunes’ cloud service will work with files manually synced to iCloud, or with purchases from iTunes.

Benefit from being in iTunes’ store catalog, even if your listeners don’t buy there. For US$24.99 a year, Apple will “match” your music from other sources to entries in their iTunes Library – and “upgrade” them to 256 kbps AAC (though for people buying in FLAC format and the like, that’s not really an upgrade).

Sync files locally. Reportedly, Apple will offer streams and downloads alike. That means at least downloads are an option for people wanting higher-quality files. Just how this works is a bit unclear while we wait to test it. It’s not entirely clear why some reports (like TuneCore) suggested Apple had streaming capability; they have confirmed that instead they synchronize files locally prior to playback.

Sync anywhere you want, as long as it’s made by Apple. iTunes for Mac, iTunes for Windows, iPod, iPhone, iPad. Actually, in fairness, that’s relevant even to players other than iTunes – even the recently-released, open source Miro can talk to your iTunes library.

Don’t get me wrong: it looks like Apple is unveiling the first really viable cloud music service. That shows some serious ongoing leadership from the company that popularized the desktop player that’s still #1 today (iTunes), popularized online music buying with an online store that’s still #1 today (iTunes Music Store), popularized the mobile player that’s still #1 today (iPod), and maintains a nice, healthy chunk of the mobile market (especially if you look at all iOS devices together).

As of today, Apple’s still setting the bar for everyone else. It’s just that, in contrast to the revolution unleashed by iTunes and iPod, the results may not be as seismic this time.

Outlook Cloudy

Let’s review: we’ve waited a long time for online sync. And here’s what we’ve got:

Different services for different devices and different stores. Buy your music from Amazon, Google, and Apple? Own an Android smartphone, an iPad, and a Windows PC with Winamp? You can look forward to beautifully-integrated solutions for … each of those. Separately. Great.

No clear benefit for music makers. Digital Music News points to the folks at Beyond Oblivion. They note this service will simply sync people’s pirated music:
But Wait: Isn’t the iCloud Just Reinforcing Bad Habits?

Because even if rights owners are properly licensed, this is merely making billions of stolen music files more accessible. And that’s supposed to be a solution? “We can’t enrich the music industry, we can’t enrich artists, we can’t enrich life, society and culture by continually going to the same 5% who already pay for the music,” Beyond Oblivion CEO Adam Kidron said this morning. “We have to go to a new market.”

I’m not the sort of person who is kept awake at night by thoughts of piracy, but look at this the other way – in contrast to Apple’s initial unveiling of the iTunes Music Store, I don’t see any clear evidence that this will encourage people to buy more music. Not yet, anyway. Your best hope is that somehow this fairly modest sync ability will encourage people to buy more music, likely from iTunes (or Google Music for their Android, or Amazon for their likely-upcoming Amazon tablet). But that’s a stretch, and likely to be a drop in the bucket compared to the ongoing slump of the CD.

Hello? Anyone? I’m the Web? Did you forget me? Although it’s not as mind-bogglingly inexplicable as it was with Google, Apple seems to have forgotten the Web. Apple themselves pointed to the growing popularity of the camera on the iPhone, but ignored in the keynote the reason for that popularity – the ability to spread your photos with Twitter, Facebook, Web apps, Instragram, and the like.

For a service that takes music online, there’s really no ability to use that online information to share what you’re listening to, or get recommendations from other people. Nor is there any kind of API that would allow artists, labels, and creative developers to help build an ecosystem – even though such an ecosystem would potentially benefit music.

In fact, looking to rival Google, YouTube is far more relevant to getting your music out and actually generating new listeners and fans there than this cloud service is.

From a purely business perspective, the cloud so far looks surprisingly barren. It’s a huge gamble that some modest sync features – themselves designed to remove obvious, counter-intuitive annoyances – will make online music listening any more popular, or help musicians earn more from their work.

Winners, Losers, and Vinyl

I’m awaiting a response from Merlin, the folks who represent a huge share of independent labels, and who have protested their treatment in the licensing process.

I’m also hoping to hear more from services like TuneCore, who, for an annual fee, allow unsigned artists to get their work on iTunes. (I’m testing this as an artist and as a journalist myself.)

My bet: the one winner here is TuneCore. Artists may now have to pay the $50-a-year “tax” (erm, make that “service fee”) to TuneCore just to ensure their music will work with iTunes Match – and that people eager to buy cloud-ready music can. Don’t get me wrong: TuneCore provides some valuable services, but irrespective of what they offer, we’ll see whether this winds up being something that brightens independent artists’ day — or is just a pain in the … uh … cloud.

And all of this…

I…

I’m, sorry, I feel a blasphamous, snarky comment coming on. Oh, screw it. Turn to your blogger side. Filters off.

Vinyl records right now are more relevant to independent musicians than cloud sync.

There, I said it. I’m not even sure if I agree with it, but I might, and at least it sounds damned good.

The Good News

Maybe it’s time to stop looking to big companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google to chart the future course of music. Maybe the biggest platform doesn’t come from any one company, or any one, shiny device.

Maybe it’s just the Web. After all, it was the Cloud before anyone thought of calling things the Cloud.

I’ll believe in it, until I go to — borrowing Jobs’ words — that great, big hard drive in the sky.

  • pr

    "Vinyl records right now are more relevant to independent musicians than cloud sync."

    They're not even in the same category to make a comparison.

  • Peter Kirn

    Sure, it's a fair comparison, if an (intentionally) odd one.

    Apple's iCloud is being held up — by analysts, not be Apple — as a revolution for music. 

    My point is, releasing a vinyl record may have a greater impact on your life as an artist, on your connection to fans, than the question of how Apple syncs your tracks from desktop to mobile if you bought it from their store.

    Obviously, I mean that to be provocative. I'm not advocating vinyl releases for everyone, either. But I think it illustrates that maybe the discussion of music distribution is needlessly narrow — and unrealistically optimistic about the enabling factor of some of these technologies.

  • pr

    I think any analysts who say that are very wrong. I mean the service isn't even particularly for music. It's for general data. Thus, I don't think they could be compared in that revolution sense. "A revolution for computing" is more appropriate (though even that is arguable).

    I agree with you. I just think it's too obvious that iCloud will have little impact on artists' careers to mention it.

  • Peter Kirn

    Ha, fair point.

    I think there is this level of scrutiny here, for several reasons:

    1. Labels (hence the Merlin statement earlier today) recognize Apple has a very big chunk of the pie, *and*

    2. — they see a shifting landscape in terms of how distribution work.

    3. Apple really did spawn revolutions with the iTunes, iPod, and the iTunes Music Store, as far as music distribution.

    So, yeah, it may be obvious that some of the expectations are misplaced, but at the same time, I think in that context it's not hard to see why people might have overheated expectations or anxieties.

  • Peter Kirn

    By the way, I don't think my conclusions are obvious. The reason I put the words "flash reaction" on this was that this was my own kneejerk reaction — and it may not be correct.

    TuneCore believes this will have a radical impact on the whole business:
    http://blog.tunecore.com/2011/06/icloud-%E2%80%93

    Of course, part of what I'm saying is that the net result may not be positive. Reading the TuneCore article, it could even be negative — it could be that people wind up never buying music, and that streams win out over downloads. I'd say any conclusion at this point is far from obvious. 

    But at the same time, having waited for something like this for over a decade, I also think it's essential to speculate, even if that speculation proves to be wrong. It's not like we haven't had time to think about this; we've been talking about it since before the iPod was invented. ;)

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