Streaming music might be the future, but it's a way off yet

The cloud; not just for work, but also for play. Music from the cloud has been steadily growing in popularity in recent years, to the point now where even Apple is getting in on it with iTunes Radio. Many camps consider it to be the future of how we listen to music, but we're not there yet. Not even close. There's a whole myriad of reasons as to why, and no matter how much we want it right now, it just isn't viable right now to go all-in with a streaming service.

Labels and rights holders hold the key

There's no better example of this than our buddy Jerry Hildenbrand of Android Central's experience just this week with Google Play Music, and the Iron Maiden collection in his All Access locker that had suddenly vanished:

Content providers, fix your shit. Deliver the stuff people want to the people who want to pay for it, or we'll steal it. It ain't rocket science.

The music industry is tightly controlled by the labels and the rights holders to the music you want to listen to. The same music by the same band is still available on All Access here in the UK, yet in the U.S, it's gone. It's a sucky licensing agreement that ultimately just harms the people who matter the most; music fans. The music fans who are quite happy to pay for a service when they could easily go out and steal the same music.

It isn't just Google, of course, anyone who sells music – either track by track or for streaming – is subject to licensing agreements with the labels. It's what reportedly almost held up the launch of iTunes Radio, it's what's keeping iTunes Radio explicitly available in the U.S. at the moment, and it's why Google, Spotify, Rdio, Pandora and the like aren't available in all of the countries, in all of the world. It sucks. Musicians deserve to get paid, absolutely, but these services aren't like Napster all those years ago. They're not providing you with stolen music. So, why does it have to be so hard?

Deals are tough to make, we're the ones who miss out

It's a contentious issue, but with licensing agreements comes cold, hard, cash. Pandora's founder, Tim Westergren, claims that for 1 million spins of any particular song, they pay out around $1,370. Whether that's a lot or a little, isn't something I particularly want to get into. But, just as important as licensing out the music, is how much money is going to be exchanged for that license. Consumers don't really care, they just want to listen to music. But money makes the world go round, and because licensing agreements and royalty payment deals are so tough to put in place, there will always be catalog gaps in the streaming space.

Going all streaming on mobile isn't practical

I'm fortunate, I have a truly unlimited data plan with my carrier. As such, I never store any music on my iPhone, I get it all via Spotify. But even here in the UK, unlimited plans aren't at all common, even less so in other parts of the world such as North America. Without an endless bucket of data to get your music, it's a waste.

Sure, with many of the popular options such as Spotify and Google, you can cache music to your device to listen to offline. While this is handy if you're going abroad, or on a plane, in other words somewhere you will be temporarily without data, it defeats the object of having such a massive catalog at your disposal if you're still filling up your devices storage. Sadly, there's not a lot we can do about the carriers, but it definitely puts a downer on moving all-in on a streaming music provider.

The future looks bright, though

The future indeed does look bright. There's a heap of choice out there, and slowly but surely the bigger services are rolling out further and further round the globe. Pricing is competitive, and we've also got a range of services to cater to different tastes. iTunes Radio and Pandora are more like a traditional radio experience, whereas Rdio, Spotify and Google All Access have a massive library of albums for you to build playlists with.

And, despite licensing deals being a sticky point generally, artists are more and more so getting behind the streaming services. Spotify for example has this year added Metallica and the entire Pink Floyd collection to its library. There will always be gaps, but they're closing up all the time.

And, let's not forget the sheer number of places we can get our music these days. On our iPhone, iPad and iPod touch – or indeed any smartphone or tablet, generally – Mac, Apple TV, Windows PC, Linux, games consoles, Smart TV, even in the car, the list is growing all the time. Digital music was the first industry changer, and eventually, streaming music will be the next.

Your thoughts

So, that's what I think, but what about you? Where do you stand on the idea of the music streaming model? Is it something you're already invested in, or is there something that fundamentally holds you back? Drop me a line in the comments!

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Richard Devine

Senior Editor at iMore, part time racing driver, full time British guy

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Reader comments

Streaming music might be the future, but it's a way off yet


Unlimited data is the biggest hurdle for the end-user in my opinion. The two big American carriers are limiting the full potential of smartphones with tiered data plans. If a customer goes with the smaller two American carriers, unlimited data is available but at the sacrifice of reliable smartphone coverage.

100% streaming, nothing more. I don't buy music anymore. If I want something permanent, I might but that's rare. If Google Play All Access doesn't have it for streaming, I *may* buy it or just wait it out but rarely will I pay for music.

Piracy isn't even close to an option for me either.

I do Sirius XM (also have a receiver in my car) and Sound Cloud for streaming. If I really want a song or album I will buy from time to time from amazonMP3. Gotta have local music as well because you just never know, good to keep 2GB on hand.

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I stream almost all my music using either pandora or the new iTunes Radio when it's released. I tried spotify but for the $7.99 monthly fee I just don't use it enough to justify it.

I'm also on the Unlimited ATT data plan, my commute is just over an hour total each day and the rest of the day I'm on wifi. I don't even come close to using 2GB of data a month including any other surfing/emailing/etc I do via the cell network. If someone wasn't on wifi I can see how that adds up. But honestly, who isn't on wifi like that during the day?

As an artist, you were required to put out so many albums a year. Back then, a lot of songs did not make the cut for whatever reason. There is so much unreleased music by so many great artist, and the labels hold onto it. What are they waiting for. Case in point, when Marty Robbins passed away, his son had unreleased music by his dad. He made It available. There were some great songs there. The label stilled owned the rights to the music. They shut him down. That was at lease twenty years ago, and the music has not been released yet. What are they waiting on, the end of time? Streaming is great, but there is so much music that will never be heard due to labels.

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With over 26K songs in my personal collection I haven't waded into the stream. I guess I'm still too old-school and want a copy that I can always get to.

My experience with shows like Inspector Lewis on Netflix is very similar to what Richard describes with minute it is there and the next it isn't. I don't think most people watch TV/Videos over and over as much as they do with music. To have a favorite TV show get pulled is annoying. To have your favorite Artist or CD pulled because of licensing issues almost feels criminal.

We don't get Pandora or Spotify in Canada, but Rdio provides a fantastic service in my opinion. I'm fully converted to streaming - my 6gb/mo plan ensures I never worry about consuming too much media. I hated managing music files between my computer & various devices. Rdio has set me free. And their catalog is stellar, not to mention their app design is beautiful and the built in features are top-notch. I don't mind if I don't own the music I listen to. If Rdio ever shuts down, I'll simply take my $10/mo elsewhere (hopefully by then the other big music streaming services will have made their way north of the border).

I'd love to stream, but even with a 6 GB plan, I worry about data overages. (Songza is hugely data-heavy.)

But if I had one of those corporate unlimited data plans (they apparently exist!), I'd only stream and keep no local music.

I imagine that as networks improve, data caps will rise, and then streaming will be much easier.

I understand the issues mentioned, but for myself the reality is different, streaming services are almost not existing we're I live. We have spotify and rdio (but with a high percentage of the music not available). Other services tried but ended stopping after a year because the royalties are silly here. As long as libraries that try to bring the love of books to kids are charged insane royalties for every book they read to the kids, I have no hope.

I could stream but don't.
I have a robust music collection, the accumulation of a 30+ years of music collecting. Thus i have a ton of music to listen to. I'm not looking for new music. I can't keep up with the new music i got. And some of it is just new to me because it never got mainstream success. but i got demos, b sides, mix tapes, personal mix tapes, out of print rap, some rap so local if you didn't live there you don't own it cause they only sold it from one swap meet, imports, alternative takes, jazz crap i got from my father on vinyl from who knows when.

I'm not big on the radio in general. That whole random song thing. Most really good hip-hop doesn't make the radio except maybe weekend mix shows so i was never big on letting others pic my music. Plus i used to dj so i inherently feel that whatever comes next on pandora or spotify or whatever is kinda mediocre. One issue is many of these services simply don't have some of the stuff i have.

A big issue i have is I don't have consistent data. Like I can name a ton of buildings even a mall that I know once you get about 30 feet inside you're gonna lose your signal. I stream podcasts occasionally and always get cut off midstream. That's why most i have set to download automatically. And i'll stream tunein radio and it cuts off quite often. I have over 15k songs in google play and if i stream off their i know i'll get cut off in stores. Plus i live near mountains and close to the ocean. One block from the ocean my data dies. on the sand I get nothing. when i go into the mountains a clean signal is hit or miss. So signal dropouts keep me from relying on streaming, be it my own content on google play or music services. So it's just not reliable enough to rely on something other than local content. Hell i got a 64 gb drive cause i want it all the time w/o any chance of dropping out.

Another thing is in hip-hop there's plenty of free content available on Mixtape site like datpiff. livemixtape etc and people get stuff from well known artists there free rather than buying stuff.

I'm confused, last I checked, EVERYONE was streaming, doesn't that make this something that is already here? There is a difference between pointing out the problems of something, and using those issues to deny that something exists. It's the future sure, but it's also the present. I have torch music hooked up to my home computer, work computer, and phone. I listen to it everywhere there is an internet connection. So do a ton of other people with whatever service they use. Obviously changes must be made in the payment structure, but that sure as hell hasn't kept streaming from taking over.

That may be true where you live. Where I live NO ONE is streaming, because there are no high speed unlimited data plans, so if you're not on wi-fi, you don't dare stream anything.

+1. If everyone were streaming there would be a heck of a lot more people blowing those 2GB data caps out of the water.

Understood, but this doesn't mean there won't be soon. Plus, streaming isn't just for phones, if you use youtube at all, you're a streamer.

Good one Devine, I agree with everything.

What I miss most is a truly international music license agency, where artists and labels could license their stuff so everybody could get it. We need to end this border nonsense, where you listen to a song in the US but not in Mexico or Canada. It leads to pirating and everybody loses.

As a developer I am thinking...

How can a streaming service be designed and created. But the hurdle is copyrights, royalties and the label companies. For a streaming provider it is a real peace of work to get deals with so many labels, also to get started they need seed money or already a big exisitining paying userbase to afford.

I am looking for the next big thing to develope. You see whatsapp just sold to facebook with millions of users. Is streaming the next big thing? or is it something else. Its look in this time its apps that has with communication to do that is doing it good. Maybe a app that offers people to share a streaming account, hybrid between communication and music?

Lets throw ideas, of apps you need.