I’ve been thinking about how the Music landscape has changed in the past 15 years. The basic progression went something like this. We were buying cassettes, then CDs, to pirating our music from places like Napster, to downloading music legitimately, and eventually to subscription music. It has been a somewhat slow progression from physical media to digitally acquiring our music.

Since a significant portion of all music purchased today is done digitally it should come as no surprise to anybody. It is the trend, and I cannot foresee users going back to physical media sales as a means to acquire music. Do not misunderstand me, I am aware that there will probably be those who will purchase some music on physical media. Even today Vinyl sales are at their highest point in quite a while. They are no where near their peak during the 1970’s, but they are selling units.

The current state of music is between several different participants who each utilize a unique method of trying give themselves an edge over their competitors. We’ll look at Apple’s iTunes along with iTunes Match, Amazon MP3 and Cloud Drive, Google Music, Spotify, Zune Pass, and Pandora. I know that there are many more, like Mog, Rdio, and others, but the ones mentioned above are the more popular ones, and seem to be the leaders within their given business model.

iTunes and iTunes Match

Apple's iTunes Match

Apple was not the first, but it has been the dominate player, in purchased music. The iTunes Store opened in 2003 with only 200,000 songs. When it launched it had only protected and DRMed songs using Apple’s AAC format. This business model allowed for the purchase of individual songs instead of having to purchase an entire album just to receive the one or two ‘hit’ songs from an album.

The DRM restricted where the music was able to be played. The only places you could play the purchased music was either on Apple’s iPod hardware or on your computer. The songs were not compatible with any other music player. Each songs that a user could purchase was a mere $0.99, much better than paying the $11.99 to $18.99 price for whole CD that the Recording Industry had been charging users.

As time progressed things changed within the iTunes Music Store. It began will adding more songs, then moved into unprotected MP3 songs, songs at a higher bit-rate than 128Kbps and finally to a tiered pricing model where songs could be either $0.69, $0.99, or $1.29.

iTunes still utilizes the purchased music model. In November 2011, Apple released its cloud music storage solution, iTunes Match, for all to use. iTunes Match is a paid service, $24.99 per year, that allows a user to upload their entire music collection, up to 25,000 songs, in Apple’s cloud storage. iTunes Match will examine your entire music collection to determine if it has a Match to the song that you wish to store. If it does, it will automatically put that into your iTunes Match locker. If the song is one you purchased through iTunes it is automatically added to your iTunes Match locker, and does not count against your 25,000 song limit. If the song cannot be matched and was not purchased through iTunes, it will then upload the song to Apple and store it in the cloud.

That is where Apple’s iTunes Store stands as of right now. Yes, it has other purchasable content like Applications, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

Amazon MP3 and Cloud Drive

Amazon.CloudPlayer

Amazon, known for selling books and millions of other items, began offering MP3 downloads of music in January of 2008. It was the first such store to sell DRM free music via an online mechanism. All music purchased through Amazon’s MP3 store is 256-bit.

The key differences between Amazon’s MP3 store, and Apple’s iTunes is that Amazon was the first company to secure the rights to sell DRM-Free Music tracks from the four major record labels.

In March 2011, Amazon unveiled part of its strategy for gaining traction in the Music purchasing realm, Amazon’s Cloud Player. Initially, Amazon’s Cloud Player would only work with Amazon’s Android app. Which, of course, was available from the Amazon App store as well as the Android Market. This did not last for long as Amazon tweaked the interface to be allow playing of songs while using iOS devices. As of this writing, there is no iOS application for Amazon’s cloud player.

Along with Amazon’s Cloud Player, Amazon introduced their cloud storage mechanism, Amazon Cloud. Cloud is hosted on Amazon’s infrastructure and allows you to upload your already purchased music to Amazon’s storage. The cost of this service ranges from Free for 5GB to $1,000 per year for 1TB of storage.

When first introduced you could store up to 5GB free and you could purchase additional space for the prices above. The storage included music that you uploaded to your Amazon cloud. In July of 2011, Amazon changed their cloud storage so that music upload to their Cloud would not count against your limit. Purchases from Amazon never counted against your storage limits.

Google Music

Google.Music

In November 2011, Google announced their Google Music service. Google Music works a lot like Amazon’s music offering as Google sells mp3s and albums and also provides the ability to purchase individual songs.

Some of the unique features of Google Music includes the ability to share your purchased song with Google+ users that allows those users to listen to each shared song once, all the way through. This allows users to preview the song without having to only hear 30 to 90 seconds and then being forced to buy the song in order to listen to the entire song.

The second unique feature of Google Music is that they have some exclusive Music that is available to purchase. Some of these include the Rolling Stones 1973 tour. Google Music even has sales where certain songs may only be $0.25 a piece, a significantly reduced price.

The final unique feature is Artist Pages. This feature is squarely aimed at MySpace by allowing artists to sign up to host their artist page and sell their music directly through the Google Music store. This gives an outlet for bands who are looking for a big market, without the big costs or going through a record label.

Some of the major features of Google Music include the ability to store your music in Google’s cloud. Google’s Music upload service, which is like Amazon’s and Apple’s, allows for only 20,000 songs, versus the 25,000 songs with Apple’s iTunes Match service.

Zune Pass

ZunePass

Microsoft, being Microsoft and needing to try and stay relevant, was the first major company to try and compete with the behemoth known as iTunes. Microsoft introduced it’s Zune Music service in 2006 with the release of the original Zune hardware.

Zune Music Pass is a service that offers a subscription to music. If you do not renew the subscription, the music stops working. This is a stark departure from Amazon, Google, and iTunes. When the Zune Pass originally began you paid $14.99 per month for the subscription service, but got to keep 10 songs per month. The 10 songs effectively made the price $4.99 per month.

Zune Pass works on the Original Zune, and all subsequent Zune hardware. In November 2011, Microsoft discontinued all Zune hardware, instead focusing on Windows Phone 7 devices. The Zune Pass will work Windows Phone 7 devices as well. With the discontinuation of Zune hardware, Microsoft also re-worked the Zune Pass service by changing the music subscription to $9.99 per month, with no credits to keep music.

The Zune Pass only offers music, there is no cloud storage. This is one of the negative features of the Zune.

Spotify

Spotify

Spotify is a subscription music service that took Europe by storm, and made those in the United States very envious because they could not obtain access. Spotify is a music streaming service that offers some interesting features, such as social sharing through Facebook.

When Spotify initially launched in the United States, you were not required, but were able to use, a Facebook account to login. Any new sign ups, after September 25th, 2011, require a Facebook in order to use the service.

Spotify has a free service, and several different levels of paid services. The names of each service are Spotify, Spotify Unlimited, and Spotify Premium.

Spotify is just the general free service that is available to everyone.

Spotify Unlimited allows you ad-free unlimited music that allows you to import your own collection and share music all on your computer. This service costs $4.99 per month.

Spotify Premium has all the same features as the Unlimited plan but adds a few more. With Spotify Premium you get mobile device access, exclusive early-access content, better quality that runs at 320Kbps, and you can even play music through sounds systems, like Sonos.

With Spotify you can purchase songs, just like Zune, Google Music, Amazon MP3 and iTunes.

Pandora

Pandora.Radio

Pandora is an interesting entry in the music landscape. Pandora is a streaming site, with no downloads, that allows you to discover new music through the Music Genome Project. Pandora launched in January 2000, well before Apple released their original iPod hardware in October 2001.

Pandora has tow models for their music, free and paid. The free version which includes advertisements and is subject to other limitations, as to what devices you can listen to Pandora on. The paid version, Pandora One, costs $36/year as of this writing, allows you to only interact with Pandora once every 5 hours. Pandora One allows for custom skis, higher quality audio and even desktop applications.

With Pandora you can rate music, up or down, which will help Pandora determine more about your listening habits. You can stream all day if you so choose to do so. Pandora is a great way to find new music, which costs as little as nothing, or as much as $3 per month.

Pandora is only available in the United States. This is most likely due to licensing costs associated with streaming music to 80 million users. Rumors have stated that Pandora may arrive in other countries, but that has yet to occur.

What does it all mean?

You may be asking yourself, I have read all of the information, but what does it all mean? Quite simple, there is no one service that will surpass them all. Some services offer a subscription, so you can consume all of the music that your heart desires. Some services are only pay-per track or album, so you can own your music. Some even allow for a mixture of the two, but are device specific.

The biggest issue is to determine what your musical habits are, how much you are willing to pay, and whether or not you want to own your music. If you want to own your music, then a subscription service may not be good for you. However, if you want to own your music as well as finding new music, then a subscription service that offers downloads may be your best choice.

Despite all of the quality options, it is not easy to make a determination as to what service is the best.

I may be on the hunt for a new music service. As of right now I use a Microsoft Zune HD with Zune Pass. I love the way I have it setup now, my music player is separate from my phone so I am not concerned if the battery power on my Zune drains, I can still listen to music on my iPhone, through iTunes Match. The only issue is that my Zune HD is starting to act up and beginning to become flaky. Since Microsoft has discontinued the Zune HD, I can no longer purchase a replacement. So, I’m looking for suggestions from the readers as to what I should do for a music service, and possibly dedicated player.