Amazon’s Cloud Player Crackdown Punishes Cheapskates

You knew it had to happen, but it still stings. With Amazon’s complicated update of its Cloud Player digital music service, the company has made its cloud-based music-locker service much less friendly to users who don’t want to pay for a subscription.

Amazon’s announcement Tuesday made it sound like the online retail giant was just giving customers what Apple already offered, and more. Steve Boom, vice president of digital music at Amazon, said that the company was delivering “the best possible customer experience for Cloud Player” - music stored locally on a user’s PC would automatically be “scanned and matched,” placing high-quality, 256-Kilobit-per-second versions within Amazon’s Cloud Player.

As before, music purchased from Amazon would be automatically saved to the Cloud Player, and Amazon also announced enhanced support for devices like Roku and Sonos.

Here’s the Catch

But buried at the bottom of the release was the catch: now, only music stored within the Cloud Player can be played back online or via a mobile device. And Cloud Player is no longer free - well, it is, but only up through 250 songs. Any more than that, and users will be forced to pay an annual fee of $24.99 for up to 250,000 songs. Granted, that’s just a little more than two bucks per month, but still. And who actually owns just 250 songs?

But that’s not all.

Now, if you have more than 250 songs stored in Cloud Player, Amazon will automatically give you a month’s worth of the premium Cloud Player service. After that, all previously imported music will vanish. Good news, though: you can re-import them!

The problem, of course, is that a year ago, Amazon launched its Cloud Player and Cloud Drive as a unified service. Amazon, in fact, invited consumers to upload their “entire music collection” to what it then called “Cloud Drive Music.” And, if customers purchased an MP3 album from Amazon, the Cloud Drive size was automatically upgraded from 5GB to 20GB - for just a year, of course, but who really noticed that fine print? Times were good.

But now Amazon has separated Cloud Drive and Cloud Player into separate subscriptions. There, customers can still store up to 5GB for free, or add additional storage for plans that start at $10 per year for 20GB.

It's Complicated

Here’s where it really gets complicated. I was bubbling over with outrage when I emailed Amazon and asked them what would happen to existing MP3 files stored on Cloud Drive. After all, Amazon’s Cloud Drive page simply mentions “photos, documents, and videos”.

But again, it’s not that simple. “Customers can continue to store music files in Cloud Drive, but Cloud Drive no longer has a music player and cannot stream or play music,” an Amazon spokeswoman replied in an email. “Music that customers previously stored in Cloud Drive will be accessible in both Cloud Drive and Cloud Player. Their Cloud Drive ‘Music’ folder has been renamed ‘Archived Music,’ and music files that customers previously stored in Cloud Drive will not count against their Cloud Drive storage quota. Going forward, music that customers upload to Cloud Drive will only be accessible in Cloud Drive and will count against their Cloud Drive storage quota, and music files imported to Cloud Player will only be accessible in Cloud Player.

Whew. Which is weird, because that's wrong. On the Web, you can play music directly from the Cloud Drive, using Amazon's Web-based player. But that won't work away from your PC, as there's no mobile version of the Cloud Drive app at all.

Yes, you can view a stored picture. But documents and videos must be downloaded before you can open them.

So, basically, Cloud Drive is now an online repository of files that you can’t do anything useful with, really.

Amazon has also made downloading music purchased through the site an all-or-nothing proposition, as commenters on The Verge first noted. Amazon points out, however, that music stored in the cloud player can be downloaded to your phone or tablet on an a la carte basis. Still, users have also reported that a bug in Cloud Player now plays each track twice - once from the original upload, and once from the “scanned and matched” file.

It’s pretty apparent that some of the fees Amazon now imposes are designed to cover the costs of the licenses Amazon struck with Sony Music Entertainment, EMI Music, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group, to enable the “scan and match” capabilities.

But the bizarre song limitations, the odd separation of Cloud Player and Cloud Drive, and the way that Amazon is handling the transition from the old model to the new don’t agree with Boom’s “best customer experience” quote.

It’s simply indefensible.

An Indictment of Digital Lockers

Amazon’s shift is also an indictment of the “digital locker” strategy, where customers simply uploaded their own music to the cloud. By shifting to a licensed model, the number of big-name digital lockers has been cut to two: Google Music (now Google Play Music) and mSpot’s lesser-known service. (I’m not counting Best Buy’s Music Cloud service, simply the most horrendous online music service I’ve ever encountered, or any of the generic cloud storage providers.)

What this probably means, though, is that rocky roads lie ahead for those other two services, and anyone who has uploaded music to them. Google’s 20,000-song storage limit within Google Play Music is ideal for most consumers, and mSpot’s 5GB free tier is also perfectly acceptable. But Google launched its transition from Google Music Beta to Google Play Music last year with several of Hollywood’s record moguls in attendance, and I don’t doubt that Google will eventually pursue a similar sort of licensing model to Amazon’s in order to tie itself closer to content providers; the recently announced, media-optimized Nexus 7 tablet is proof of that.

As for Apple - a few years ago, the notion of buying DRM-encoded MP3s felt antiquated as MP3s began to be ripped and shared. Apple responded by dropping the DRM restrictions, then led the industry into the cloud with the “scan and match” capability. It still looked outdated, as the digital locker services launched. Not any more, though. Now, it looks (again) like what the online music store will evolve into, driven by Hollywood.

Convenience Fees?

More and more, subscription services are justifying their monthly fees by simply eliminating the hassle of online file management. At least you know that if a Spotify or MOG goes out of business, you’ve simply lost access to music you essentially rented. Pandora, Slacker, Spotify and others offer “radio” options with only limited freedom of choice. Apple has to catch up here.

Although Apple eliminated DRM from its MP3 singles, playing and ripping tracks to the AAC format gives its iTunes platform “weight” - each track is an additional incremental investment. By encouraging users to upload their digital music library to Amazon, then charging for it, and making the tracks a pain to remove, Amazon has done the same - yet in a much less customer-friendly way.

In effect, you’ll have to expend significant time and effort re-uploading content, or else pay to rent the content you already thought you owned.

Convenience: it’s such a pain in the ass.