Cloud music players

How to stream your music from the cloud

We've written this guide to cover storing and playing music collections from the cloud.

If you're looking for a music player for your cloud storage service, we've created these free cloud music players:

... but if you're looking to learn about cloud music and how to create your own cloud music library, keep on reading!

What is cloud music?

Cloud music is music that is sourced from the cloud and played through music players.

You may own the music personally or it may be owned by some other entity which then allows you to listen to it.

Your music player may or may not be connected to the Internet; if not, it must either be synchronised with your music library when temporarily online, or connected to your storage which has been synchronised. Your music player connects to speakers or headphones and is capable of decoding the music that you retrieve from the cloud.

The ‘cloud’ is an amorphous term that refers to services and storage online that provide services to its users (in this case, providing music for the purpose of streaming and playback).

This guide is primarily focused on playing owned cloud music libraries. That is, libraries owned by you and streamed from the cloud. Instead of owning a music library, many (if not most) people will be happy with the convenience of renting access to music from a streaming service; we cover these briefly towards the start of the guide.

In this guide we’ll cover:

Why play cloud music?

The history of music has run parallel to the development of technology. As new technologies arise, new ways of listening to music arise too. Each development leads to new, higher quality, faster, easier and more instructive ways of listening to music.

The emergence of the cloud has made music easier to access, discover and enjoy than ever before. Streaming services offer massive music libraries that you can browse and play at will. If you prefer to control your library, you can still access all of this, wherever you are. You can play anything from your curated library at the touch of a button, aided by information about your library to read while you browse and enjoy your music.

In some ways, different technologies can also diminish our experience of music, sometimes in subtle ways. The advent of the cloud in music is no exception. As any new technology is adopted, you should be mindful of using it in an appropriate way to enable you to listen to music in the best way. Having access to (close-to) all the music ever recorded might seem like a good thing, but to some people it might be overwhelming and restrict the enjoyment that intentional listening to smaller subsets of recordings can bring. Whether it’s the cloud or not, technology should always be used judiciously.

How to play music stored in the cloud

To play cloud music, first the music must be stored in the cloud. Unless a streaming service that already provides a music library is used, this involves procuring the storage and uploading a music library to cloud music storage. Once stored, your music must either be streamed by a music player capable of connecting to the cloud, or synchronised to music files which your music player can play back from local storage.

Streaming services

Using a streaming service such as Spotify, YouTube Music, Tidal or others, simplifies getting started enormously, because acquiring storage and uploading a library is not required. A streaming service already has a music library, which they permit you to access.

For most listeners, this is enough. However, there are drawbacks to using a third-party streaming service:

  • Streaming service music libraries are not always complete, and sometimes in opaque ways. There are famous cases of mainstream recording artists withdrawing their catalogues - although, in some ways, it’s the less headline-grabbing incidents that are more disruptive to music lovers. For starters, whole genres of music are under-represented on streaming services, often by locale but also by musical style. Less obviously, and even of mainstream artists, individual tracks may be removed from albums, recordings are known to be swapped, and special editions of releases, which may be of interest to collectors, may be unavailable.

  • The audio quality of the stream may not meet your expectations; this has improved in recent years with the launch of hi-fi streaming, but this is not available with all services. Having a more constrained selection of services means there is more chance that one of the other disadvantages may apply.

  • There’s little control over library organisation; you must accept the way the service and its library is structured.

  • Streaming services tend to be incentivised to maximise your attention or ’engagement’ with the service. As a result, their interfaces will be structured to retain this. For example, auto-playing music after music has completed and pushing recommendations that you may not find of interest.

  • There’s little feeling of ‘ownership’ of the curation of the your musical tastes.

Of course, all of these downsides may not be of concern to you and a streaming service will thus be sufficient. However, the rest of this guide focuses on playing music, stored online in the cloud, but controlled by you.

Streaming music from the cloud

‘Streaming music’ is the combined transfer of music from some source (in this case: the cloud) with playback. A cloud music provider provides a list of music to listen to, you choose the music, press play and the music starts. Many listeners consider this the most convenient way to listen to their music library; the access should be instant, and once listened there’s no management or cleanup of the music you’ve listened to.

Under the covers, when streaming music from the cloud, the software must know how to transfer music from the cloud to the device on which your music is being played. There are two main approaches to this:

  • The first is pure streaming. In this case, your software knows how to communicate with your streaming service and connects the music that is downloaded (as a “stream” of data) to audio playback on your device. For you this is more convenient- you only have to work with one piece of software and the data is ephemeral.

  • The second approach separates the transfer from the playback. In this approach, only the transfer software needs to know how to communicate with the cloud music storage service. This downloads and stores the music on your device as one task, typically as computer files, then a separate piece of software reads those computer files and permits playback. This allows any music player software that can play music files to work on the synchronised files. This is useful when you want control over playback and to use a specific music player. It’s less convenient though, because the synchronised files require management and the decoupling between transfer and playback leads to lower efficiency; the synchronisation software doesn’t always know what it should retrieve, so it may retrieve an entire collection before a separate music player can access the files.

Downloading and listening to cloud music offline

It’s common to want to listen to music when you are not connected to the Internet. For example, when in a car with patchy mobile reception, or hiking in the wilderness with no reception at all. If you are offline you are not able to stream music; therefore music has to be retrieved prior to disconnection.

Many cloud music services permit this. Typically it is built into the player itself, and requires your explicit action to select which music to download for offline listening.

This becomes more difficult depending on the storage space available on your device relative to the size of your music library. If you have a much larger library than storage space on your device you will have to make more decisions about what gets downloaded for offline listening.

There are ways to mitigate the trade-off between storage capacity and library size. One is to make the library smaller by transcoding. Transcoding is the conversion of music from one digital format to another; in this case typically a format which requires less space. So why not just store the library in that format to begin with? MP3s, for example, take less space than FLAC format files. The reason is that such “lossy” formats lose data from the original source. In some cases this is an acceptable trade-off, for example if you are listening in noisy environments the audio quality might be less important. However, the loss of data means less flexibility later; transcoding from a lossy format to another lossy format, for example, gives worse results. Therefore, amongst music collectors, it’s considered best practice to store the ‘master’ copy of your library in lossless format.

Streaming from the cloud to different devices

There are different environments, different places and different occasions we want to listen to music. You might be travelling or you might be at home. You may be working, or partying.

These different scenarios tend to necessitate streaming from different types of device. These days most devices are, at some level, a computer with software loaded on them that is able to work with the cloud music service to deliver that music. Different device types have different operating systems, but there is some standardisation. For example, Google’s Android operating system is popular in mobile phones, but the same operating system is installed in cars, hi-fis and TVs. Because the operating system is the same, that often means the software that runs on the operating system can also be broadly similar.

The same goes for Apple’s ecosystem of devices; apps written for iOS can be more easily ported to different devices such as Apple TV, and the same apps can run on iOS and be connected to a car stereo though CarPlay.

This all makes for a lot of convenience; the cloud music services can more easily deploy software to play music from the cloud on different devices, either by streaming or by downloading and synchronisation.

Listening to cloud music in different ways

Just as there are different musical artists, genres, styles and more, there are different types of musical listener. It all comes down to the role music plays in your life; is it central and front-of-mind, or is it a background tool to help achieve something else?

The growth of the major streaming services such as Spotify has both highlighted how music is consumed in different ways, but also blurred the boundaries between traditional consumption of music. For example, radio was often used by many as a background music source; where music is delivered without control but still provides that audio stimulation; contrasted with intentional listening to recorded music such as full albums. Now, streaming services attempt to provide algorithmically generated playlists of music tailored to each listener’s preference, while also providing access to a vast library of recorded music. Playlists could be seen as taking the place of radio, to some extent.

This is where incentives come in, and the use of streaming services can be ceding control. Streaming services are incentivised to retain attention and so they design their service to achieve this. If you want to intentionally listen to particular works or recordings you may not want the distraction of updated “feeds” and recommendations of new music to listen to. The ability to control this is determined by the interface between yourself and the cloud music service. If it’s a streaming service over which you have no control, you have to work with that. Otherwise, if you have some control over your online music players, you can listen in a manner you value.

Cloud music file formats

Music, when stored and distributed from the cloud over the Internet, is encoded in different ways. These different ways define a structure to the data, and these are sometimes called ‘formats’ (another term you may hear is ‘codecs’). Example common formats are MP3, AAC, FLAC, WAV and more. Different formats have pros and cons; MP3s take up little space, but lose data from the source and so are less flexible and may sound worse to some. WAVs lose no data, but software support for their metadata is poor. FLAC has both high audio quality and good support for metadata, but takes more effort to use in the Apple ecosystem. There are always trade-offs in such a choice.

The file format(s) used depends entirely on the cloud music service you are using. Streaming services mandate a particular stream format, and the default tends to be a lossy MP3 stream. Some services offer hi-fi tiers, and this is getting more popular.

For full control over file formats, the cloud music service should provide native file delivery. This means whatever the source music format is, that’s what is delivered (or can be delivered) for playback. Many cloud music providers allow this, particularly cloud music players like Astiga.

In any streaming environment, the format that is delivered must be supported by the player at the receiving end. In some cases, you can configure ’transcoding’ that converts one music file format to another. This is useful for legacy devices that have limitations on the file formats supported.

Audio quality and cloud music streamers

Tied in with the file format discussion, many listeners are concerned about the quality of audio streamed from the cloud. Spending a lot of money on expensive listening equipment can be compromised by the delivery of lower fidelity audio streams.

Initially, most streaming services have offered lower quality, lossy, MP3 streams. More recently, hi-fi quality streams have begun to be offered (in some cases going beyond CD quality, this is known as ‘hi-res’ quality), but these are not universal and often mandate higher price points.

If you eschew streaming services and store your own music library in the cloud, you have control over the audio quality of your music. Depending on the software you choose to deliver your music, you can typically stream in native quality; be that lossy, lossless and even hi-res.

Consideration needs to be given to your target device. When playing music from the cloud, the device may have a limit on the audio quality it can support. In such cases, you must configure a way of converting the source music into supportable, playable music for your device using transcoding. This may be built into the cloud music service, or it may be something you configure after synchronisation from the cloud to your local device.

Frequently-asked questions

These FAQs cover the questions we most frequently get about music in the cloud.

Can you listen to cloud music offline?

Most cloud music providers provide a way of downloading from the cloud and listening to music offline. This can be done either via the cloud music software, for example selecting specific tracks, albums or artists to download, or by synchronising music files between a cloud storage service and your device.

How do I get my music from the cloud on my phone?

If you have your music stored in cloud storage such as Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox or similar, you can connect a cloud music player such as Astiga to the storage. Such services typically have apps you can install on your phone; these also provide for offline access should you be in a place with limited phone coverage.

How do I know if my music is in the cloud?

Some music streaming services allow an additional function to add your own music to the playback software, as well as browse their library. Oftentimes, when adding this music, its also uploaded to the cloud so that it can be streamed to other devices. Some services, instead of uploading and actually storing your music in the cloud, merely ‘match’ it with an identical (or nearly identical) recording in their own library (iTunes Match is an example of this). Whatever way is followed, whether or not the music you added is in the cloud is dependent on the service, and normally some indication will be provided within the software.

How do I play music in the cloud?

To play music from the cloud it must first be stored in the cloud, and then a music player must be used that can connect to the cloud and play the music stored there. The simplest way of achieving this is with a streaming service, which already provides a music library and the software to connect to the cloud streaming service and play the music stored therein. Alternatively, you can manage your library by uploading it to a cloud storage service and configuring a cloud music player to connect to that and play your music.

How do I retrieve music from the cloud?

All generic cloud storage services provide a way of downloading the entirety of data from the service. For music lockers or streaming services to which you’ve uploaded additional tracks then some form of export is normally permitted.

What are the limits of cloud music libraries?

Different services impose different limits. Generally, the streaming services mandate more restrictive limits in terms of the amount of music you can upload and its diversity (for example, only certain file formats are permitted). You typically don’t have the same limitations if using a cloud storage service, beyond those defined by the pricing tier you are using. Most cloud storage services provide enough capacity for an average sized music library and can be increased in size, although this can get expensive because such price tiers are typically reserved for businesses.

What is a cloud music library?

A cloud music library is a music library stored in the cloud. It’s typically accessed in some way, either by playback or a library browser. The library may be owned or licenced by different entities. In streaming services (like Spotify) it’s licenced by the service to be listened to by you. In other cases you can store your own music library in the cloud, in different ways. Whoever owns the library doesn’t change the simple fact: cloud music libraries are music libraries stored in the cloud.

What is the best cloud music locker?

Cloud music lockers are music streaming services that bundle storage so you can easily upload your own music library. We wrote an article about the best services on the Music Library Management Blog.

What's the cheapest cloud music storage service?

If you’ve decided you want to store your own music library in the cloud, an inevitable consideration is price.

As you might expect, the cost of cloud music storage tends to be proportional to the library size. In some cases, and for very small libraries, you may even be able to get some free storage space. We wrote a round up of music storage services on the Music Library Management blog, here.

An important consideration is also functionality. Although some services are very cheap, they do not allow flexible access to the library, meaning you might not be easily able to stream music.

An alternative way of getting ‘free’ music storage is to use your own storage in your own network; storage you might have already in a home server, say. This involves opening up your server so it can serve music to devices connecting from the Internet. Thus, it’s important to impose strict security limitations on such setups.

Will cancelling my account delete my music?

If you use a cloud music service then this depends on whether you store your music with the service or a separate cloud storage service. For the former, like streaming services or music lockers, your music may be deleted so its wise to make sure you have a backup. For the latter, the two are disconnected, so you can cancel a cloud music player account, for example, but still have access to your music library in cloud storage.

Will deleting the music app delete my music?

This depends on the app and the service. For streaming services to which you’ve uploaded music additional to their library: deleting the app for the service will mean you can no longer play your uploaded music, but the music itself may remain on your phone or within your library on your computer. In addition, if you haven’t cancelled your account, other devices which still connect to the account may still have access to the music if it was uploaded.

If you have any other questions please feel free to email me (Dan) at - I'll answer by email, and maybe (with your permission) add the answer to this document to help other people.

Dan is the CEO of the Astiga streaming service. Any questions about cloud music libraries? Send me an email!

Online illustrations by Storyset