The Wall Street Journal reports that Google may launch a streaming music service to rival Spotify’s as soon as this week, possibly to coincide with the Google I/O conference that’s kicking off today and runs through Friday. Why now, out of the blue? I/O notwithstanding, the Journal‘s sources claim Google has signed deals with Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group for unlimited access to “certain libraries” of their music catalogs.
Google’s existing music service, Google Play Music, works like iTunes’ music store with a twist: In addition to purchasing music through Google’s online storefront, you can upload (or “song match”) up to 20,000 of your own songs, then stream them to multiple Android devices — a “roll your own” music approach that initially sounded cool to musicophiles like me when Google touted it back in May 2011. It never really took off though, and in hindsight, it’s easy to see why. Given the choice between having to curate your own music library (where you’re paying for every song or album and limited by what you own and limited by where you can listen) and throwing a few bucks at a pre-fab service that simply works, elegantly and immediately on nearly any device, giving you instant listening access to an unprecedented single-source spectrum of music, which would you pick?
We’re awash in streaming music nowadays, kicking through oceans of compressed audio as we sample potential purchases in iTunes or preview entire albums in browsers or groove to unthinkably vast song libraries in the cloud beamed to tiny apps that live on our smartphones and tablets. Google’s obviously a heavy-hitter, so anything it does in this space is newsworthy, but I’m not yet convinced the company understands what it takes to pull together a compelling service. Google Play hasn’t been that service, and I’m not sure a Google “Hey, We Can Do What Spotify Does, Too!” Music service distinguishes itself enough for anyone to bother. Bearing that in mind, here’s what Google might do to distinguish itself from existing and forthcoming — hey there, Cupertino! — rivals.
Fair compensation for artists. This one’s a busy beehive of contractual complexity, and this isn’t the place to lay out all the particulars, but I’m not sure anything’s more important (I’d rather see all of these services fail and legacy models soldier on than artists further taken advantage of). Suffice to say that many, many artists are extremely unhappy with Spotify’s remuneration framework, which they claim results in paltry payouts — whether it’s Spotify’s fault or the record labels’ is debatable. Google has, in my view, an ethical obligation to at the very least be aware of whether the royalty deals it’s signing with these labels amount to highway robbery for artists.
A universal player. Google should treat music the way it treats most of its other products, decoupling its approach to services (like search) from its investment in a platform (Android). If the company launches a music service that only works natively on Android devices, it’d be a shame (and, arguably, a losing move). Spotify is available for Windows, Windows Phone, Linux, BlackBerry OS, Android, iOS and OS X. A streaming Google Music service intended to rival something like Spotify needs to be at least that agnostic. (If Google wants to add enhancements to the Android experience, great, so long as it’s nothing fundamental to the listening experience.)
A lossless playback option. Nearly all of what you listen to today, if you stream music or purchase from the major online vendors is compressed and lossy, meaning — depending on the level of compression — that it doesn’t sound as good as the original. In its premium pay-tier, Spotify offers up to 320kbps audio, which is terrific and certainly adequate for on-the-go listening where you’re in a very (or even somewhat) noisy environment. But some of us still listen in quiet spaces and shell out hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for high-end, compartmentalized audio components and speakers. Speaking as one of these people, I’d probably pay even more per month for a lossless listening alternative.
No ads behind the paywall. Spotify handles this admirably, giving you six months of unlimited listening with periodic but not unreasonable visual and audio ads (the ads continue after six months alongside listening limits). If you subscribe, those ads (and listening limits) go away entirely. Other companies seem to think it’s okay to keep tossing ads at you if you’re a paying subscriber. Two words: It’s not. Studies gauging what people consider to be “most unwanted” about music, according to research cited by NYU psychology professor Gary Marcus in his recent book Guitar Zero, found that the least desirable listening circumstances were “involuntary exposure to commercials and elevator music.”
Lock in your music library, somehow. It’s a shame that iTunes has an exclusive on digital versions of the Beatles’ songs (probably a selling point for Apple’s own forthcoming streaming music service, assuming Sony/ATV plays ball). It’s also a shame that songs sometimes come and go in streaming catalogs, Netflix-style, seemingly without rhyme or reason (all customers know is that one day, something like Bastille’s Bad Blood is there, the next it’s gone without explanation). I realize these are incredibly complex highly circumstantial issues, and that yes, it’s not exactly stereotyping to think of the bigger record labels as diabolical when it comes to making deals, but none of this matters to consumers, who want breadth of access and catalog stability.
UPDATE: Google just unveiled its rumored new music service, launching today, which it’s calling Google Play Music All Access. As suggested, it’ll offer subscription-based music streaming of “millions” of songs (Google was no more specific than this; note that Spotify currently offers over 20 million) interspersed with your own Google music library, for $10 a month — equivalent to Spotify’s premium subscription tier. Google didn’t dwell on specifics during the presser, but explained that what amounts to a refined version of its existing service would include features common to existing streaming services, like curated playlists, recommended albums and a create-a-radio-station-with-a-song option. All told, the presentation was underwhelming: Instead of boldly leading, it sounds like Google’s continuing to extend its toe-in-the-water approach, adding incrementally interesting features instead of galvanic ones. Also: While the service runs in a browser, the app still appears to be Android-only.