Google Play Music All Access Review: It’s Not a Spotify Competitor After All

Google Play Music All Access finally brings streaming music to Google's stable, but it's not really competing with Spotify at this point.

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Let’s get this out of the way: Google Play Music All Access is a terrible name, rolling off the tongue like a mouthful of marbles. I’m not sure what Google was thinking here, adopting such a clunky moniker for a fledgling streaming music service whose media-decreed rivals go by punchier handles like Pandora, Spotify, Rdio and Grooveshark. Why not something simpler like Google Music, leaving “All Access” to describe one of the subscription tiers? Even the name Google Play sounds catchier and more appropriate for something that dishes up tunes, but then Google already uses those two words (somewhat incongruously) to describe its entire digital distribution platform, from Android apps, devices and games to books, magazines and music.

Google Play Music All Access it is then, and I’ll henceforth be referring to it as GPMAA for sanity’s sake (or, as I’ve been pronouncing it out loud, “gup-mah”).

Google unveiled GPMAA yesterday at its annual I/O conference during an over three-hour developer-focused keynote, though of that time, the company only devoted a few minutes to touch on the service’s basic features. As suspected, GPMAA represents Google’s attempt to offer a subscription-based music service, streaming “millions” of songs — intermingled with up to 20,000 more, uploadable or song-matched from your personal library — for $10 a month ($8 a month if you sign up by the end of June). Chris Yerga, Google’s engineering director who steered this part of the keynote, explained that GPMAA would include common music streaming features like curated playlists, album recommendations and a build-your-own-radio-station feature.

In other words, GPMAA isn’t a wildly new product so much as another limb stitched into an existing framework. Google hopped into the music game in late 2011 with Google Music (later, Google Play Music), the company’s answer to Apple’s iTunes music store, the twist being that you could also upload up to 20,000 of your own songs and stream all of that to multiple Android devices. The service never really took off, though, and no surprise: 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 something that works on nearly any device, giving you instant listening access to an unprecedented single-source spectrum of music, which would you pick?

For Google to offer its own flat-rate streaming service was thus inevitable, but before we dive in — I’ve been playing with GPMAA on my laptop – I want to point out that those who view Google as simply an imitator (Google+ after Facebook, Android after iOS) are hung up on irrelevant chronology. It’s not about who builds first — Blizzard’s online game World of Warcraft is brilliantly imitative and Apple’s first tablet arrived nearly a decade after Microsoft’s Tablet PC — it’s about who can build better while at the same time capturing the public’s imagination.

It’s also, occasionally, about playing catchup — and that, unfortunately, is how you’ll probably feel coming to GPMAA if you’re familiar with other streaming music subscription services.

At first blush, GPMAA looks like a refined version of Google Play Music, the “My Library” views consolidated and new ones like “Radio” and “Explore” given primacy, while the playlist options are where they were before, at bottom-left. Instead of the older version’s blandly all-white background, GPMAA’s selection window now sports a soft gray undertone that’s less garish when viewed in low light while helping to accent the white rectangles that surround images like album art. For those with ultra-high-definition displays (I’m using a MacBook Pro Retina), everything’s much cleaner and crisper, say, than Spotify’s client, where app-native text looks as though it’s being viewed through an out-of-focus camera.

You can still search for music in a box up top, to the right of the Google Play logo, but instead of retrieving music with price tags, you’ll now find clusters of artists, albums and instantly playable songs. Click an artist and you’ll summon a page sporting a brief list of “top songs,” followed by a single-line carousel devoted to “albums” and another to “related artists.” Clicking a song prompts a player to appear at page bottom with conventional player features, including options to repeat or shuffle, adjust the volume and rate a track thumbs up or down.

Google hasn’t said precisely how much music lives in its revamped library — Spotify claims over 20 million songs in its catalog, but Google’s only reference to a number was the word “millions” tossed out during the unveiling [Update: Google lists “18+ million” on its “About” page; also, a prior version of this review criticized Google for a dearth of search results for major artists like Miles Davis and Bruce Springsteen as well as a few confusingly labeled albums — the same searches now turn up dozens of albums for both artists, all properly labeled — improvements to the service are apparently ongoing.]

Another feature I’m less than impressed with is Google’s relational matrix. To be fair, the “related” intelligence of every streaming service I’ve used veers drunkenly between competent and “Seriously?” GPMAA is no different: Drilling on “related artists” for Bruce Hornsby, for instance, turns up more era-related than historically interactive or style-related acts; surely an intelligent music search would know to surface Jerry Garcia or The Grateful Dead before Marc Cohn and Sting, or Ricky Skaggs and Bela Fleck before Shawn Colvin. Let’s hope Google’s much-vaunted semantic search engine technology isn’t the underlying factor here, because that’d just be embarrassing.

The “Radio” feature, which lets you create radio “stations” (based largely on the relationships mentioned above, for better or worse), works as you’ve come to expect radio features to since you first fiddled with Pandora years ago — with an interesting wrinkle: You can monitor what’s coming through a “Queue” view or re-initiate the radio mix and stream by clicking on it under the “Radio” view, which is unique, and possibly of interest if you want to curate your radio playlist (as opposed to not having to worry about it). That “Explore” feature, on the other hand, is more “been there, done that,” a view that simply makes recommendations, lets you browse new releases, discover new material sorting by genre or check out featured albums and playlists.

What about streaming quality? Lossless playback? A universal player? Family access plans? Music catalog certainty, i.e. artists and songs not inexplicably vanishing because a use contract ends or some deal falls through? Google’s settings make no mention of quality, so what you hear is what you get. [Update: I've since been told it's "up to 320kbps" based on your connection. Google apparently checks, then adjusts the stream rate accordingly, putting the service on par with Spotify.] If you want a universal player, alas, you’re out of luck: GPMAA is for browsers and Android devices only, another sign that Google’s only half-heartedly invested in music as an actual service and not just a platform-building exercise. As for family access plans, Google’s not offering one at this time (to be fair, neither is Spotify, though users have been clamoring for one for years); whether it (or others) should or not gets into the economics of service sustainability and fair compensation to artists, which is something Google’s also saying nothing about. It’ll be interesting to hear from artists about GPMAA over time; they’ve certainly had few positive things to say about Spotify’s remuneration model.

What I dashed off yesterday serves as a summary here: Instead of boldly leading, GPMAA merely extends Google’s toe-in-the-water approach to music, adding incrementally interesting features instead of galvanic ones. Unless you care desperately about curating your radio streams, a service like Spotify comes off as decidedly superior here — by wide enough margins that, especially given Spotify’s platform agnosticism, I’m not sure it’s fair to call GPMAA an actual competitor.

It’s a shame, really. Google had — and still has — an opportunity to do something daring in this space, something that can and ought to exist like Google Search exists beyond a single platform like Android. I’m not sure what the holdup is: market jitters, problematic label deals, the economics of profitable music streaming, a simple lack of imagination. Whatever the case, GPMAA is at best thoroughly competent — a diffident “me too” service that comes up short in too many areas to recommend over existing, more thoroughly outfitted alternatives.

MORE: Complete Google I/O Coverage on TIME Tech