DNP Editorial Google confuses magic with middling as it steps into music streaming

First of all: that name. Google Play Music All Access. Perhaps Google's presenters realized, as they were driving to the I/O keynote, that they had forgotten to name the new music-streaming service, and came up with that clunker backstage.

Unique? Magical? It's easy to dismiss those claims within minutes of signing up.

Jump to the keynote, where Chris Yerga described All Access as "a uniquely Google approach to a subscription service," and remarked, "Here's where the magic starts." Unique? Magical? It's easy to dismiss those claims within minutes of signing up. Prosaic and useful, yes; unique and magical, no. All Access is nowhere near an innovation. The major ecosystem companies, each of which started with groundbreaking technical development, now seem to fashion their business destinies on buttressing their networks with products innovated elsewhere, plugging holes to sway existing users from drifting out of the system. It's not a new story, but always a sad one.

Music-streaming services have been around for about 14 years. Rhapsody, a grizzled veteran in the current crop, launched in 2001 after two years of development under different names. Spotify, the poster brand for music streaming in 2013, lifted off in 2008. So there are well-established norms that users can and should expect in a streaming service.

A big catalog is the first expectation -- all the majors and a long tail of smaller labels and indies. A modern streaming service is batting .300 if it offers 20 million tracks.

Size isn't everything; it's what you can do with it that counts. Basic interactivity includes whole-track and album listening (obviously). Playlisting is important, so you can build that perfect 50-track set of pulsing electronica for an afternoon of desk work in headphones. Accumulating a library of favorites is a necessary function, via a cloud collection plus, ideally, the option of downloading music to a phone, tablet or computer for offline listening.

DNP Editorial Google confuses magic with middling as it steps into music streaming

Social and sharing are increasingly vital music-discovery functions -- and just fun for users who are always visible in their community circles. It's not only outward sharing that matters (to Twitter, Facebook, et al.), but also sharing of playlists within the service, epitomized by 8tracks.com. Speaking of discovery, the service should do its part by offering a genre directory (the smarter and more granular, the better), editorial recommendations, reviews and connections to related music.

Google is more flexible than Pandora inasmuch as the user can peer inside the "radio" playlist and swipe away queued-up tracks, with what is arguably the platform's coolest feature.

Finally, a streaming service should offer some kind of passive option for a lean-back experience -- pushing music to users when they tire of exploring and pulling. That usually means some kind of misnamed "radio" or "station" feature, which, behind the scenes, is an array of curated playlists. GPMAA (who doesn't love acronyms?) emphasizes the push / pull quality of its curated streams by marketing the service as: "Radio without limits."

That tagline is clearly intended to contrast with the highly passive Pandora experience, the pre-eminent alternative to terrestrial radio in homes, cars and stores. (Over the past few years, when I have asked a retail proprietor about the store's music selection, I have increasingly heard the "Pandora" answer.) Google is more flexible than Pandora inasmuch as the user can peer inside the "radio" playlist and swipe away queued-up tracks, with what is arguably the platform's coolest feature.

In fact, it's really the only cool feature in what is otherwise a pedestrian and sketchy streaming service. All Access covers most of the expected bases, though not all of them. Google is planting a premium flag in the ground by withholding an ad-supported free layer (like Spotify), venturing instead down the all-subscription path with a monthly fee ranging from $7.99 to $9.99. (You get the lower price if you join during the first month.) I see commenters backing away from that value proposition, and it's easy to understand why someone with equity in an existing platform might not want to switch to a new copycat service.

At the same time, I see enthusiasm from Android users eager to add "celestial jukebox" music streaming to their eco-platform, which represents a larger and more meaningful investment than, for example, having built a bunch of playlists in Spotify.

DNP Editorial Google confuses magic with middling as it steps into music streaming

I can imagine today's GPMAA as a starting point from which Google will weave some ecosystem magic. But even as a starting point, this platform is immature for discovery and community. Right now, the service is not connecting well with Google+ (or any other social network), which seems like a no-brainer whose implementation is probably forthcoming. More seriously, you can't follow other users from their playlists. Search is bizarrely bad. Blues guitarist Ana Popovic does not appear when you search for "ana popovich." Seriously, Google? Your flagship search engine understands any misspelling I throw at it, but one extra letter makes your music search fall to the ground twitching? That'll get fixed.

Google is following, not leading -- reacting to a market migration away from music downloads toward streaming access.

But for a company famous for its lengthy (and free) beta launches, the first impressions of the non-beta All Access are underwhelming. More important, for a company with a legacy of technology brilliance, this service feels like it was mailed in as a prop for the ecosystem.

Google is following, not leading -- reacting to a market migration away from music downloads toward streaming access. Apple will follow behind Google, if rumors hold true, and Apple is endowed with an explicit anti-subscription stance in music.

From leadership to following. It's good ecosystem business, admittedly, like renovating a house rather than reinventing rooms. But I cannot avoid a feeling of sadness, and even a trace of disdain, seeing this perfunctory service, with its lumbering name and aggressive pricing, soldered quickly into the Google / Android machinery. Gmail redefined email on its first day and remained respectfully in beta for five years. Times change. I'll ponder that while listening to my Rhapsody playlists.


Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. He listens to music on Rhapsody (FTW), Spotify, Rdio, SoundCloud and 8tracks.