We’ve been writing a lot about Google’s new music subscription service this week, because of course we would. Google is a force to be reckoned with — and now, that force is reckoning with the likes of Spotify, Rdio, and Rhapsody in a bid for your $10 per month, in return for unlimited access to 20 million or so tracks on any ten computers or Android devices.
As such, we were delighted to spend some time on the phone with Paul Joyce, the Google product manager in charge of Google Play Music All Access to find out how the company plans to differentiate its offering from Spotify and the rest. After all, every on-demand digital music subscription has the same basic set of music, and must apply the same rules to how people can listen to it, per label licensing deals.
In addition to learning more about how Google’s offering differs in that regard, we touched on the company’s third-party music app strategy and how it plans to deal with rogue iOS developers whose apps purport to let people who own iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches play All Access on those devices.
Like all of our interviews, the following has been edited for length and clarity.
Eliot Van Buskirk, editor, Evolver.fm: One criticism that could be made of any on-demand digital music subscription is that it’s essentially the same set of songs and rules on each one. What does Google see as the keys to differentiating Google Play Music All Access from the competition?
Paul Joyce, product manager, Google Play Music: Google’s approach is that, with that as a given, what can we do to make things better? The first axis is, ‘Play to Google’s strengths’: cloud computing, cloud streaming, cloud storage, cloud infrastructure in general. And where you see that starting to create differentiation is that you can expand the bounds of the catalog. We combine our free, 20,000-song personal music locker with the full catalog. Where a standard service might be hit by windowing, or unavailability of certain things, whether they were commercially-released or live recordings — if they’re part of your collection with Google Music, they’re part of All Access. That’s one dimension.
Secondly, as you said, it’s the same rules, and that’s right. The question is: How can you apply them more creatively? We looked at radio as it exists across the services is generally very good for a completely passive experience, but it’s not good for times when you want to be more interactive. We asked, “How can we change that?” That’s why we decided to show you the full set of songs coming next. We let you rearrange them, we let you delete them, we let you add things, or you could do nothing and just let it play, and obviously you can skip at any point. You can mix in things that aren’t part of the service [by which he means the up to 20,000 MP3s you've collected for free in your Google Play locker].
Say it’s a few minutes before dinner, and you’ve been frantically cooking for friends, and you want some music, and you really haven’t had time to think about it. You could just start with one song — that one feed song — build a radio station, and then very, very quickly, edit it to your taste, so it’s really the same as if you’d spent hours slaving over a playlist.
Evolver.fm: I know there’s no official iOS app for Google Play Music All Access, which makes sense, but I’ve seen a couple iOS apps that can access Google Play, and one of them — I emailed with the developer this morning — he says he has a beta that can play All Access tracks. Is that something that Google’s okay with, or not?
Joyce: It’s hard to comment on someone else’s app without seeing it and understanding what it does in detail. That said, our system really isn’t built or optimized for third-party apps right now [updated].
Evolver.fm: What about the third-party app strategy? This is something that varies a lot between the services. Spotify has lots of apps, Rdio seems like it might be trying to do the same, Rhapsody says that it doesn’t like that approach and thinks it can make the best apps for its own catalog — where does Google fall on that continuum?
Joyce: I don’t think we have religion on that one way or the other. We’ve just been very internally focused on trying to build the best app we possibly can.
Evolver.fm: One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the problem of collecting music. We’re all over the place. People are liking YouTube videos, they’re listening to stuff on Hype Machine, they’ve got Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ friends recommending stuff, they’re using apps and internet radio — it seems like this is the problem of our time, that we’re surrounded by all of these great options, but when you want to really put your stamp on something and say “I love this, and I want it to be a part of my life forever,” we’re still kind of behind the CD on that front. Even MP3s didn’t work for that, because everyone started using Napster, and our hard drives filled up with stuff we didn’t even like anyway.
So my idea for what Google might have launched would be something along the lines of either buying Last.fm or doing something where you can see what users are playing in various places. You already have YouTube likes, but basically, you could put 30-second samples of stuff that people are liking everywhere into a locker, and then charge people $10 a month to turn all of that into full track playback, and maybe that would be a way for people to collect again.
Am I nuts? Does Google see collecting as a problem in the industry? I think it’s better than the others in terms of letting you add your own MP3s, but what about stuff like Liking a video on YouTube? As a bit of background, I looked at how music fans on Drowned In Sound collect music, and the most popular answer was a text file. It seems like there’s a pain point in the market there. What are your thoughts on that? I don’t even know if this is a question.
Joyce: I think it’s a great question, and let me divide it into two parts. I think we all have our systems of discovering music. I, too, used to maintain a text file. There are so many great sources. One way we wanted to attack that problem is by making it a lot easier to discover music within the application. That’s why we have Browse, and Expert Recommendations, and Google-powered recommendations. We wanted to make that easier.
But I think what you speak to is, people are discovering music all over the web — their YouTube Likes, what they see on blogs — so I think directionally, making it easier for users to manage and consolidate that is something we’re interested in.
The other part of collection overall, I think collection is extremely important to All Access. The MP3 and the CD problem [changed, and instead, my music was] spread across a few computers and two or three different iPods that I didn’t sync. Solving that was a lot of the motivation behind what led us to create the cloud locker in the first place, so that you could have one repository that you could access from a variety of devices, so everything could be in one place.
I used to buy tons of CDs, and used to be really careful about how I ripped them, from the brand of DVD drive I used, to the codecs involved, and it just became too much of a chore. My purchasing shifted to digital online. Solving the collection problem, for us, is about making it really easy to purchase and have your music in the locker — and with All Access, when you have access to everything, you can still add to your collection by saying, “Yes, this album, I want it in my collection.” Letting people keep collecting is definitely something we wanted to achieve with the new service.
It was a fine chat overall, and convinced me that Google understands that music fans are overwhelmed by a tidal wave of great music and that we need a better way to collect the stuff we love.
So, what about these rumors that YouTube will launch a music subscription too? Is everybody wrong, as I suspect they might be, and YouTube actually already launched that in the form of paid channels, which, after all, could contain music, allowing a band to offer its own subscription? Unsurprisingly, Joyce couldn’t comment on that, so we’ll have to stay tuned.
(Photo via Google+)