Recently Google released their Music service in Canada after a few years of Canadians constantly searching for why Google Play Music was unavailable north of the 49th parallel. I was one of them. I love music and I love finding new ways to enjoy and discover a myriad of sounds. With the release of Google Play Music I took it for a test drive and I’m left with a new question: why is it so mediocre?
With the amount of time Google had to develop this platform I’m surprised it isn’t as powerful as other music solutions. Google’s entry into the music streaming market does have some strengths but the weaknesses neglect key components of the Canadian market and music listeners in general that prevent me switching from what I currently use for music enjoyment and discovery.
The world’s largest search engine should have an enormous music catalog at its disposal. This would include both music they sell and the ability to pair cover art and album details with their servers. After all, one of the things they promise is that as you upload your music it will skip what you already have and give you access to those songs. What a fantastic idea for Canadians! We have some of the world’s slowest upload speeds. Google can save some of your time as you try to upload your 20,000 favourite songs.
To test this I uploaded a variety of albums. My first four included the enormously popular The Suburbs but Arcade Fire, Armistice (a great one-off by Cœur de Pirate and Jay Malinowski), Great Lonely Wild’s debut album and Jessica Curry’s soundtrack to the interactive experience called Dear Esther. Google managed to identify three of the albums, including Dear Esther but it failed to pick up Great Lonely Wild’s ethereal exploration of Western Canada’s land and history. So Google’s knowledge of music is pretty far reaching but not as far reaching as those underground bands you may want to discover.
When you begin with Google Play Music All Access (the paid streaming service) you are offered the chance to select what genres of music you enjoy. Personally I find that genres are barely helpful at best. Look no further than Johnny Cash and country music. It’s not hard to find someone who proclaims to hate country music but loves Johnny Cash. Or consider artists like Cœur de Pirate, to categorise her music under francophone as a genre seems like ignorance for the sake of simplicity. Sure, she’s from Quebec and sings beautiful French songs but she also has an English language album and a video game soundtrack in her body of work.
Google also offers recommendations based on your music collection, which sounds great on paper but in reality it can limit your exploration of music as it contributes to a bubble effect. This is a problem that Google’s services across the board suffer from. With personalised searches, music recommendations and more we run the risk of a safe bubble where nothing that will challenge our opinions, beliefs or musical taste will enter. From a musical perspective wouldn’t that be boring? It could limit the chance that people will discover new artists or songs that they would love even if the music is in a completely different style.
Another poor aspect of the Google Play Music experience is its reliance on an Internet connection, especially on a desktop or laptop. Of course streaming music needs a connection to the web but what if I want to listen to my personal collection? Shouldn’t I be able to do it without a network connection? Trying to listen to my music offline is a very quiet affair. The big problem with this is that it adds to the growing digital divide between economic classes, social classes and even geographic areas. Canada is huge and sparsely populated. This means that many rural communities that have poor Internet access can’t benefit from Google’s music offering. Here’s hoping their balloon project takes off soon.
The price point of Google Play Music All Access is pretty bad. Google is entering a market dominated by services like Rdio, Grooveshark and CBC Music that all offer free streaming services. Compared to that price, Google’s All Access is expensive. Sure, there’s one month free a la the Netflix model but why are they charging anything? You can easily make playlists and stream music from another one of their free services – YouTube. Oh and in case you didn’t hear YouTube is the biggest source of music on the web, not Google Play Music.
Don’t get me wrong, I love exchanging money for goods and services but having my music player set up as an extension of Google’s store is just ugly. I know that there’s a marketing plan in there somewhere that states that customers are more likely to make purchases in that environment but should they be focusing on us as wallets or as something else? Customers are key stakeholders of every business and how a business relates to its customers shows a lot about their value in the company’s eyes. Apple got this right with the iPod and iTunes, that’s why they dominate the market. The user’s experience is not as blatantly store oriented – it’s music oriented.
Google Play Music All Access is more than just a mouthful it’s an average late-comer to the music streaming market. It has a wide database of music that you can experience but it doesn’t offer anything new. I’m going to stick to iTunes and CBC Music. iTunes has managed my music collection perfectly for almost a decade and CBC Music has introduced me to new artists, like Cœur de Pirate, many times. That has worked for years and I’m not about to replace it with a mediocre streaming service.