10/22/13: New Xbox Music feature disrupts “station” listening

Brad Hill
October 22, 2013 - 9:15am

Windows 8.1 was released last week, and with it an updated Xbox Music service. Some of the upgrades to Xbox Music are merely usability features that make interactions easier. But one entirely new feature expands the competency of Xbox Music and creates a brand new listening mode.

Called Web Playlist, the function can connect the Xbox Music app to any web page, and play music referenced on that page. To realize the breakthrough nature of this feature, it’s important to realize that actual music does not need to be on the page. Web Playlist is not grabbing existing files and streaming them. Instead, it is analyzing the page, identifying references to artists and bands, and building a playlist based on those references. Any web page -- a message board, the comment section of a blog post, a music festival promotion -- turns into a relevant streaming music platform.

In effect, Microsoft is positioning Xbox Music to compete against Google Play and iTunes Radio by recruiting the entire web as a dispersed global music service.

Aside from a clever idea and breakthrough underlying technology (provided by The Echo Nest), Web Playlist potentially disrupts consumer behavior. In a year when the online radio/jukebox space has started to seem glutted with overlapping and duplicative services (Slacker copying Songza, Rhapsody mimicking Spotify and Rdio), Microsoft’s new feature separates the user from stand-alone platforms entirely -- except for Microsoft’s, of course -- and unleashes the listener upon the web at large, its musical potential suddenly unlocked.

Time will tell how compelling Web Playlist is, and whether Xbox Music has enough momentum to lift off. It works only in the Windows 8.1 environment, so its market is sharply constrained by platform. Of course, so is iTunes Radio. Perhaps the question is: when will we see this feature replicated by other services? Microsoft built the app, but the underlying intelligence belongs to The Echo Nest, a provider whose technology layer runs through many music services. 

Stay tuned. RAIN spoke with Jim Lucchese, CEO of The Echo Nest, about Web Playlist, how The Echo Nest’s music analysis compares to Pandora, and what The Echo Nest employees listen to in the office. The interview will appear Wednesday.

Brad Hill
October 22, 2013 - 9:15am

It makes sense. Put the new model where the old model lives. Try to bring in a new audience that might not have sampled competing services yet.

That’s what Rhapsody’s just-announced partnership with Best Buy is attempting. Anyone buying a (qualified) CD from Best Buy’s racks will be gifted with a month of Rhapsody’s subscription-only online listening/collecting platform. It’s a nice surprise for the buyer, and a bit of incentive that Best Buy can promote on its CD shelves. Rhapsody’s play is to drive a wedge into the CD consumers’ buying habits, introduce them to an access model that might be entirely new to them, and convert ‘em. In that context, Rhapsody and Best Buy are at cross-purposes.

Rhapsody competes most directly with the laboriously-named Google Play Music All Access, which likewise provides subscription-only service, with a cloud-storage component Rhapsody lacks. Among indies, Rhapsody is most often compared to Spotify and Rdio, both of which, in addition to offering premium subscriptions to avoid ads and enable downloads, provide a layer of free listening.

In recent months Rhapsody has suffered a management shake-up and sweeping staff layoff. Last week Rhapsody announced an international telecom partnership with Telefonica, for international distribution of its service in Europe and Latin America. (RAIN coverage here.)

Brad Hill
October 22, 2013 - 9:15am

Let’s talk about Smooth Jazz. We know what you’re thinking. But the problems with Smooth Jazz -- the sugary coating, the lascivious saxophone licks, the percussion chimes sprinkled like fairy dust over cadences, the pseudo-funk, the quasi-cool -- all that becomes problematic through accumulation of relentless genre flogging. What happens when you blend tasteful Smooth Jazz with articulate Straight Jazz?

Go to Somehow Jazz to find out. (www.somehowjazz.com) Yeah, you’ll get Everette Harp and Joe Sample. You’ll find contrast with Maceo Parker and Brian Bromberg. The juxtapositions will illuminate one and the other.

Like most pureplays featured in this series, Somehow Jazz is supported entirely by listener donations. You can kick in any amount; suggested gifts range from ten bucks to 500 dollars. That’s what we call patronage!

A pop-out player makes web listening easy and controllable. Bit rates go up to 320k mp3, so put this stream through your best speakers. And wear your most comfortable shoes for day-long foot-tapping.

Brad Hill
October 22, 2013 - 9:15am

The release of Apple’s iOS 7 mobile operating system, with its dramatic design changes, has generated an influx of app re-releases of a new “iOS 7 update” category. In other words, little or no functional changes, but the app is prettied up to make the most of iOS 7 translucencies and other cosmetic loveliness.

Such is Songza’s upgrade, which landed in the Apple app store this week. Songza’s Concierge service (mood/activity “life moments” listening) remains unchanged, as do its finely curated genre stations. The only discernible change to our eyes is the Now Playing screen, in which the share buttons are more obvious (good for Songza brand extension) and more easily accessed (good for users who love sharing). The design is quite beautiful on an iPhone, not so striking in the iPad app.

In the iOS 7-upgrade race, Songza has now caught up with Slacker -- worth mentioning because the two seem locked in an orbital dance. Slacker recently copied Songza’s day/mood/activity listening model with the My Vibe section of its app, which it launched with iOS 7 beautification. That maneuver definitely comprised an eat-your-lunch aggression toward Songza. (See RAIN coverage here.) In our humble opinion, Slacker still looks better, and has more streamlined navigation.

For listeners, though, the main test is quality of music. All these mobile platform apps have the same essential design elements. Does the playlist work for you? That’s what counts.

Brad Hill
October 22, 2013 - 9:15am

We appreciate TuneIn’s distribution of favorite public radio programs. The ability to timeshift enhances broadcast listening and ensures that nothing is missed.

Speaking of inclusiveness, TuneIn announced the start of a new station devoted to stalwart PRI show “This American Life,” hosted by the endearingly mumbly Ira Glass. The program unlocked its 18-year show archive to create a 24-hour, seven-day stream of endless This American Life. It is available on the web and in both versions of the TuneIn app -- free and Pro. More like a broadcast than a playlist, when you first tune it in, the stream picks up mid-show.

More discriminating fans of the show can sort through old episodes by date or tag at the programs website. (www.thisamericanlife.org)

Interestingly, and only semi-relatedly, it was Ira Glass who publicly criticized the “Car Talk” program's carrier stations for switching into reruns when the show’s hosts retired. (Glass has not retired.) Glass’ point was that the hour should be freed up for rising stars, not fading ones. That worthy sentiment doesn’t apply to the unlimited space of an Internet platform, though, so now the question becomes: Who else? A 24/7 presentation of “Car Talk” seems like a natural -- as does any popular program with a big archive that isn’t hooked to current events. (“Fresh Air,” we’re looking at you.) 

Brad Hill
October 22, 2013 - 9:15am

YouTube, which a music producer recently told RAIN is “the world’s biggest record label,” has announced its nominees for the upcoming YouTube Music Awards presentation.

The point here isn’t the nominated artists, but the often-disregarded reality that YouTube, ostensibly a watching platform, is a massively magnetic listening platform with an immense catalog. The upcoming awards seem to plant a stake in the ground that asserts what millions of young listeners already know -- that YouTube is a music-service gorilla in the room which surreptitiously competes with Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, Rdio, Slacker, and the other music-marketed platforms.

Anyway, the nominees are in, user voting will transpire according to a complex viral-sharing scheme described here, and the gala concert will take place on Nov. 3