11/18/13: How Google music competes with Apple

Brad Hill
November 18, 2013 - 11:55am

Last week’s drop of Google’s All Access music subscription app into Apple’s app store was a milestone moment in both the music-service wars and the larger tech-ecosystem land grab. We had fun with our “Google invades Apple” headline, and every media site covering the convergence of music and Internet hit the same note.

The invasion metaphor is apt, more than just for its imagery of two tech/media giants engaged in business warfare. Google’s Play Music All Access, awkwardly-named thought it might be, offers a more complete music platform than Apple does -- and likewise for Spotify, Rhapsody, Pandora, and Rdio. The competitive thrust is more feature-specific than merely inserting the Google brand into the music choices of iPhone and iPod users. Its features connect with the three major ways that people connect with Internet-delivered music as a 21st-century type of radio.

Three Types of Listening

There are three types of app listening. By “app listening” we mean listening that happens through a desktop program, a web browser, or a mobile app. There are three cornerstones of app listening:

  • Radio: Broadcasters understandably bristle at the re-definition of “radio,” which used to denote a technology, not a behavior. Now, “radio” commonly means lean-back app listening that simulates the traditional passive radio experience. Pandora is the poster child for “Internet radio,” but Pandora is more interactive than thousands of Internet pureplay stations which don’t offer any customization.
  • Jukebox: The “celestial jukebox” is lean-forward listening in which access to music replaces ownership of music. Spotify, Rhapsody, and Radio are leading examples of app services that provide access to huge song catalogs on demand, with suites of features that personalize the jukebox around the user’s taste.
  • Cloud storage: Even with the rise of Internet radio and the celestial jukebox, people own personal music collections in digital file formats. Amazon, Apple, and others provide apps that allow uploading those files to the cloud, from which they can be accessed from any connected device.

Integrating these three modes of listening is not easy, or common. How do personal collections (the ownership model) fit into subscription services (the access model), and how do those users integrate the existing value of their collections with the new value of music access?

It’s Called “All Access” for a Reason

That is the key issue addressed by Google Play Music All Access, and a key selling point of its subscription service. All Access provides the usual access features -- jukeboxing, playlisting, favoriting, downloading for offline listening. At the same time, All Access (living up to its name) is a cloud storage service which invites users to upload 20,000 tracks. Those collections are integrated into the jukebox service, and intelligence derived from scanning the owned music helps personalize the music Google suggests to the user.

Apple has a cloud service, too, and of course iTunes is the world’s biggest music store, still a champion of the ownership model, widely predicted to be waning. The two-month-old iTunes Radio service provides lean-back radio-style listening, a second rung of the app-listening ladder. But Apple does not have a celestial jukebox function for random access and full listening of songs and albums.

That missing piece is the opening through which Google has driven its All Access platform, and why the invasion is meaningful. Google provides both models -- access to an owned collection on the same platform which accesses the celestial jukebox, and plays radio-style streams.

Google craftily makes it easy to convert an iTunes collection to Google’s cloud. Doing so gives Apple users a full, three-point app-listening experience on iPhones and iPods. Google provides the purchasing dimension too, through Google Play song-buying, which emulates the synergy of Apple’s iTunes Radio and iTunes Store linkage.

It’s not only iTunes that could be hurt by Google. Spotify, Rdio, and Rhapsody lack cloud integration of personal collections. Google sits in the iOS store as the complete problem-solver -- in that light, the awkward “All Access” name is justified. The extra value it brings signifies why Google invaded Apple. Time will tell how disruptive the invasion will be.

Brad Hill
November 18, 2013 - 11:55am

There are two main reasons for a listener to visit a radio station website:

  1. Listen to the station when a radio is not at hand, typically at work; 
  2. Engage with extra content that is related to the station’s category and personality.

From the station’s perspective, an immersive website expands ad inventory and revenue. In the longer term, keeping users involved with the station brand is vital to withstand competition from other Internet-delivered listening options.

NASH FM is a country-music broadcast cluster operating in several markets, extending onto the web with a unified website template that accomplishes basic goals more cleanly and attractively than many others. NASH FM’s site design is better organized and more pleasing to the eye than some radio group templates that are applied to dozens or hundreds of stations.

Basic listening is nicely done. It might seem surprising, but even the essential Play button is executed poorly on some station websites, sometimes throwing the user entirely off the site onto a different platform (such as iHeartMusic). That is a self-limiting error that discourages the user from engaging more deeply with the site. Another usability mistake is failing to open a pop-up control panel, so the music shuts off if the user moves to a different page of the site.

NASH FM sensibly avoids these disagreeable conflicts with a pop-up that includes the recent playlist. A short video ad precedes the radio stream. Our testing revealed glitch-free streaming of that vid -- avoiding a downfall at some station sites that start you off with teeth-rattling video stutters.

NASH FM provides the usual menu of news, weather, and traffic. We are skeptical of value here, obligatory as those sections might be. People have apps for all that. But it doesn’t hurt the experience.

The key question with radio websites is whether they furnish added value that would bring a fan into the experience even if not listening to the on-air stream. NASH FM shines in that department, with station-owned video interviews and concert footage, plus music videos culled from elsewhere.

One content category we look for in a station site is DJ blogging, or some extension of the DJ personality. NASH FM has a blog section in its menu, but it is mostly unused. Granted, the main DJ-listener relationship is concentrated in the air shift, when the DJ is behind the mic. But we long to see blog posts, or DJ tweet streams. Keeping the user attached to station personalities is another dimension of lock-in.

Bonus: Some (but not all) of the NASH FM stations have dedicated mobile apps. In some ways, they are better than the desktop websites -- for example, displaying most popular played tracks, with audio and video samples built in. As such, they serve as music discovery environments for country music.

Brad Hill
November 18, 2013 - 11:55am

In a press release this morning that serves as an advertisement for its holiday music stations, Pandora revealed some Christmas-season listening statistics.

We’ve been tracking the early rollout of Christmas music on terrestrial, subscription, and pureplay platforms, noting that there seems to be significant demand for holiday music in early November. Commenters in iHeartMusic’s Christmas stations jubilantly greeted their appearance a couple of weeks ago.

According to Pandora, users search for holiday music with the service search function as early as October. In mid-November, according to the press release, 10 percent of Pandora listeners are listening to holiday stations.

There are regional listening data. Vermont and New Hampshire are the most musically celebrative states, with 40 percent of users tuned into Christmas music on Christmas day last year. During last year’s entire season, over 25-million Pandora users streamed 187-million hours of holiday music.

The most popular (thumbed-up) Christmas song in Pandora last year? “All I Want for Christmas is You.”

Brad Hill
November 18, 2013 - 11:55am

With the tagline, “The Messenger of Good Music,” you can expect a broad programming range. Herald.FM (www.herald.fm) covers alt rock for the most part -- Arctic Monkeys, Mumford & Sons, The Vaccines, Lana Del Rey, and Bleached have streamed through our speakers today. The programming is not preciously on the fringe; we heard some Radiohead, too.

Playlists are not published -- this is lean-back, radio-style listening. An in-browser worked perfectly in our testing, and you can launch a pop-out player window from the station’s Facebook page

Founded by Romanian Gabrief Ispas, Herald.FM posts music news on the site, and an events calendar. There is zero fuss around site registration and community (non-existent on both cases), or alternative bitrates and other technical distractions. The streamlined approach keeps the site lightweight and easy to understand.