Amazon has taken its Music Unlimited on-demand streaming service across the Atlantic, launching it in the UK a month after its debut in the US.
That’s a quicker hop across the pond than its predecessor Amazon Prime Music got. Prime Music launched in the US in June 2014, but did not go live in the UK until July 2015.
As in the US, Music Unlimited is an on-demand service with 40m songs, compared to Prime Music’s limited catalogue of 2m tracks.
The multi-tier pricing remains intact: £7.99 a month or £79 a year for Amazon Prime members; £9.99 a month for everyone else; and a special £3.99 option that works with a single Amazon Echo speaker.
Music Ally talked to Amazon’s Paul Firth ahead of the launch to find out how the company is going to make Music Unlimited stand out from rivals like Spotify and Apple Music. Echo and its voice-controlled Alexa technology will be key.
“We think voice is going to be really important. Voice control is the future of music listening in the home, and probably in the car as well,” said Firth.
“Smartphones drove the first growth of streaming music subscription, but putting it back into the home will be a really important part of the second phase.”
Amazon is thought to have sold more than 4m Echo speakers in the US since its launch there in November 2014. Echo and the separate Echo Dot accessory that brings Alexa to people’s non-Amazon speakers went on sale in the UK and Germany in September this year.
While Amazon Music Unlimited’s launch has come alongside a redesign of Amazon’s smartphone music app, Echo and Alexa are strategically vital to the new service too.
“Music is one of the most important things on Echo: it’s been a key part of the experience from day one. And we know that people want to talk to Echo in a much more natural way than you might expect for a voice-controlled device,” said Firth.
“The way you and I would talk about music together is the way people want to talk to Echo and Alexa about music.”
That’s reflected in the ability to control Music Unlimited with voice commands like “Alexa, play the song that goes ‘I was doing just fine before I met you’” (to get ‘Closer’ by the Chainsmokers) or “Alexa, play Adele’s new song” to get her latest single.
What is Adele’s latest single, given that in the streaming age, every song on her last album was released on the same day? Firth points out that Amazon’s music team are feeding radio-airplay dates into Alexa to answer that question.
“We’re having to invent new metadata: ways to say that this track has just been served to radio, or this is the one that’s climbing the singles chart, so that when people ask for an artist’s ‘new’ song, they get the one they’ve just heard on the radio or wherever it was,” said Firth.
It’s still early days for these voice-driven, almost conversational interfaces with music services: a process of iteration as Amazon figures out how music fans are talking to Alexa, then pulls in (or creates) the necessary metadata to ensure the response is satisfactory.
“This is complicated stuff, but hopefully we’ve made it easy,” said Firth. “Alexa is getting smarter all the time, and we’re having to teach her new things like that way to look at the ‘latest’ track. The focus is on making it really easy to listen to music.”
There are hints at how Amazon is planning to market Music Unlimited, for example when Firth said that the £3.99-a-month option “turns Echo into effectively the ultimate jukebox”, adding that Echo buyers will be invited to start a 30-day free trial of Music Unlimited as part of the device setup process.
There’s more to the service than voice, of course. Amazon has a team of people running playlists, with Firth noting that some of Music Unlimited’s playlist brands will focus on new music discovery – a contrast to Prime Music’s emphasis on familiarity and ‘best of’ compilations.
There will be opportunities for artists in all this too. Amazon has an initiative called ‘Side by Side’ which are playlists of tracks from a new album interspersed with artist commentaries – something Spotify has also tried. One Republic, the Chainsmokers, Sting, Two Door Cinema Club, Norah Jones and Michael Bublé have already taken part.
“We’re working hard on engaging ways of discovering new music, but also getting people to listen to music quickly and easily,” said Firth, citing Alexa’s ability to respond to queries like “Alexa, play happy 80s pop music” or “Alexa, play sad indie music from the 90s” with a stream of suitable music.
“These aren’t playlists or stations: we’re building you a list of music on the fly, using a combination of genre, the decade – the original release date, not re-releases – and a mood,” said Firth.
“We’ve been through and categorised things in 11 different moods, some of that manually and then machine-learning to spread that across the rest of the catalogue. It’s hopefully another example where we’ve done something actually really complicated, but made it really easy for the listener.”
Some features of music-streaming services – a catalogue of 35m-40m songs, curated playlists and offline listening for example – are now standard across the board. It’s the features beyond this that are most interesting as we go into 2017 though.
Spotify, for example, has its hyper-personalisation aspect: playlists like Discover Weekly, Release Radar and Daily Mix created for each user. Google Play Music, as we reported earlier this week, is doubling down on contextual recommendations driven by time, location and activity.
Amazon has voice control and the machine-learning driving the mixes that Alexa serves up to its listeners, which is even more interesting because this tech may well be experienced by the most mainstream audience.
“Alexa is going to become smarter and smarter, and encourage more and more listening this way,” said Firth. “We want to make it really easy for people to start playing music.”