With a week to go until the launch of Apple Music, we’re expecting a few announcements and promotional deals from rivals in the days ahead.

Google made a splash yesterday, for example, by announcing that it was introducing a free tier in the US for its previously subscription-only Google Play Music streaming service. But no, this isn’t on-demand music: it’s curated stations and Pandora-style personal radio.

“Our team of music experts, including the folks who created Songza, crafts each station song by song so you don’t have to. If you’re looking for something specific, you can browse our curated stations by genre, mood, decade or activity, or you can search for your favourite artist, album or song to instantly create a station of similar music,” explained Google in a blog post that also appears to signify the retirement of the “All Access” suffix that made the service’s title so unwieldy at launch.

Some thoughts on what this means. First: Google getting into ad-supported streaming music (outside YouTube) is a significant move, although we’ll be keen to see what kind of ads are supporting the new tier. Second: Google is pitching this as a funnel towards subscriptions still: “We hope you’ll enjoy it so much that you’ll consider subscribing to Google Play Music,” claimed the blog post.

Third: there’s a standard model emerging within the streaming music market, which is that subscription equals on-demand access, while free is more about “radio” – curated and algorithmic stations with ads. For all the talk about Apple as the shining saviour of paid music, Apple Music conforms to this blueprint too. And while Spotify is portrayed as an isolated holdout against this trend with its free on-demand service, on mobile, it’s working to the ‘free = radio’ blueprint too, with a few modifications like its artist shuffle feature.

Finally: Google’s announcement is just the latest reminder that the streaming music industry is training its sights squarely on the massive, mainstream audiences of the radio market as the next big influx of listeners for their services. We think this will spark more debate about what “radio” means in this new world, and what lessons the streaming services still need to learn from traditional broadcast.

But also some proper comparisons between their free tiers: how good ARE Google’s programmed stations and team of curators compared to Apple’s and Spotify’s – and just as interestingly, how clever are the algorithms whose role will increasingly be as much about connecting listeners to those playlists and curators, rather than recommending individual artists and songs?

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Music Ally's Head of Insight

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