Though the Google I/O 2013 opening keynote may not have yielded all the awesome things we wanted, such as new hardware or even a new version of Android, but we walked away with at least one new service worth getting excited over, at least for music fans. Google Play Music All Access.
Google Play Music All Access is two things: a name that is entirely too long and an add-on subscription music service to Google’s existing Play Music digital catalog. Play Music allows users to upload up to 20,000 of their own songs to an online library for free, and any music purchases from Play are added to the library without counting towards the 20,000 total.
All Access is a subscription-based service that aims to fill the gap between purchased music, pre-owned digital copies and all the music users may want to listen to but don’t necessarily want to own. Individually, it’s not unlike Spotify, Rdio, MOG or even Pandora.
The $120 question, however, is: will Google Play Music All Access be a Spotify killer?
First, this question could apply to other services, like Rdio, MOG or even Pandora. But I have personally never used Rdio, MOG or any other subscription music service. Spotify, to date, has served all my streaming music needs. And Pandora only serves a single, limited, function of what other subscription services offer, so if you need anything outside of randomized radio stations, any of these are technically a “Pandora killer”. I digress.
To be frank, it’s a loaded question. Everyone has their own set of expectations from a subscription service; everyone’s taste in music varies; some people don’t like being tied into a single ecosystem or platform; some enjoy and even rely on the tiny differences and unique features available in Rdio or Spotify; and a blanket “yes” or “no” doesn’t cover everyone’s needs or desires.
To the best of my ability, I will explain why I’m already considering canceling my Spotify service and going all-in on Google Play Music and All Access.
All your music in one place
I’ve purchased music from countless online music catalogs. Like most, I bought my first digital album from iTunes back in the day. I’ve purchase some from Amazon, too. And I have purchased quite a few individual tracks and albums from Google. I also uploaded all of my ripped music to Google the day Google Music first launched.
Thanks to the fact that Google Music stripped DRM licenses when the service first launched, I finally had all the music I own (and cared to listen to) in one place. But as much as I listen to music, I started to get tired of buying new albums all the time and looked for an alternative.
I’d been using Pandora for years, and got to the point where I felt I had listened to everything I wanted to hear. Everything seemed to be on repeat, and I quit listening to listen to music, and instead used Pandora for background noise while I worked.
Enter subscription-based music services. I downloaded Spotify, immediately signed-up for the premium service, and didn’t look back … for a few months. I kept jumping back and forth between all the music I had actually purchased and the music I was basically “renting” from record labels.
Sure, you can sync your own music from iTunes to Spotify. But that requires syncing, and taking up device storage. And it’s only meant to be a supplementary offering to fill any content gaps (i.e.: add the music Spotify doesn’t already offer).
With All Access, the lines between those two categories are completely blurred, the music I own and the music I’m licensing are side by side and virtually the same, which gets me to my next point …
Library vs Playlists
Spotify is all about playlists. At no point do you ever feel the music is yours. It’s there for you to listen to as much as you want, and you can organize as many public or private playlists as you deem necessary. You can even collaborate with people and make playlists, and follow other people.
But unless all you use is the radio function of Spotify (which works quite well), you have to utilize playlists. For example, if you want to listen to the entire discography of a single artist via Spotify mobile, you must create a playlist that includes all songs/albums. It’s not possible to simply play all songs from a single artist from mobile.
All Access and Google Music operate together to work with the My Library feature. Songs and albums you choose to add to My Library appear alongside the music you actually own. And from the My Library view, you can choose to view all songs from a single artist, and stream the discography.
As insignificant as the difference may be, this has been one of the features that has sold me on the service. I can create a library of all the music I like and frequent, and I can create playlists. I’m not sure how Spotify has overlooked the difference for so long.
The social experience and sharing
Digging deeper into concept of the two services, Spotify is all about the social experience of listening to music.
The fact of the matter is, I’ve never cared for that. I do enjoy getting Facebook notifications for people liking the songs I listen to, learning other people do actually enjoy some of the same music as I do. But there are times I don’t want people to know what I’m listening to. And rarely do I stop to switch to a private session.
This has always been a problem I’ve had with Spotify. When I want to listen to those guilty pleasure songs, I have to just suck it up and let the world know, or take a moment to kill sharing for a bit. Either way, it’s not an experience I’ve exactly enjoyed, and it’s only gotten worse since Spotify and Facebook have grown closer over the last year.
The upside is that when I do want to share specific tracks I’m really enjoying, I can. Tap the album art, hit the share button, and send to Twitter or Facebook. (This is especially helpful if you use Twitter music and the #NowPlaying hashtag to discover new music.) But I can only share to Google+ using the Android app (which is actually Google’s own fault).
All Access is almost the complete opposite experience. It’s a secluded music experience. Unless I choose to share or like the music I’m listening to, my friends and followers are none the wiser. The downside, however, is that it’s actually quite difficult to share outside of Google’s own bubble. Without a few steps, it’s difficult to share a song to Twitter or Facebook. (You have to manually find the song in the Play Store and share from there.)
Bitrates, catalog size, and other features
For those wondering how the two services compare quantitatively, Spotify has a small edge in terms of catalog size. In November, it was reported Spotify has over 20 million tracks, and its site claims 10,000 new tracks are being added every day. By some quick math, that would equate to just shy of 22 million songs now. The about page for Google Play Music All Access claims the service offers over 18 million songs.
The difference may be substantial to some. But I’ve only come across two albums (both by a friend’s local band) that exists on Spotify and not Google Music – two that I haven’t actually listened to in years.
For you audiophiles, both All Access and Spotify offer a maximum streaming bitrate of 320kbps. Play Music determines the bitrate based on your network connection and speed, but you can override it in the settings to “Stream at highest quality only”. Spotify gives the user a choice of various quality levels, both for streaming and downloading tracks.
Spotify limits downloaded tracks for offline listening to 3,333 songs. We weren’t able to find a hard limit on the amount of offline music you can download using All Access, but from the support page, we’re led to believe the only limit is local storage space.
Last is price. Both are $9.99 per month and offer a similar service. But Google is offering a 30-day free trial, and an introductory price of $7.99 for those who sign up before June 30.
All Access isn’t perfect
For what it’s worth, I’m only considering the switch. All Access isn’t perfect, but it seems to be the best option for me, since I already have all my existing music in the cloud through Google. The problem is, it’s not currently cross-platform. It’s only available through Android or via Web (desktop-only). Google Play Music still works via Web on iOS, but not All Access.
Allegedly, All Access will later support other platforms. But there was also supposed to be a Google Music app. That never happened.
So far, though, it’s the best option for me. The radio stations are playing music I like and songs and bands I’ve never heard of. There’s a newness to it, so I’m not sure how often these songs will get shuffled around in my playlists. But so far, so good.
And it has a beautiful interface to boot, which is more than I can say for Spotify.