As Apple Music nears its June 30th launch, Google is getting more aggressive about trying to sell users on its own Google Play Music service. Today the company is launching a free, ad-supported tier that offers curated playlists (a la Songza) designed to accompany every moment of your day. The handpicked stations themselves aren't new; Google brought them to Play Music's paying subscribers last year after its acquisition of Songza. But now everyone in the US can listen; the curated playlists are available today on the web and Android, with an update for iOS also due very soon.
Google is another big fan of human curation
For Google, sticking with playlists was an easier approach to free music than the on-demand, ad-sponsored tier that Spotify offers. The free half of Spotify's service has been the subject of harsh criticism from musicians who feel the company underpays artists. Google seems confident it can avoid this by going the "music radio" route, and its existing licensing agreements guarantee a big selection at launch. If you can already stream a band's music with Google's subscription music service, all of those same tracks will be part of the now-free radio side. (Yes, that includes Taylor Swift's back catalog.)
A hipster-friendly example of Google Play Music's curated playlists.
The difference between this and Spotify is that with Google you never have control over exactly what songs are playing. Google Play Music product manager Elias Roman seems to think that many people won't mind, since he believes most consumers are after an effortless "lean back" experience. "They want the music to be awesome. They want it to be contextually relevant, but they don’t want to tweak a lot of knobs," he told The Verge. The company's team of music experts has assembled every curated playlist from top to bottom. Here, Google shares the same "humans over algorithms" philosophy that Jimmy Iovine and Apple Music have been pushing. Whenever you pick a mood, genre, decade, or activity-based playlist, you can be confident that an actual person programmed what you're hearing. But Google does lean on algorithms for some things. If you start a new radio station based on a particular artist or song, that's when everything gets handed off a computer.
Free users get ads, limited skips, and no offline playback
As you might expect, the free service loses out on several features that premium subscribers get — and also handcuffs you with some restrictions. Free users are limited to six skips per hour, a number that's become the industry standard in recent years. You can pause tracks, but there's no ability to rewind, scrub through songs, or even see what's coming up next. People who pay for Google Play Music have full control over playlists and can manipulate, edit, rename, and save them for offline playback. "You can make it your own," said Roman. Free listeners get none of those things; a playlist is much more like a radio station and you don't get to customize it. One nice perk is that even free tier users can listen to streams at up to 320kbps so long as you've got the data connection to support it.
Apple and Google are running the same playbook: streaming, cloud, and store
What Google is doing here isn't nearly as ambitious as Apple's second try at music radio; there are no live 24/7 broadcasts or renowned DJs introducing you to new artists. But people still use Songza for a reason; the playlists are pretty excellent. Google's app is much more polished and nicer to use, so if you don't mind ads, it could be a great soundtrack for the gym or work commute. And ultimately, Google hopes it will be enough to convince people to start paying. Subscribing lets you listen without interruptions, take playlists offline, or instantly start streaming any song in Google Play's catalog of 30 million tracks — the same number Apple and Spotify point to.
The company refuses to say how many subscribers it has, a hint that it's not faring nearly as well as Spotify. But when you add free streaming to Play Music's premium service, free cloud locker, and the regular MP3 store, Google's music ecosystem starts to look pretty compelling. Apple's running a very similar playbook, after all. Which will you choose?