Google Music to take on iTunes

By Pat Pilcher

Google's much anticipated music service officially left beta today, launching at an event in Los Angeles. With Apple's US$25 a year iTunes Match service already live, Google has some catching up to do, however its music offering brings a few unique wrinkles to the fold that could see it gaining some serious traction.

According to Google over one million people took part in their US-only closed beta programme that kicked off in May. During the beta, Google claimed to have distributed a staggering 100 million songs to users via hosted online music libraries that Google Music users had uploaded tracks to.

Adding yet more texture to proceedings, Google also promoted the service's mobile capabilities, stating that whilst an already impressive 100 million Android powered devices had been activated in May 2011, the amount had doubled over the last 6 months to reach a boggling 200 million units.

Add to this Google's already massive online presence, and their ability to reach a huge audience of music listeners and purchasers is potentially huge - that said, iTunes has spent the last decade cementing its place as the king of online music.

Rather than talking up Google Music as an online shopfront, Google instead positioned the service as a means of discovering, sharing and purchasing tracks from the web as well as Android-powered hardware.

One interesting feature that has already garnered attention has been a sharing feature which allows users to share any recently purchased music via Google's fledgling social network, Google+ and email.

Sadly the launch was US only, which means that short of using a VPN to spoof a US IP address and owning a US credit card, the rest of the word will have to wait for official access.

Where Google is hoping to gain traction over iTunes Match is pricing. Apple currently charges $25 per month, whilst Google Music is to be free with subscribers able to upload, play and share up to 20,000 tracks from their music libraries.

Paul Joyce, Google's Lead Product Manager for music took the stage during the launch, talking up several Google music features including and Instant Mix feature (which analyses your music library to create mix playlists with a single mouse click) as well as a Music Manager application (which is available for Windows, OSX and Linux and uploads existing music you already own to Google servers where it can be accessed from any web browser or any device running Android 2.2 or later). According to Joyce, the app can also upload existing playlists, song ratings individual tracks or albums.

Joyce showed off the latest music app for android 2.2, which makes all music uploaded with Music Manager available on Android powered hardware via a Google sign in. The app also incorporates the ability for music, artists and playlists to be "pinned" which caches them locally on your Android device so they're available offline.

The US version of the Android market has also been updated and now has a music icon where tracks are available by genres, top albums, top charts as well as staff recommendations and promotions. Band profiles, video interviews and concert footage are also going to be available. Unfortunately, the updated market app won't be available outside the US any time soon.

Whilst Google didn't give any indications around typical pricing, the demonstrations shown at the event had most tracks priced at a reasonable US$0.99 (this said, Google is allowing artists to set their own prices), and songs will be available as 320kbps MP3 files which means no clunky digital rights management or strange file formats to deal with and good audio quality.

Google is going to offer a "Free song of the day" and dropped hints that hundreds of other free songs will also be available from lesser-known bands.

Music can be recommended to friends on Google+ or via email with a one-off free play of any music you've recommended - full albums can also be shared, and music can also be shared over Android hardware with friends able to easily purchase any music you've recommended.

The service also integrates tightly with YouTube and artists will be able to link the Google Music storefront into their YouTube channel. As of today, Google Music has launched with Universal, EMI and Sony (Warner Music has not signed up) plus over 1,000 smaller indie labels. Google Music goes live with eight million tracks, which is expected to rise to 13 million tracks over coming weeks.

To celebrate the launch, Google is offering a range of free tracks which include six previously unreleased Rolling Stones live concerts, a bunch of live tracks from Coldplay's Madrid tour, a new studio album from rapper Busta Rhymes, plus albums from Shakira and the Dave Mathews Band.

Google is making considerable efforts to work with unsigned artists, and has set up an "Artist Hub" - an online portal for artists to distribute music, customise their online store page, upload tracks and albums, set their own prices and add previews full tracks as free listens. Artists get to keep 70 per cent of purchases, which is similar to the original iTunes business model.

In the USA, Google has partnered with T-Mobile, whose customers are able to pay for any purchased music via their phone bill. T-Mobile also indicated that it would be launching free exclusive content through to 2012 and that the service will be progressively rolled out across Android devices in the USA over the next week.

Pat Pilcher is an employee of Telecom NZ

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