How Google Music wants to take on Spotify, Rdio and Rhapsody

Google (s GOOG) entered a crowded space when it launched its own music subscription service this week: Google Play Music All Access competes head-on with Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, Muve Music and a handful of other offerings, all of which offer more or less the same catalog for the same price.

How can Google stand out from the crowd, and convince millions of consumers who haven’t warmed up to access models that they don’t need to own music to enjoy it? To find out, I’ve both tested the service since its launch Wednesday and met up with Paul Joyce, Lead Product Manager for Google Play Music on the sidelines of the Google I/O developers conference where the service was launched. Joyce politely declined to answer some of my questions, but the conversation gave me a good idea of what’s in store for the music service with the confusingly long name.

Right now, it’s more or less like all the others

google play music libraryGoogle’s premise for Play Music All Access is simple, and you’ve heard it before: Play millions of songs, on your desktop and on the go, for one low monthly fee. That’s what Spotify and all of its competitors have been offering for some time now, and Google doesn’t mess with the basic recipe. All Access costs $9.99 ($7.99 if you sign up before the end of June), and it offers streaming access to songs from all three majors and most significant indie labels.

However, there’s one big difference: Google’s subscription music catalog seamlessly integrates with the company’s music locker, with which users can store up to 20,000 songs for free. That’s an interesting combination, and it hasn’t been offered by any of the other major subscription players before. It makes it possible to have Google generate smart radio stations based on your own music collection, or mix subscription tracks and CDs you ripped in custom playlists, and then access these on the go without having to worry that some of the tracks won’t be available.

Joyce told me that the locker is especially good for tracks that aren’t available through the subscription offering, or even as MP3 sales – mashups, imports and other kinds of rarities.

In the future, All Access will be a lot more social

But All Access isn’t just about filling the gaps left by other services. It also wants to be better at engaging you – which has been one of the problems of existing services. “People sign up, and then they don’t know what to do afterwards,” Joyce said. Having millions of songs at your disposal doesn’t exactly make choice easy, and there is some evidence that a good chunk of users simply tune out.

How does Google want to address this issue? Joyce gave me one hint: “There is more we can do to innovate in social,” he said.

Play Music doesn't offer much of a social integration today - but that could change soon.
Play Music doesn’t offer much of a social integration today – but that could change soon.

And we are not talking here’s a list of the unfortunate music choices of all the people you didn’t really care about in high school social, which has been Spotify’s original model of social discovery. “If you treat all your recommendations of all your friends the same, then that is a problem,” Joyce argued. However, he wasn’t convinced that the Rdio model – which is very much like Twitter in that it offers you to follow tastemakers – is the right approach either. It’s simply too much work to find the people who can give you good recommendations, he argued.

So how is Google Music’s approach to social going to look? Joyce didn’t go into details, only telling me that the goal was to give you “the right music from the right people at the right time.” However, one has to assume that it would be powered by Google+, which gives us some idea of how it could work: You could get music recommendations from circles and communities, with the ability to share circles of influencers with others. Instead of just curating albums, Google Music’s editors could curate circles of influencers, and users could simply follow the 50 most influential indie rock bloggers with one click.

What else does Google have up its sleeve?

There have been ongoing reports that Google is going to launch a separate music subscription service on YouTube, which makes about as much sense as having four separate messaging apps from the same company (but that didn’t really stop Google, either). Joyce didn’t want to go into any specifics. “YouTube is a great asset for Google,” he told me, and then added: “We will find exciting things to do together.” Maybe it won’t be two separate services, after all?

Google also plans to bring Play Music All Access to other countries “soon,” said Joyce. Countries that already have Google’s music cloud locker will be first on the list for an international expansion, and currently include the UK, France, Germany and Spain.

And finally, there is iOS. Joyce’s lips were sealed when I asked him about the potential of bringing the service to the competing mobile platform, but it would make a lot of sense, and follow Google’s overall theme of unification across mobile and desktop platforms. Of course, this would be the first time that any Play service was available on iOS – but I predict that Google will have to take that step if it wants to seriously compete with Spotify and Co.