At the start of this review, I was simultaneously excited and frustrated. Now I'm just plain excited. For a bit of context, I have been bouncing between cloud music services since Lala was still a thing. I had one simple desire: I wanted to pay a monthly fee for unfettered access to a large library of content, but still wanted to be able to bring my own. I know that $10/month is not going to get me every song in existence, but if I can pay for most music, and then supply the rest, I'll be happy. Today, Google finally gave me what I wanted and, make no mistake, this is the model that other apps are going to follow for a long time to come. In fact, I'd be in a state of perpetual euphoria if the app itself weren't so obtuse as you're first moving in.
Let's start with the basic set up, though. Because this is a model that, despite our collective déjà vu, we have not seen before (or at least that isn't available right now).
All Your Music Available Everywhere - Yes, All
Those of you who keep up with ancient products that no one uses anymore may remember that Google made waves a couple years ago when it announced a digital locker service. The company allowed you to upload your collection (with a cap of 20,000 songs) and access them anywhere. You could use the web player or Android apps and either stream or download your tracks.
Later on, Google added the ability to buy tracks individually. This was almost a carbon copy of iTunes and, for that reason, it didn't do so well. Why buy from this new store when you can use the store you've been buying tracks from for years? Also, who buys individual tracks anymore? (Okay, quite a lot of people, but that's beside the point.)
Now, Google announces a subscription service. The refrain across the tech sphere is that Google just copied Spotify and there's no reason to use this over any other all-you-can-listen service. Technically, yes, the new features Google announced today are the same as what has already existed. There's just one key distinction. The new subscription service is combined with the other features. In other words, you can now pay for a subscription, buy individual tracks, or upload your own, and then listen to them all in the same app. No matter what your preferred method for listening to music is, Play Music has you taken care of.
This is not something that is available on other platforms. Rdio does not allow you to upload your personal music collection at all. Spotify will recognize local tracks on your computer and you can play them on other devices if you want, but you first have to download each track in its entirety to whatever handset you're listening on. Oh, and if you're using the web player, forget about it. This can kinda work, but it's not an ideal solution.
Play Music is literally everything. Pay $9.99 a month (or $7.99 if you sign up before June 30th) and you get unfettered access to millions of songs. If the songs you want aren't part of that collection (or you want to keep certain tracks after you stop paying), you can shop for more on the Play Store. If you want to buy tracks from another company (maybe Amazon is cheaper?) you can do that and then upload them to the cloud. No matter how you get your songs, though, you can access them on your phone, tablet, or desktop for streaming or local playback (desktop local playback is limited to uploaded/purchased tracks).
So, it's the Swiss Army Knife of music services. Great. How good is the software, though?
It Took A While, But Eventually I Loved This App
Before I begin, a disclaimer: when Play Music first went live, there were offers to add a bunch of free music to your account. Hundreds of tracks in fact. I accepted because I will click on free things faster than most of you will click on a link that says adorable kitten resting on hot nerd boobs. Much like those of you that are easily tempted to click links, I regretted my decision. Combined with the collection of music that had been sitting on my hard drive since high school that I also uploaded, I had a lot of house cleaning to do. This caused a lot of frustration that you probably won't share, so I'll skip that part. However, if you have a bunch of junk in your Play Music account, chances are you'll be scrambling for a reset button.
However, the problems I had with navigation continued despite the extensive job I did cleaning up my collection. For starters, the My Library section is of questionable utility. Your music is sorted into four sections: Artists, Albums, Songs, and Genres. Artists and Albums are sorted alphabetically which makes it easy enough to scroll to find a particular piece of content. This is nice! However, because the interface uses such huge cards, large libraries would require a lot of scrolling to find anything. In most cases, you'd be better off searching. Ironically, the Songs tab is a straight list, which is even more scrolling. If this is your primary method of browsing music, then you're a masochist which, you know, is cool, but damn man. Maybe start slow with some piercing suspensions or something.
One or two albums for most genres, a bunch in Pop. Efficient categorization!
Oh and Genres is the most useless section. It organizes your music using a fancy algorithm, then prints those results out on paper, runs that paper through a shredder, shoots the shreds out of a leaf-blower, fires a shotgun at the flurry of scraps, collects whatever dust remains, and scans that pile of paper bits back into the computer. To be fair, this is how the "genre" classification has functioned since the dawn of time, so Google isn't straying too far from the norm here.
Listen Now fixes the problem of browsing your own library by showing you an algorithm-fueled array of music suggestions. Like a lot of Google's cards lately, each suggestion is accompanied with a reason why you're being shown this result. The downside to this section is that you're not going to discover much that's new. To be fair, there is a separate "Explore" tab that's designed to get you new content, but your Listen Now section does include one or two recommendations that aren't part of your library. Maybe it's just me, but I feel like there's room for a bit more. Not a lot, but maybe one suggestion per row.
The Explore tab is where you will want to go when you're looking for something new and need guidance from the Almighty Suggestion Engine. You'd be forgiven for being unable to distinguish this section from the Play Store. Nearly all the same categories are present. Top Albums, Recommendations, Genres, etc. The primary distinction between this and the Play Store is that you'll only see music that is accessible either via the subscription or your personal collection. It actually doesn't look like it's possible to buy individual tracks or albums without leaving Play Music altogether on the web. Within the Android app, a "Buy" option is available via the drop down menu, but you can play all the music you see without paying an extra dime.
Finally, the Radio tab is almost entirely useless until you add your own Radio stations. This isn't hard. There's a "Start Radio" button attached to every song and album in the service. This looks like a neat place to return to particular themed radios later on, but when you first get started, it's a barren wasteland.
The Golden Playlists
Playlists are, for my uses at least, a lovely safe-haven from the somewhat scattershot organization features. To be fair, I've been on Spotify for a long time, so I may simply be trained to think that way. However, from that perspective, playlists are great. You can create a set that includes music you've uploaded mixed together with subscription music in a seamless continuum. Not only that, but you can share playlists with a link or on Google+. At the moment, it looks like only users in the US can see shared playlists, regardless of where the tracks originated, however with the general bugginess of Google products today that comes from launching a million new services, we can't quite tell if this is by design or by error.
Here's why I'm willing to forgive all the problems I've seen so far, though. The less-than-innovative browsing design, the lengthy clean-up process, the confusion over whether a particular track is one I bought, uploaded, or subscribed to. I'm willing to forgive it all because of this:
In this playlist, there is music that I acquired via a subscription, music I purchased on the Play Store, and music I got on Amazon and then uploaded directly. Can you tell which is which? Neither can I. Nor can the music player. If I set this to play through, I won't get stopped if it comes to a track that Google didn't get explicit permission from Sony to play. I won't be forced to download only most of a playlist locally. You can accomplish something similar with any album or song in your subscription. Just click "Add to My Library" and it will be added to your collection, completely indistinguishable from what you've uploaded yourself.
Ironically, this is the feature I love and hate the most. I think Google would do well to give you an option to show which songs are ones you own and which ones you are merely renting. 99% of the time, I won't need to know or care about that. However, when I'm cleaning up my library, it would be extremely handy. There are other small issues that would be great if Google could fix up. However, for most regular usage, this is great.
Alright, Google, You Might Just Have Me
The one thing I've found in years of testing and comparing music services is that nothing really fits everyone's usage patterns. There is almost no situation or device you can't listen to music in or on now. As a result, people make up their own usage patterns (as opposed to say, watching a movie at a theater, where the experience is more or less defined for you). For my use cases, though, I've tried Rdio, MOG, Grooveshark, Rhapsody, Lala, Pandora, Last.fm, and virtually every other service under the sun, living or dead. I finally settled on Spotify, but I never could escape the idea that my listening habits were limited by whatever Spotify was able to license. This is not the case with Play Music.
I'll be keeping this subscription for now. It will be a long and arduous task to manually transfer all of my Spotify playlists over to a new service, so both will be used in parallel for a bit, but barring any massive unforeseen problems, I can see myself being happy with just Play Music. It's not perfect, but the promise of being able to manage absolutely any songs I want in one app is appealing.
That being said, on a broader level, Google has a lot to prove right now. Spotify, Rdio and their ilk are on far more platforms and in far more countries than Google is. This is a problem that the company is aware of. Speaking to The Verge, Google Play lead product manager Paul Joyce said, "I don't think it should be a requirement that people have a specific piece of hardware to use our service." The implication here is that Google doesn't want to keep Play Music siloed on Android. This is good news because only offering this product on one platform in one country is a death sentence.
That would be a terrible shame, too. No one else offers this model right now. The store/subscription/storage model has not been achieved yet anywhere else. This is the first and now the bar has been set. Amazon has a cloud locker, Spotify has a subscription, and iTunes has a store, but Google now has all of them combined. The other companies actually have a bit of a grace period in that Play Music is on a very limited release. In time, though, this is the model we'll all want from whatever company we use: the ability to listen to as much music as we want, no matter the source, on any device, at all times.
The race is on.