Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Google brings Songza's best feature to Play Music

Chris Welch/The Verge


After purchasing Songza for an undisclosed sum earlier this year, Google is now bringing that app’s best features to Google Play Music on Android, iOS, and the web. An update due today will add a new section to the "Listen Now" page that’s a streamlined take on Songza’s Concierge functionality. Depending on what time it is or what you’re likely to be doing at that moment, Play Music will present you with a colorful list of activities (working out, getting ready for work, sleeping, studying, etc.) designed to perfectly match your daily routine and mood.

The magic word is context, and Google tries its best to guess that by looking at the time, the day, the device you're using, and other "signals" that offer a clue on what you might want to hear. Play Music and other music services now offer song catalogs so huge that the main challenge they face is making discovery easier. Enter Songza.


"Play Music now gets context," said Play Music product manager Elias Roman — previously a Songza co-founder — in a meeting with The Verge. "If you expect a service to recommend something to you and they don’t know if you’re sleeping or training for a triathlon, it’s going to be really hard for them to do a good job."

Pick one of those activities, and you’ll be asked to choose from a group of slightly-more-specific music stations. Every station (and there are a lot of them) is assembled by Google’s team of music experts. These include "dozens of DJs, musicians, music critics and ethnomusicologists" according to Google. Presumably it’s many of the same people that previously handled these duties for Songza. Just like Beats Music, Google is placing huge importance on the fact that it’s actual people, not algorithms, determining what comes next. "'Crowd pleasing '90s dance hits' might not mean anything in terms of its timbre, syncopation, and melody. It might mean nothing to an algorithm, but it means a lot to a person," Roman said.

But Roman seems to think Play Music has a leg up on Beats (and everyone else) when it comes to elegance and speed. Whereas Beats’ "The Sentence" requires you to make up to four selections to find the perfect music accompaniment, Play Music can get you there in just a couple taps — when it’s making good guesses about context, anyway. "You can take a lot of implicit signals into account to make a really good recommendation before you’ve made the person work for it," he said. "We really want to do that." But Roman quickly pointed out that deep controls remain in place for users that prefer to "turn some knobs."

Google Play Music jumps ahead of Songza in a few ways. Since this feature is only available to All Access subscribers, there are no ads to deal with. Also, paying monthly means you’re given full control over the playback queue. Stations can be reordered to your liking and any song can be cut on a whim. You can also launch a radio station based on any song you hear, or add it to your regular Play Music library for easy access later. Best of all, Concierge-served stations can be downloaded for offline listening in quality up to 320kbps.That's something Songza never had. Roman told us Play Music won’t download entire playlists by default, instead pulling down around 25 songs, or enough to provide a soundtrack for your workout or daily commute.

Today’s update also brings Google’s Material Design visual style to Play Music. The difference isn’t immediately striking, but among the changes you’ll notice are bolder colors, larger album art for recommendations, and smooth, fluid animations across the board. Another improvement: Google is clearly labeling the "Recent activity" section — now found below Concierge — that collects everything you've recently listened to or added to your library. And recommendations finally explain why Google thinks they're a good fit for you. More often than not, they're tied to your listening history.

So that’s what’s new with Play Music. It still remains a pretty unique service thanks to its three-prong approach: there's the digital music locker (which holds up to 20,000 songs and remains free), on-demand listening through All Access, and a traditional MP3 store. But what about Songza? With Google now claiming ownership of its best feature — and reserving it for paying subscribers — is the writing on the wall? Roman would only say that it’s "business as usual" at Songza, at least for right now. I didn’t come away hugely confident about Songza’s future, which eventually could leave users who don’t mind ads (not to mention Windows Phone listeners) disappointed. But we’ll see. If you're paying for Google Play Music All Access, that deal just got a bit sweeter.

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