November 17, 2011, 7:51 AM — Yesterday afternoon, as expected, Google launched its Google Music service out of beta; adding the ability to purchase music at the same time. It was one of those events where the excitement level was fairly muted since the rumors were all pretty much dead on. No big surprises, but a few smaller ones.
So let's run it down for those of you who missed it. First of all, the service is at http://music.google.com and is limited to the US for now. The storage aspect hasn't changed much since beta. It's still a cloud-based music storage service and you can still download an app that'll upload all your local music into Google's cloud, and it's still free. That was small surprise #1. During beta, Google was careful to say this cloud-storage and streaming was free "during beta" and because of this wording, many expected there to be a fee at launch. Not the case, and you can store as many as 20,000 tracks in the cloud.
You can also get apps for Android devices and stream to them, and again there is no fee. Bottom line is, if all you want to do is stream music you already own, then the service is completely free. Hard to argue with that, though I'm sure someone will find a downside to it. This is the Internet, after all.
So now let's move on to buying music. Google has signed up 3 of the major labels, with Warner Music being the holdout. They've also signed up "1000's" of Indie labels and aggregators. Google says it has 8 million tracks for sale today with another 5 million coming shortly. You can shop for music at https://market.android.com/music or, soon, from the Market app on your phone (that update is rolling out; you may already have it, but I don't, yet). All songs have a 90 second preview and are 320 kbps MP3 files. When you purchase them they shoot right into your cloud-based Google Music Library (and these tracks don't count against the 20,000 limit). You can then download them to a local machine or to a device anytime (that applies to your own music too; you can pull tracks down and store them locally on your device).
When you buy a song or an album, you can share it to Google+. Anyone based in the US that you have Circled can play that entire song or album one time. Note I said that you have Circled. People who have Circled you, but that you haven't Circled back only get a 90 second sample, as do your friends not in the US. But this was surprise #2. It's pretty cool to be able to share a full play like that.
Since last summer Google has been running Magnifier, a music blog that gave away free music every day. Now Google is adding a 'free song of the day' feature to the Market, too. For launch day it was David Bowie's Sound and Vision off of his 1977 album, Low. It isn't clear yet whether Magnifier will keep giving out freebies; I hope so.
To celebrate the launch there's some other free selections, too. I encourage you to get over there, sign up and explore. Worst case, you get the free tunes, download them and never log into Google Music again! There are also some other special offers that will cost you a few bucks. I snagged the live Rolling Stones album, Brussels Affair (the recording of a 1973 concert) for $4.99. Generally tracks are $0.99 to $1.29.
Last up, Google is trying to do for indie musicians what Amazon has done for independent authors: give them a place where they can get their art out in front of a big audience, and sell it at whatever price they see fit. Artists pay a 1-time $25 fee to set up their 'hub' on the Android Market. They can then upload as many tracks or albums as they like and set their own price. Google keeps 30% of the sell price, the artist gets the rest. Artists can also sell from YouTube. Google has set up a page with more details.
And that's about it. I've been using the beta of Google Music since shortly after it launched and have been generally pleased with it. I'm very excited that it'll continue to be free to store my library in the cloud. The big question over the long term is how complete their selection of music for sale will be; I've had a friend report that he's been searching for some favorite artists and coming up empty. I'm willing to cut Google some slack in the short term as they get things going, but they need to get that deal with Warner made, and then work on deepening their library over time.
I'm also finding the timing of this event very interesting, considering Amazon's Kindle Fire, which of course integrates Amazon's MP3 Cloud Drive, just launched. I've dabbled with that service too and honestly I haven't been able to decide which I prefer. When I buy music from Amazon, I download the tracks to my PC then upload them to Google Music. Now I'll also do the reverse, at least until I decide which service I want to stick with. Or maybe I'll just keep using them both.
Of course, we don't know how much Amazon will charge in Year 2 of it's service. They were giving away a year with the purchase of an album when the service launched. Let's hope they keep that up. In any event I don't expect them to follow Apple into $25/year territory.
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