Google Music All Access' killer app: understanding data

Google has just rolled out its music streaming service to all Android customers here in the UK. It’s optimised for phone and tablet use with an in-browser web app too, becoming the latest in a long list to take on Spotify’s domination in music streaming subscriptions. But it has one clear advantage: Google does data, and for many users, it already has a starting point.

First impressions with Music All Access is the smooth and pleasing UI and a large catalogue that rivals Spotify.

There’s streaming radio based on whichever artist or song you want to select as your starting point, and the software’s smart enough to match it with similar – if not exactly perfect – music.

Browsing through genres falls down compared to Spotify, where you can enter all sorts of different music genres in text and get a long list of results (even if ‘heavy metal’ does bring up Nickelback). With Music All Access, there are a number of underpopulated genres you can pick from, but music geeks trying to discover neo-surf-hop won’t be able to pick from that list.

And the top albums, at the moment, in whichever genre, tend to be full of questionable comps that are hardly indicative of a genre’s best artists.

Music All Access’ killer app gives it real potential to change the way we discover music. That’s the data it already has and user interactivity that crowdsources Google’s understanding of its software and behaviour. For example, it’s possible to stream to multiple devices at the same time. In fact, it’s beneficial for Google: with interactive buttons letting you rate the music with a thumbs up or down. The more users, the better.

Pointing to the explore tab on the app, there was something interesting under ‘recommended for you’: Google had noticed searches and plays from YouTube. Not music that was accidentally opened through a social media link or background songs, but it appeared to have noticed patterns where an album was listened to deliberately and repeatedly.

A Google spokesperson confirmed to TechEye that YouTube can be a trigger point for building information around you, and subsequently offering music based on that, but existing music uploaded to Play is even better. Considering Google’s lion’s share of the smart device market, that means a lot of data points for its algorithms to calculate and offer you something you may like.

“We generate recommendations a number of different triggers, including YouTube, but actually your existing music collection that you’ve uploaded to Play is a better indicator of taste,” the spokesperson said.

“For instance, just because you watch Gangnam Style or Harlem Shake videos on YouTube, doesn’t mean you want that kind of music popping up in your recommendations on Play”.  

Spotify has a recommend feature as well. But it doesn’t seem to understand related artists or patterns or kinds of music as well as Google does. For instance, Spotify radio for ‘Can’ will queue a lot of music that was influenced by or is slightly similar to Can, including postpunk that was ultimately not being searched for, even if it did take on some musical influences.

Google, at least on repeated testing, manages to queue up music from similar eras, with similar patterns and the contemporaries of the original search come up in the results. It queued up Cluster and Faust immediately.

Undercutting Spotify on price – although sadly not offering a supported free version – could spark interest and the free trial certainly tempted me into taking a look.

But it is Google’s expertise with data and discovery – backed with enormous resources in R&D, cash, and existing data sets  – that may ultimately make the difference for music streaming.