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Reinventing Music

Hands On With Amazon’s Spotify Competitor: A Bare-Bones Service, But Still A Threat

It may lack sophistication, but the new Amazon Unlimited Music has convenience and price going for it. And that should win it some fans.

Hands On With Amazon’s Spotify Competitor: A Bare-Bones Service, But Still A Threat

[Photo: Flickr user ビッグアップジャパン]

Amazon's new streaming music service comes with some features that are both delightful and terrifying. Well, "delightful" to you or me as ravenous music listeners with a bias toward convenience, but for competing services like Spotify, the whole thing must be a tad scary. Why? It’s too damn easy to dive into Amazon Unlimited Music. It’s also cheaper.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not canceling my Spotify subscription anytime soon. Other than the price ($7.99 per month for Amazon Prime members like me), there isn’t much that Amazon’s new bare-bones service offers that Spotify doesn’t. In fact, Spotify—blessed as it is with a decade head start and a huge, more singularly focused team—is a substantially better product. But if Amazon poses a threat to Spotify, it’s not in its feature set or some innovation in listening or design. It’s all those casual but still uncommitted music listeners that Amazon is likely to nab as they breeze by to order socks, discount leaf blowers, or whatever else they just remembered they needed.

For starters, Amazon Music Unlimited does meet the bare minimum for a music subscription service in 2016. It has a catalog of millions of songs from all of the major labels, and many indies and smaller distributors. It lets you create radio stations dedicated to specific artists. It also has playlists of music curated by in-house music editors, lists of new releases and popular tracks, a search box, mobile access, and offline listening. If you haven’t yet taken the plunge and paid for a service like Spotify or Apple Music, Amazon’s new offering is a perfectly reasonable place to start.

That catalog is as thorough as you’d expect, including most of the household names in music. The more hip, somewhat lesser-known indie stuff is there, too, at least to a point. Unsurprisingly, Prince and Neil Young are absent. Taylor Swift is there, but her most recent album, 1989, isn’t (Spotify lacks Swift’s music because she objects to the service’s free, ad-supported tier—Amazon has no free listening option). Frank Ocean’s Blond is there. In running a number of searches across genres, I couldn’t find any glaring, deal-killing omissions in Amazon’s catalog compared to Spotify or Apple Music. At this point, all of these services offer most of the music that most people will want to hear.

Any palpable shortcomings in Amazon’s selection are likely to come up when Apple or Tidal scores the next album release exclusive from a big name artist like Drake or whoever they throw a wad of cash at—that is, at least as long as the consumer-hostile scourge of streaming album exclusives continues, which may not be for long.

Like Spotify, Amazon offers a desktop app that scans your local music so it can be included in your library within the Amazon service. But also like Spotify, Amazon doesn’t make it dead simple to get that music onto your mobile devices. This is something Google Play Music nailed from day one by offering a desktop music uploader that quietly scans your hard drive for new music and seamlessly merges it into your Google Play account. And of course, Apple Music is built on top of iTunes so it naturally merges the music you own with the music you’re subscribing to (however flawed and confusing Apple’s initial execution of this may have been). This sort of functionality won’t matter to most casual listeners, but for people with extensive collections of music that isn’t available on subscription services, the ability to keep everything in one place is a big perk. As a bonus, people who have purchased physical albums from Amazon will find that music is automatically included in their streaming library.

The music curation and discovery on Amazon Music Unlimited is decent but not mind blowing. Apple has set pretty high standards with its hand-curated playlists and Beats 1 radio, while Spotify has been wowing listeners with semi-automated features like Discover Weekly, Release Radar, and Daily Mix. For its part, Amazon offers decent human-built playlists broken down by genre, artist, moods, and activities. They’re not quite as good as Apple’s, but it’s an impressive-enough start for a brand-new service, and its curators seem to be churning out new playlists pretty quickly.

Amazon takes a stab at personalization, but its recommendations feel somewhat obvious at first, seeming to take cues from your shopping history and any songs you may have streamed from its previous, more limited music service. It may just be that Amazon's algorithms need time to learn about your listening habits (and those of similar listeners), which is something Pandora and Spotify have each had a decade's worth of experience doing. As you use the service—listening to music, adding albums to your library, and so forth—it does appear to get smarter. There’s also a bit of classic, Amazon-style collaborative filtering going on here: As you stream songs, it offers up suggestions based on the collective listening habits of other users. People who listened to the Frankie Cosmos song I clicked on, Amazon tells me, also listened to Angel Olsen and Mitski. Sounds about right.

As is standard for music services like this, Amazon Music Unlimited includes a radio feature that lets you create stations based on a given artist, complete with Pandora-style thumbs up and down buttons. In this case, the results are usually pretty predictable. Amazon lacks the music-data-science muscle of Pandora or Spotify (which smartly acquired the music intelligence platform the Echo Nest in 2014) and it shows. While its radio stations likely won’t wow any vinyl crate diggers or music geeks, it’s a sufficient enough of a "lean-back" listening experience for more casual music fans.

From a design standpoint, Amazon Music Unlimited has kept things as simple as possible. Its minimal interface feels like a stripped-down version of Spotify, perhaps more akin to Rdio (RIP), and definitely a breath of fresh air for those who have grown tired of the visual bloat of iTunes.

So how does it stack up against the key competition? There’s nothing here that will lure anyone away from Spotify or Apple Music, both of which have excellent curation and discovery features and are more mature products overall. Amazon is certainly more of a proper subscription service than the still-maturing SoundCloud Go (which rumors suggest may wind up getting acquired by Spotify anyway). Tidal, insofar as it manages to stay afloat, does have unique advantages like a high-fidelity streaming option for audiophiles and access to holdout artists like Neil Young and Prince.

At launch, Amazon Music Unlimited feels a bit like Google Play Music: A decent music streaming service built by a giant tech company that hits all the basic, expected marks for such a service without blowing anyone’s minds. It’s perfect for people who haven’t yet signed up for a service like this, especially if they’re already an Amazon Prime member.

For Spotify—currently the biggest player in this space—the threat here comes less from Amazon’s ability to lure away subscribers (although, who knows—this thing is brand new and it could evolve quickly if it’s a priority for Amazon) and more what it symbolizes about the competitive landscape. Increasingly, Spotify’s competition comes from huge, deep-pocketed tech companies like Apple, Google, and now Amazon, which can afford to withstand the tricky economics of the music subscription business while they rake in revenue from other things. Meanwhile, Spotify is under much more pressure to turn streaming music into an actual, profitable business as it gears up to go public.

This not-so-level playing field may seem like an unfair disadvantage for Spotify, but so far the Stockholm-based company has weathered the storm. Even a player as big and well-established in the music industry as Apple hasn't yet made a dent in Spotify's dominance. The summer 2015 launch of Apple Music and its superbly handcrafted playlists and radio programming was met by Spotify with a rise in its own subscribers and the wildly successful launch of its Discover Weekly personalized playlist. Indeed, whatever the long-term impact of these "me too" music subscription services may be, their proliferation offers at least one glimmer of hope for music listeners: The potential for more innovation. Amazon may not have reinvented music with its new service, but it may well help nudge things along into the future.

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