This appeared as a review in Full Circle Magazine Issue #78, October 2013
Like many people I enjoy listening to music, and having my music with me everywhere is important. And I have a large music collection to draw on. Trying to have everything with me at all times is a bit of a problem, though, considering how much music I have. Right now I own a number of portable MP3 players, two of which are full of music that I carry with me. My pockets can get very full that way, though, and while I like listening to tracks I own, what about finding new stuff? My MP3 players have never suggested anything to me. This is where the cloud services come in.
My first cloud service was Pandora. I could listen to it on computer using Pithos, or on my phone with the Android app. Pandora is like a radio station that plays the kind of music you like. You give the service the name of an artist, and it builds a channel for you based on that style of music. It finds other artists it considers “similar” to the one you named, and builds a playlist around that. I find that roughly every 5-8 tracks it plays something from the artist you named, with the rest being the “similar” artists. It’s not bad, and you can use it for free if you don’t mind ads and only use it 40 hours per month. I elected to go ad-free and unlimited and pay $36 per year (also available for $3.99 per month). I generally pay for apps when I can to support services I rely on.
Pandora was good in its way, but you cannot control it precisely. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to listen to, or I want to check out an artist I just heard about. So I got an account with Spotify. Spotify is a service that has most of the recorded music available for you to stream, and lets you create play lists. A paid account is $10 per month. It is fantastic for things like putting together a play list of every song a particular artist has recorded, or making playlists to suit a particular need or mood. It has a very large library, but not everything is there. A number of very high profile artists have refused to license their music to Spotify, such as The Beatles. I happen to be a big Beatles fan, and I have their albums on CD and have ripped them to Ogg or MP3 as needed, but that doesn’t help on Spotify.
Then 2 years ago Google got into the competition. Their initial offering was based around a music store much like the iTunes store or Ubuntu One, but had an interesting feature that let you upload your own tracks to the their servers from which you could stream those tracks to your devices. So I could upload all of my Beatles CDs to their servers and listen to them all I want. That was great, and I could also upload those rarities that would otherwise be unavailable (bootleg tracks, for instance, or direct sales tracks from bands like Phish that sell concert recordings direct to the fans). This is a great feature, and I signed up for my Google Music account. In addition I could buy tracks from Google Music which would automatically be added to my account, and I could easily upload tracks I purchased from Amazon or from eMusic
So now I had three different cloud services each doing different things. I liked them all well enough, and between them they pretty much covered everything I wanted. But then Google raised the bar. It created a new service, Google Play Music All Access, which combined all of the above into a single service for $10 per month. The new Google Play Music All Access was recently released, and for your monthly fee you get access to a large library of music you can stream in addition to all of your own tracks. You can do this by creating playlists, in which the tracks can come from Google’s library or from your own. And you can create radio stations similar to Pandora. After trying this for a week, I canceled my Pandora and Spotify accounts because I now get it all for less money. And for whatever reason, I find I am listening to music even more often now with Google Play Music All Access. So how does it work?
Google Play All Access on your Android phone
Google Play is the name for Google’s all-in-one online store. It offers Music, Movies & TV, Books, Magazines, apps for Android, and even Google-branded hardware like Nexus and Chrome. So it combines in one place everything you might ever want to buy from Google. For this review we’ll focus just on the Music section, but chances are that if you have an Android phone you have visited Google Play Apps either on your phone or in your browser. The Play Music app has an icon like a pair of headphones:
- Listen Now – This is where you can search for tracks in Google’s library, plus all the tracks you have uploaded, plus suggestions based on your tracks, and even suggestions based on playlists you have created.
- My Library – You can start with the tracks you have uploaded, but you can also add any tracks you find in Google’s library to your own “My Library”. But note that this does not mean you can download any of them, this is purely streaming from Google.
- Playlists – Here is where you access any of the playlists you have created. This is very like Spotify, for instance.
- Radio – You create “stations” here by giving an artist or track and telling Google to build a dynamic playlist of what it considers “similar” tracks. This feature is very like Pandora.
- Explore – Here you can browse by new releases, particular genres, or check out curated playlists offered by Google.
Now, because we are talking about streaming, you should definitely be thinking about whether this is using your mobile data. Because I don’t want to hit any caps, or be deprived of music in a poor coverage area, I always load a couple of gigabytes of tracks onto my phone from my purchased music collection. A good thing to do is to go to your Settings menu and set it to stream over Wi-Fi only if you are concerned about being hit with a big data bill.
You can also “pin” certain tracks to your device for offline listening. Open the track you would like to “pin”, and look for an icon that looks like a pushpin. If it is at an angle, that means it can be downloaded to your device. If it is vertical, it means it has already been downloaded. But note that you can only download a track twice. It really is meant to be a streaming service. Note too that in the settings you can specify to only download tracks via Wi-Fi.
Full Access on your Computer
Actually this has become a favorite for me. I have some decent speakers connected to my media computer, and with Google Chrome open to the Play Music app I have all of the same access. And perhaps because I am a bit older than most of the readers I don’t find managing everything on my cell phone quite as convenient. So I created my playlists in my browser on my computer. Of course, you have to be logged in to Google to do this, but all of your settings are synced through your Google account. To open this, log in to Google using Gmail, Google+, or any other Google application. When you do this, Google places the black menu bar of all of their applications at the top of your Window. Select Play in this black bar, and then Music in the menu bar on the left.
- Listen Now – This is a combination of tracks you have uploaded, tracks you put in playlists, radio stations you have created, etc.
- My Library – All of the tracks you have uploaded
- Radio – The stations you have created
- Explore – Popular new albums and tracks, and playlists by others that Google has selected
- Auto Playlists – Playlists generated algorithmicly by your actions
- Playlists – the Playlists you have created.
One neat feature is that you can drag-and-drop any track into a playlist. A good example is using the Radio feature to find tracks you might not have known of previously. If you hear a track you like, you can just drag it onto a playlist and it is added.
I generally listen to Play Music on my Kubuntu desktop computer using Google Chrome, but I have also used it with Firefox, and at work I have used Internet Explorer (though Google complains that it is too old and some features may not work. But because the service is entirely browser based on computers, it is inherently cross-platform, and I think any Linux user should have a good experience
Of course, Google is all about the social these days, so sharing music is built in to Google Play Music. You can share playlists with your friends, or with the general public. Just open a playlist you want to share, and you will see the Share Playlist button. Click on that to get your Sharing options.
The default for every playlist is for it to be private. But if you like you change that to “Public”. When you do this a Google+ button appears, and this lets you select who you would like to share your playlist with. You can share it with the “Public”, which in practice means anyone who follows you on Google+, or you can select specific people. They do need to be on Google+ though for you to share with them. And if anyone shares a playlist with you, you can subscribe to the playlist, and if they add tracks later those tracks will be added to your subscribed copy.
Google Play Music All Access depends on making licensing deals with the record labels, so as you might expect it is not available everywhere just yet. Here is what Google says on their web site about it:
All Access is available for Google Play Music users on Android 2.2 and above. All Access isn’t available everywhere yet, but we look forward to expanding to more countries around the world.
What this means in practice is that it rolled out first in the United States. It was then offered in Australia and New Zealand. And on August 9 it was announced that it was now available in 9 European countries as well ( Austria, Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, and the UK). And I would assume that Google would like to achieve global domination, so it should be appearing in other countries in the months ahead. But if you cannot wait, I have heard rumors that they mostly depend on a credit card address, and don’t inquire too closely into the validity of that address as long as the charges clear.
So I hope this article has piqued your interest in this music service that I have found to be very attractive. And if you want find me, I am +Kevin O’Brien on Google+.