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My First Six Questions About Amazon’s New Prime Music Service

Amazon Prime Music

After months of rumors, Amazon has rolled out its Prime Music service. As expected, it bundles music with the company’s Amazon Prime service, which now costs $99 a year for new members. And as expected, there are some gotchas.

Prime Music is launching with over a million songs; Spotify, by contrast, has over 20 million, and even that has selection has its holes. Prime doesn’t include current hits. It also doesn’t have anything from Universal Music Group, which owns more music than anyone else.

I’ve been fiddling around with the new service this morning, and it hasn’t gone that well: On my iPad, the new version of Amazon’s music app for iOS is unusably slow and keeps crashing. (The web version of the service works fine.) But that isn’t stopping me from asking questions about it:

1. Is a million songs a lot, or hardly any? Amazon’s own Prime Video and Netflix show us that a movie service can be a keeper even if there are far more things that it doesn’t have than ones which it does. But there does need to be a critical mass of stuff worth caring about.

For me, the lack of current hits is a non-issue: Most of the music I listen to is forty, fifty, or sixty years old. So I wondered whether the service might seem complete to me, or at least substantial.

During my early rummaging around in the Prime collection, however, the pickings still come off as slim. The results for Bob Dylan look great, but much of the time, when I searched for an artist or group I got one or two major albums and a bunch of chaff such as “tributes” and karaoke versions.

I got excited about the 32 albums which came up for “Frank Sinatra” until I saw they included one real Sinatra album (In the Wee Small Hours), three sketchy-looking compilations of his early work as a band singer, and 29 things along the lines of this:

Prime Music Sinatra

Besides albums, Prime Music offers hundreds of playlists, which seem to benefit from less restrictive licensing. For example, there are no Monkees albums, but a playlist called “The Monkees’ Top Songs” does indeed have 19 of the ones you’re most likely to look for.

2. Is there a place for Amazon Prime given the profusion of free music which is already available? Amazon Prime Video and Netflix make sense in part because they’re offering content which is generally unavailable for free elsewhere (at least legally). But both Spotify and Rdio now offer free versions with way more than a million tracks. They’ve got their own catches: Spotify only lets you listen to music on mobile devices in shuffle mode, and Rdio isn’t free on mobile devices at all. But I still suspect I’d be inclined to go to a service with a far higher chance of having the music I want than Prime Music currently does.

3. Does not having anything from Universal Music Group destroy the service, or merely cripple it? Strangely enough, most of us don’t pay close attention to which enormous corporation controls the work of our favorite performers. So it’s tough to say how much the absence of all this music will hobble Prime for any particular listener. Wikipedia has a helpful list of Universal’s artists, from A (ABBA) to Z (Zucchero).

4. Would anyone cancel a paid account to Spotify or Rdio because this exists? Seems highly unlikely to me.

5. Is it reasonable to say it’s FREE? Amazon is billing Prime Music as being “FREE with Amazon Prime.” I’m not sure how something that involves a $99 yearly fee qualifies as being free. Especially since Amazon recently raised the price of Prime membership, which presumably makes it easier for the company to add inducements such as, um, free music.

6. Will Prime Music get great? Right now, I can’t imagine that anyone will regard this music service as anything other than a pleasant bonus for Prime subscribers, in a category already crowded with excellent options. But Prime Video started out with only a smattering of content, and has grown into an attractive Netflix alternative. Given time, Prime Music might blossom–especially if Amazon and Universal hammer out a deal, and especially if the service expands to include at least some semi-current hits.

Those are all the questions I have right now. If you have opinions on them–or on Prime Music in general–I’d love to hear them.


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Facebook Pumps Up The Volume

In Facebook’s never-ending quest to get you to stay on its site even longer, the site has rolled out a new feature for music services on the social networking site. Now, when those music statuses appear on your newsfeed, clicking on their name will pop up a window with a button to “Listen With” that friend. Making it even more fun, you’ll start the music at the exact same point, essentially allowing your friend to play DJ.

The listen feature will works in both individual and group settings. Those friends listening to music will show a music note beside their name. Initially Spotify, Mog, and Rdio are supported, although Facebook says other services are on their way.

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GarageBand Comes to the iPhone

When Apple brought its OS X music app GarageBand to the iPad earlier this year, it was a convincing counter-argument–one of many–to the increasingly tired theory that the iPad is only good for consuming stuff, not creating it. Now it’s taken that iOS version of the app and made it work on the iPhone (and iPod Touch), too. (It’s one universal $4.99 app for all three devices.)

On the iPhone, GarageBand is a nicely shrunken-down version of its iPad self, with virtual pianos, organs, drums, guitars, and the ability to record and play with samples and plug in a guitar. You can record music and transfer it to the OS X version of GarageBand (which is part of iLife) for further work.

I don’t even qualify as an amateur musician, but GarageBand is fun to play with, and the general level of polish and ambition is exceptionally impressive. I’ll be fascinated to see what people who know what they’re doing do with it. Images after the jump.

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MOG Goes Free to Fight Spotify, but With a Twist

If Spotify proved one thing with its U.S. launch, it’s that people will go nuts for free music. So now MOG, one of my favorite paid streaming music services, is getting a free version of its own.

Like Spotify, MOG lets you listen to any song or album you want from a library of about 11 million tracks. But unlike Spotify, MOG’s free service isn’t strictly time-limited. (Spotify users get six months of unrestricted listening, followed by 10 hours per month and five plays per track.) Instead, MOG uses a game-like system that rewards certain actions with more free listening. Refer some friends, get some free time. Recommend a playlist, get more free time. Click on an ad, get more free time.

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Turntable.fm iPhone App? Sounds Good, But…

The Turntable.fm bug hit me hard about a month ago. Suddenly I was wasting hours DJing alongside my friends, hoarding points to upgrade my avatar and building a big database of cool music that I’d never heard before. All the while, my friends and I asked the same question: Where’s the Turntable.fm smartphone app?

Now, TechCrunch reports that a Turntable.fm iPhone app is coming soon, and the site has a handful of screenshots to prove it. (Co-founder Billy Chasen seems to have confirmed the rumor, writing in the comments that “We were saving this as a surprise for [TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference] when I’m on stage.”)

That’s great news, but it also makes me wonder whether the free ride on this very cool music service is coming to an end.

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6 Questions About Spotify’s U.S. Launch

Subscription music service Spotify has announced that it will finally be launching in the United States — at some point. The company, which is known overseas for streaming millions of ad-supported songs on demand at no charge, provided hardly any details on its U.S. plans. Spotify simply confirmed the news and started a sign-up process for invites.

Naturally, that leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Here’s what I’d most like to know about Spotify’s U.S. launch:

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John Linnell of They Might Be Giants: A Technologizer Tech Interview

Few musical acts have the power to excite tech enthusiasts like They Might Be Giants. The band’s attention to detail, appreciation for humor, and perennial refusal to follow the status quo strongly resonate with nerd-folk (think: engineers, programmers) who rely on minutiae and unconventional thinking to do their jobs.

Their unique approach has earned the band two Grammy awards (and three nominations) in the last 10 years for work with Malcolm in the Middle and a string of well-received children’s albums. Of course, with 15 studio albums under their belt, they aren’t exclusively an act for kids. While perhaps best known in the adult world for the 1990 album Flood, it’s impossible to choose a single TMBG record that represents such a large and diverse body of work.

At the core of TMBG is a 29-year partnership between two good friends: John Linnell, 52, and John Flansburgh, 51, who function like two halves of the same brain. Flansburgh delivers culturally-reflective philosophical works in broad strokes, while Linnell often sings through the character of an insecure, paranoid introvert that explores subjects in elaborate detail.

TMBG are known for their eager adoption of technology in creating and marketing their music. The group first relied on an electronic drum machine before adopting a full live band, then adopted computer sequencing in production work. In the mid-1990s, TMBG quickly set up a strong presence on the nascent Web, and they crowned that era by releasing the first full-length MP3-only album in 1999. To this day, they continue their high-tech track record by embracing online distribution, email newsletters, and podcasting as a way to reach out to fans in the post-label era.

As a student of computer and video game history, I often interview people who helped to make the information technology industry what it is today. But I think it’s also important from a historical perspective to explore the impact of technology on the rest of the world. That’s why I asked John Linnell to recall his earliest experiences with such machines and to reflect on how computers have impacted his profession.

In early May of this year, Linnell and I spoke at length over the phone about these subjects while also touching on his fruitful partnership with Flansburgh and how it has ensured the continued success of their band.

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I Visited a CD Store Today. (Remember Those?)

I was a frequent Tower Records shopper until that chain collapsed, and it’s only been gone since 2006. I went to the Virgin Megastores in San Francisco and New York pretty often, too, and they closed in 2009. That doesn’t seem that long ago.

But at the moment, I’m in San Diego for Qualcomm’s Uplinq conference, and when I saw a Sam Goody music store in the same complex as my hotel, I wandered in–and boy, did what I found feel like something from another era.

Until I came across it, I wasn’t sure whether Sam Goody (which was founded in New York City in the 1950s by Samuel Gutowitz) still existed. Apparently, even Sam Goody is uncertain whether Sam Goody still exists: Wikipedia (which refers to the chain in the past tense) says it’s owned by Trans World Entertainment, which also owns FYE, the last bastion of big-time shopping-mall music stores. But the company apparently converted most of the remaining Goody stores into FYEs in 2008 and doesn’t even mention the chain on its corporate site. There is no such place as SamGoody.com anymore, either.

But this San Diego Sam Goody refuses to acknowledge its own fate, like a Japanese soldier hiding out on a Pacific island somewhere. (In this case, the island happens to be Horton Plaza, a sprawling open-air shopping center in San Diego’s Gaslight Quarter.)

The Goody store is a close cousin of the Tower Records and Virgin Megastores I’d once found worth my time, but I’d almost forgotten what they were like, and had to reacclimate myself to the whole concept of a great big retailer dealing primarily in discs with things recorded on them. As I toured the place, I took fuzzy photos with my iPhone.

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At Last, Slacker Gets On-Demand Music (and a Neat iPad App)

Way back in March of 2010, nifty Internet radio service Slacker began demoing features for on-demand listening, putting it more squarely in competition with Rhapsody, Napster, and other all-you-can-eat subscription services. Today, it’s finally launching the service. It’s available in its browser-based version and iPhone/iPod Touch, Android, and BlackBerry versions–and also in a new iPad version.

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Hands-On With Google Music Beta

While many of us Google I/O attendees were unsurprised by yesterday’s announcement that Google was launching its own cloud-based music service, we were excited to learn that every one of us would be getting a priority invite to the service. As a big music nerd, I was excited to give it a test spin. Can Google do music? Read on to find out.

What It’s All About

Music Beta lets you upload your personal music collection to the cloud for streaming to your computer and other Android devices. Sound kind of familiar? You might recall that Amazon also rolled out a music player this year, Cloud Player. But unlike Amazon’s service, Google’s Music Beta does not sell music. So what’s the appeal? It’s simple and if you do everything through your Google account anyway, you might as well add music management to the mix. Furthermore, Android has always had a miserable music organization system so Music Beta is definitely a welcome addition to the platform.

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