Amazon's full on-demand streaming music service launches
(By Dan Seifert 10.12.16 for TheVerge.com)
Amazon’s long-rumored on-demand music streaming service is now available. The company is launching its new service as Amazon Music Unlimited, a on-demand competitor to the likes of Spotify, Apple Music, and Google Play Music. Amazon has done a number of things to differentiate Music Unlimited from its competitors, but the most notable one is its price: the service will be available to Amazon Prime members for $7.99 per month or $79 per year, which is cheaper than the premium options from Spotify or Apple Music. In addition, owners of one of Amazon’s voice-controlled Echo devices will be able to get the service for just $3.99 per month.
At its core, Amazon Music Unlimited is very similar to the other services you could subscribe to. It has a catalog of "tens of millions" of songs (Amazon’s Steve Boom tells me it has deals with all three major labels, in addition to "hundreds" of indies); a recommendations engine to surface new music; both algorithmic and hand-made playlists; and apps for Android, iOS, Sonos, and desktop (plus Amazon’s Fire tablets and set top boxes). Amazon’s new Music apps have been completely redesigned with fresh typography, revised navigation, and a focus on artist imagery and album art. They feature some clever perks, such as the ability to automatically download music Amazon thinks you’d like while in the background, so you’ll always have something to listen to while offline, as well as lyrics integration.
But while Spotify relies on its intelligent music recommendation and discovery as a draw and Apple pushes people toward its service with major album exclusives, Amazon is touting Music Unlimited’s tight integration with its Echo devices and Alexa voice assistant as the real differentiator here. Not only do Echo owners have access to a discounted version of the service (though it’s only available on one Echo device at a time), they can request songs from Music Unlimited in a variety of ways just using their voices. In addition to fielding specific song, artist, album, or playlist requests, Alexa can pull up the "latest song" from an artist, play music based on a requested mood or time period, or even find songs from snippets of lyrics. Requests can be strung together — one of the examples Amazon demoed to me was "play U2 songs from the '80s" and the Echo started playing the only listenable songs from Bono and crew. Amazon says that the more people use the service, the better its responses and suggestions will get. (For example, if you ask the Echo to "play workout music" and have a history of listening to metal, it won’t start bumping EDM.)
In addition, Amazon Music Unlimited has a new feature called Side-by-Side, which pairs artist commentary with selected tracks from the their catalog. The company says it is launching with a few dozen Side-by-Side features, including from artists such as The Chainsmokers, Jason Aldean, Lindsey Stirling, Sting, Norah Jones, One Republic, and Kongos, with more to come in the future. Readers of a certain generation might liken this feature to an updated take on MTV’s Unplugged or VH1’s Storytellers.
Amazon isn’t launching the new service with any major artist or album exclusives, but vice president of Amazon Music Steve Boom says the company "doesn’t have a firm stance on full-on exclusives" and it is still evaluating whether or not to pursue them. For now, Boom points to the service’s ease of use, voice integration, and recommendations technology as the main differentiators for it.
But for many, Amazon Music Unlimited’s price will likely be its main draw. The yearly plan option for Prime members brings the price of the service down to about $6.58 per month, well below the cost of single-account plans from other services. (Non-prime members will be able to sign up for $9.99 per month, which is the same price as competing services.) Amazon says it will also introduce a six-account family plan for $14.99 per month or $149 per year before the end of the year, matching similar options from Spotify, Google, and Apple.
THE ECHO-ONLY PLAN OFFERS THE SAME CONTENT AND FEATURES AS THE MAIN SERVICE
And while the Echo-only plan is limited to only one device (you cannot use it on your phone, PC, tablet, or even more than one Echo device), it still offers the same content library, recommendations, and other features that the full service provides. Amazon is pitching it as a good way for casual listeners that have an Echo to get their feet wet with an on-demand service. The company says its current Prime Music service will still be available to those that don’t subscribe to Music Unlimited, which offers a library of 1 to 2 million songs.
The on-demand streaming music service world is fiercely competitive, with Spotify and Apple commanding the lion’s share of attention and paying subscribers. But Amazon has a compelling option with Music Unlimited — especially if you own an Echo — and it has the deep pockets to ride out the market and pony up for exclusives if it needs to. According to Boom, this is just the first iteration of Amazon’s take on an on-demand music service, and there’s plenty more to come in the future.