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Saturday, May 18, 2024

RIP Google Play Music, Gone Too Soon

Google Play Music died last week. We've known this was coming for some time, and nothing ever happens across the entire Google user base all at once, but many bereaved Google customers are reporting a total loss of life for Google Music. For me the store is gone, speakers no longer work, the app is dead, and the website is dead. It's all gone.


The shutdown wave seems to be rolling across the Google Music userbase as you read this, and even if you still personally have access to some parts of the service, you probably won't have much time left to say your goodbyes. Google Music, born May 10, 2011, will leave us after nine wonderful years.

The service will now join Reader, Google+, and countless other products in the great Google graveyard in the sky. Covering the Google news beat in this day and age basically means running a full-time funeral parlor, and just as we did for the death of Google Inbox, we're here to peacefully guide Google Music into the afterlife with a proper send-off. Thank you for being here today as we celebrate the life of Google's trailblazing music service.

Google Music Beta: Is This Even Legal?

Google Play Music debuted at Google I/O 2011 as "Music Beta by Google." Music Beta was announced alongside the launch of Google Movies on the Android Market store, which was the precursor to Google Play. Combined, Movies and Music were meant to take on Apple's iTunes media juggernaut. Android was still chasing Apple's superior ecosystem, and one of the holes Google needed to plug were quality media services.

Until Music Beta launched, there was no music service at all from Google, just a basic local music player on Android. Google felt so strongly that it needed something to counter iTunes that, in the early days, it actually ended up shipping the Amazon MP3 Store in Android 1.0. It was the only pack-in third-party app and I guess the first-ever instance of Android crapware. With Google Music, Google didn't need Amazon anymore.

iTunes was the industry leader at the time, letting iPhone users shop for music and movies from their computers or phones. Apple was lagging Google in cloud computing though, so for at least a few months longer, any iTunes syncing meant plugging in a cable and doing a big transfer process. Google Music was pitched as a next-generation cloud service that, as Google mentioned several times in its presentation, meant you never needed a cable and never needed to run a local sync. Upload your music to the cloud and Google Music would seamlessly make your music collection available across all your devices, using the power of the internet.

Uploading music was the requirement for Google Music Beta because, when it launched, there was no music store whatsoever. While Apple dragged the music companies, kicking and screaming, into the modern internet era with paid-for downloads, Google couldn't get a music license deal done during the beta. To quote Ars' Ryan Paul in his initial hands-on, "During a press briefing at Google I/O, the company said that it had initially sought licenses but was unable to establish mutually acceptable terms with the music industry. The negotiations eventually broke down and Google decided to continue the project on its own."
Google Music Beta was strictly a bring-your-own-music service, but back then there was actually some question as to whether that was even legal. It seems crazy today to ask, "Is it OK to store my files in the cloud?" but music industry lawyers were doing their best to slather a heavy layer of FUD over the whole idea.

Amazon poked the bee's nest first with the surprise launch of an "unlicensed" music locker service earlier in 2011, and Sony Music's saber-rattling response was that it was keeping its "legal options open." Ars' Timothy B. Lee wrote a whole article addressing the question, pointing out that one of the first BYOM cloud-streaming services, MP3.com, was crushed by the music industry in the 1990s. Google and Amazon both chose to charge ahead under the claim that streaming your own files was fair use, and they would deal with any questions in court.

You can still feel the icy hand of Google's legal department in the original Music Beta invite, which helpfully informs the user at the bottom that "Music Beta is only for legally acquired music." You've got to super-seriously pinky promise that none of your music came from LimeWire. Checkmate, music pirates.

A big part of Music Beta was the Music Manager app for Windows, Mac, and (two months after launch) Linux, which would upload your entire music collection to the cloud, where Google let people store up to 20,000 tracks for free. From there, your music would work on any client. It was specially designed to work well with iTunes and Windows Media Player and would grab playlists, play counts, and ratings from those apps.

The beta launch was in the typical style of Google betas at the time, where an invite system reduced the initial ramp-up load. Early members signed up and waited for the fateful day when an invite would hit their email inbox. About two months into the beta, existing users were able to invite friends.

The beta launch clients were for Android and a web app at music.google.com. The web app required Adobe Flash to play music (remember Flash?), meaning, at the time, it worked on just about everything that wasn't an iPhone. The website was good-looking, with a black-text-on-white design and blue and orange highlights that matched a lot of the Android Market aesthetic at the time. There was a navigation pane on the left, a big content section on the right, and a player at the bottom. It looks positively modern compared to the YouTube Music web app, which looks like a big phone app.
While the Google Music web app was a straightforward, simple design that wouldn't look that out of place today, for a long time the Android app kept getting stuck with some, uh, interesting ideas about UI design. The app worked on Android 2.2 Froyo and up, and there was even a special tablet version for Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the first version of Android to support tablets. These were the dark days of Android UI design when Google had no guidelines at all, and the company would ping-pong between different styles depending on what month it was. Various bits of UI rarely matched anything else, and the app would give different looks depending on what OS you were on. The phone version of the app had this fuzzy glass background and glossy, rounded gradients for all the main buttons, and then from there, it would pull in native UI widgets from the operating system. On 2.3 Gingerbread, this meant flat gray and black OS menus that clashed with the shiny, glassy UI of the app. On Honeycomb, the app has a fuzzy glass background, flatter buttons, and blue, Tron-inspired laser-beam UI bits pulled in from the OS. On Honeycomb—because the app-supplied UI pieces and the OS-supplied UI pieces were made at the same time—the app, by pure luck, actually looked cohesive.

The Android Google Music app would always have a big focus on color in the future, but this beta version did not. With the focus on a fuzzy, glassy background and gradients everywhere, the app always seems to just turn various shades of gray, and it looked like a depressing, cloudy day.

The most eye-catching Android app feature was a crazy 3D scrolling carousel for album art. Google recently started to cook more hardware acceleration into the Android UI, and nobody in the company had learned yet that with great animation power comes great animation responsibility. Google got a little carried away when it decided scrolling through a swooping, zooming arc of 3D albums was a good way to navigate your music collection. The Honeycomb tablet app got even wilder with these "shuffle" animations that happened when changing views, which showed album art thumbnails sliding around and landing in their various category stacks.

The music world was still dealing with the rise of downloads and the loss of digging through tangible, physical albums, and I think these insane 3D interfaces were a coping mechanism. Google's UI flourishes were only answering the gauntlet thrown down by iTunes' equally swoopy "Coverflow" UI.

Out of Beta: A Music Store and a New App

The beta wrapped up after six months, and on November 16, 2011, "Music Beta by Google" became "Google Music." The service opened up to everyone in the United States, no invites needed.

While Google couldn't negotiate a deal with record companies during the beta, for the official launch, the various billion-dollar companies put their differences aside and decided that selling us all music actually was a good idea, so Google got its music license.

Well, it signed a deal with three of the four big record labels, at least. Universal, EMI, Sony, and some smaller labels all signed up and brought 8 million tracks, while Warner Music held out for an entire year. Independents didn't need a record label at all—they could sell music through Google's new "artist hub," which would list indie songs on the store exchange for a 30 percent cut.

Google celebrated the out-of-beta milestone with its new friends in the music industry and threw a star-studded party headlined by the likes of Drake, Busta Rhymes, and Maroon 5. There's a whole article about it in The Hollywood Reporter.

The license meant Google launched a music store in the Android Market, offering a la carte, 320-kbps MP3 purchases for $0.69 to $1.29 each. The store existed on both the web and on Android, and music bought on any client would instantly sync down to all other clients. The Android Market was now starting to look like a serious store, and sold apps, movies, music, and books. Purchases for music could be processed through Google Wallet or, if you were a T-Mobile customer, could just be tacked on to your monthly bill. As part of the default app store that shipped on every Android device, Google's media store had a wide reach once it rolled out to your country.

The non-beta launch also meant a new Android app with a new design. With Android 3.0 Honeycomb and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, Google had gone all-in on a Tron-inspired blue laser-beam theme, and the new Google Music app followed suit. While the beta version always seemed very gray, the new Android app (version 4.0, to match the latest OS) was very, very blue. This now-dead service also got a bunch of integrations with other now-dead Google services, like easy sharing to Google+ (killed in 2019) and a Google TV app (killed in 2014).

The Google Play Era

In March 2012, Google decided "Android Market" wasn't a great name for products that also worked on the web using Windows, Mac, and Linux. Thus, Android Market became "Google Play."

All the media stores became Google Play, too, so besides the Google Play (app) Store, you got Google Play Movies, Google Play Books, and Google Play Music. These are all some really awkward brands, but things would only get worse in the future. The actual Google Play transition changed pretty much nothing other than the branding. Everything got a new logo, including shiny new golden headphones for the newly christened Google Play Music.

Google I/O 2012 in June saw Google (Play) Music turn one year old as well as the announcement of the Nexus Q, the first piece of Google hardware with a heavy emphasis on music. The Nexus Q was a crazy-looking futuristic media sphere that ran Android and, in addition to streaming music and videos, was an amplifier for bookshelf speakers. When it was all plugged in, it looked like one of those creepy, squid-like Sentinel robots from The Matrix.

Google seemingly always viewed Google Music as a pathway to home audio hardware, since prototypes of the Nexus Q (called "Tungsten," the Nexus Q codename) were demo'd alongside the first announcement of Music Beta. You can trace the origins of Google Cast all the way back to that original presentation too: Google showed off beaming audio to those prototype media players. The Nexus Q was the first to bring remote functionality to (very select) members of the public—they could tap a new button in Google Play Music, Play Movies, or YouTube to direct the Q to play that content over the internet, just like a Google Cast button today. The difference was that this only worked with Google services, while Google Cast would eventually be an API available to third parties.

The Nexus Q never really made it to market. In one of the most disjointed, Googley decisions ever, the Nexus Q was announced at Google I/O 2012, delayed after poor reviews, and then canceled before it ever shipped. Preorder customers and I/O attendees still got Nexus Qs, but the devices came at no cost and with basically no future.

At Google I/O 2013 Google Play Music got another way to pay for music, with the super awkward name of "Google Play Music All Access." This was an all-you-can-eat streaming service where, for $9.99 a month, you had access to the entire Google Music catalog. The service now supported uploads, a la carte purchases, and streaming subscriptions.

Also at I/O 2013, Google Play Music got a new app, finally dumping the ugly, all-blue interface. The app adopted orange as its primary branding color, and the main UI had lots of shadowing and white cards on a gray background. The upgrade also dumped the zany 3D effects and became a buttoned-down, "flat" app. The website got a similar coat of paint too.

Two months after Google I/O 2013, the Nexus Q's remote casting ideas got repurposed into an actual, working, for-sale product: the Google Chromecast. Plug the HDMI dongle into your TV and you could beam it movies, music, podcasts, and more. Google would eventually expand this idea to the Google Home speakers in 2016, which featured whole-home, mesh-speaker music as a major selling point.

In November 2013, Google Music finally officially arrived on the iPhone. The iOS client looked more or less exactly like the Android client.

Not much happened after this. Google Play Music spent 2014 expanding All Access to more countries, and it got a new icon and a tweaked app design with the arrival of Android 5.0 Lollipop and Material Design. In 2015, it got ad-supported radio and curated playlists thanks to an acquisition of Songza. In 2016, Google Play Music got another new logo: the final "Dorito chip." It also got podcast support, making it a one-stop shop for just about every kind of audio.

The app was pretty cluttered at this point. It now housed your uploaded music library, an a la carte music store, podcasts, music videos, and a monthly streaming service that it constantly advertised to the user with annoying pop-ups.

Then there were two years of basically nothing. This is how Google products always end. Google quietly loses interest and moves on, and the user base goes from saying "Huh, Google Music hasn't gotten an update in a while …" to "I guess Google Music has been abandoned." YouTube Music was announced in 2018, and the death sentence for Google Play Music was also quickly announced. From 2018 until basically last week, Google Music has been undergoing a long, two-year demise.

RIP Google Music

Google's decision to kill Google Play Music is mostly about YouTube. For a while, it was negotiating two separate music licenses with the record labels—one for YouTube music videos and another for Google Music radio—so combining them makes some amount of sense. In a Google Play Music versus YouTube fight, the service that pulls in $15 billion a year (YouTube) is going to win. YouTube Music pulls songs from YouTube, and Google can consolidate into a single license.

Google Music had so many features that it was all things to all people, so how you feel about YouTube Music depends on what, exactly, "Google Music" meant to you. Podcasts were shipped off to Google Podcasts and mostly work fine, but there's also Pocketcasts, an incredible third-party podcast solution that works on Android, iOS, and the web, which has been around forever (I switched after Google killed Google Listen). If you were a subscribed streamer, there are so many monthly fee streaming services out there that I don't think replacing Google Music radio streaming with, say, Spotify, Apple Music, or even YouTube Music is really a big deal. Spotify especially has tons of clients and works on everything.

For purchasers, the joy of buying individual MP3s is that you aren't tied to any specific service, so it's not a huge deal when an MP3 store shuts down (just make sure you have a solid backup solution!). Amazon still sells individual songs, and better yet, depending on the artist, you can hunt down places like Bandcamp, which pay out a bigger cut of the music price.

The biggest hole Google Music will be leaving will be with users who liked it for its original purpose: cloud music storage. Google would like existing Google Play Music uploaders to move over to YouTube Music, but it really is making that transition difficult. The initial shift was great—Google made a one-click transfer button that would port all your music from Google Play Music to YouTube Music. The problem is that, once you get there, you'll find tons of missing features and across-the-board downgrades in most areas.

The version of Google Music that launched in 2011 as a "beta" looks far superior to the YouTube Music we have today. YouTube Music still can't match Google Music's day-one feature set of a PC music manager for easy uploads, a "Recently Added" playlist, the ability to edit song info, play counts, sort music, and download playlists for free. This was nine years ago, yet somehow everything about YouTube Music is worse.

Music Beta also had a much better web UI, which looked like it was actually developed for a desktop, with a widescreen UI, selecting multiple songs at once, and drag-and-drop support to make playlists. The YouTube Music web app just looks like a big phone app. If Google could magically roll the code back to its 2011 feature set (well, without using Flash), it would be a major upgrade.

YouTube Music is adding features all the time, but we don't know if the service will ever match the Google Music feature set or how long that will take. Play Music was killed far too early in the transition process, leaving uploaders scrambling for a more viable alternative to YouTube Music. If Google didn't kill Google Play Music, I don't think a single soul would voluntarily switch.

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica.

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