Google officially launched their online music service today, although the press conference seemed almost purposefully awkward. A stammery array of Google-bot execs, a desperately unsexy orange aesthetic, the madcap assertion that Busta Rhymes’ participation was somehow exciting: Suffice it to say, this was miles away from the techlord-chic of a vintage Apple keynote. (Was Steve Jobs the only charismatic man in Silicon Valley?) But the implications are profound for pretty much every corner of the media industry.
Google Music syncs up with users’ (free) Google+ accounts and Droid phones, allowing you to store up to 20,000 songs in the Google cloud. Google has made deals with the big record labels — although Warner is still a major holdout — which means that you can share a song via Google+ and give your friends one free listen. That sounds like a refined version of Apple’s failed “Ping” service. It’s impossible not to make Apple references here. Google’s presentation even featured iTunes mascots Coldplay, who said they chose their new album’s unpronounceable and unspellable name because they couldn’t find it on Google.
So, how does Google Music match up to iTunes? It’s decidedly less smooth: I experienced glitches on two (non-Chrome) browsers, and the general look of the site feels like an awkward mash of your iTunes library and the Netflix homepage. But there are reasons to be optimistic. Google made a big point of pushing its free music. It will offer a Free Song of the Day: Currently, it’s “Sound and Vision,” by David Bowie, and there are lots of other freebies available. (My first three free downloads: “Wonderwall” by Oasis, “My Own Worst Enemy” by Lit, and “Zero Gravity” by Teddy Bears.)
In a big departure from iTunes, Google made independent music a big part of their presentation. An executive from the independent Merlin Network took the stage alongside execs from EMI and Universal. More intriguingly, Google proudly advertised an indie corner of their store called “The Artist Hub.” There, an indie artist can customize their artist page, upload original content, and even set their own retail prices. (Full disclosure: The video introducing the Artist Hub randomly featured a dude I knew in college. The Internet is so weird.)
You could argue that this proves Google Music is going to be more rugged and all-inclusive than iTunes, which — like everything else Apple creates — seems intended to carry the user away to a beautiful futuristic corporate utopia. You could also point out that something like the Artist Hub already exists, and it’s called MySpace, and boy, wasn’t 2005 a great year?
In general, Google seemed to be vaguely asserting that Google Music was going to be, I dunno, “hipper.” At one point, they compared the people running Google Music to “know-it-all record store clerks, but friendly.” It’s an interesting tactic, especially since Google has always been the most flavorless of the major Silicon Valley tech companies. (“Niceness” isn’t a flavor.) It seems to me that they’re betting rather strongly that consumer habits are still in a state of flux. I’m not sure if that’s true. You could argue that iTunes is already the new record store. You could argue that there is no “next Facebook.”
What do you think, fellow internet denizens? Can Google actually make a dent in iTunes? Can Google Music bring some of that anti-Facebook heat back to Google+? Can the company prove famous Google-despiser Steve Jobs wrong and actually succeed at something besides web searches?
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich