Speculating on the next great music service to strike it big is like prospecting for oil: You hear great sales pitches, but those don’t mean anything until you see what bubbles out of the earth. Like a mob of 21st century Daniel Plainviews (of There Will Be Blood fame), a host of cloud-based music services – Apple, Google, MOG, Rdio, Spotify, and now Sony — are doing their best to drink each-other’s milkshakes, though each takes a different approach.
Sony Music Unlimited, “powered” by Sony’s Qriocity brand, unveiled its first foray into the competition last week: an Android app that provides competition for Music Beta on Google’s own platform, while stealing some thunder from Apple’s iCloud music locker at least two months before iCloud launches in the fall.
Sony’s Android app was barely publicized when it hit the Google Android market last Wednesday, which must be a bittersweet reminder for Sony of how times have changed. The company once ruled mobile music with the Walkman (which was not discontinued, numerous reports to the contrary).
Now, for the first time, Sony has been forced to gamble on creating an app for another company’s hardware, having previously streamed Sony Music Unlimited to the PlayStation, Bravia televisions, Blue-ray players and Vaio laptops.
No part of Sony Music Unlimited is free after 30 days, and the free trial requires a credit card.
A monthly fee of $4 gets you access to personalized streaming radio a la Pandora, the mostly free service which recently went public with over 30 million active users. Sony’s paid radio includes no adds, and you getup and down rating buttons similar to the ones found on Pandora, with which Sony shapes the programming.
But are listeners really willing to shell out for Sony’s paid radio service when they have free alternatives?
The second tier of Sony Music Unlimited, a $10-per-month premium membership available as a free 30-day trial, adds premium channels; an online music locker that grabs songs quickly from the user’s PC without you having to upload them; and access to seven million tracks for on-demand streaming and playlisting (this is similar to other subscription services we’ve reviewed – i.e. labels besides Sony Music are represented).
Premium users can add any song or album to their online locker for later streaming, unlike Apple’s iCloud, which only downloads songs to various devices, after which they can be played. However, Sony Music Unlimited doesn’t cache music for offline playback, meaning that you’ll need Wi-Fi or your smartphone’s wireless data connection to play that music.
In fact, the app won’t even open without a connection; it prompts you to check network settings before arriving at the main menu. And even with a strong Wi-Fi connection, the lag between songs was still on the order of two to four seconds, so clearly, Sony’s not pre-caching either.
Music Unlimited’s sharp interface has sparser categories than the average internet radio service, and they’re displayed as easy to read icons. Its editorial voice skews towards mainstream pop: a global popularity chart, the top 100 in a number of genres, and a list of new releases that also sets its controls for the heart of the mainstream.
SensMe and Other Channels
Things get more interesting with SensMe, which builds streaming playlists based on emotion, time of day, mood, or tempo, using analysis developed for Sony’s Walkman MP3 players that later appeared on Sony’s PSP and Ericsson phones.
SensMe channels such as Emotional and Upbeat made sense. Others took on vaguer headings, such as Extreme or Daytime. I can picture the former, but I’m completely lost when it comes to Daytime, especially since it stands side-by-side with concrete categories like Dance. (Daytime turned out to be Black Eyed Peas and Genesis.)
With the exception of such head-scratchers, most of these playlists serve up about what you’d expect, like those based on era. The Extreme channel recalled helmet-cam BMX videos, while Emotional led with Seal’s “You Get Me” and Wilson Phillips’ “The Christmas Song” — pure saccharine emotion, just way out of season.
Despite these considerations, I can’t call these SensMe station presets bad outright. They slice up the music in an interesting way, and some, like Energetic, place you in the emotional ballpark without much thought.
Leaving aside the question of whether fans want to pay $10 per month for “unlimited” music from a somewhat limited catalog, let’s move on to Sony’s locker feature, which resembles Apple iCloud.
Cloud Music Locker: Only PCs Need Apply
Sony’s Music Sync feature competes with Apple’s iTunes Match, set for fall release — but not on the Mac anyway. This feature, which mirrors licensed tracks from your library to your online account, similar to the way Apple iCloud’s “one more thing,” is only available to PC users. Worse, nothing tells Mac users they can’t use the service until they hit the support pages.
Mac incompatibility may alleviate concern in Cupertino, but it doesn’t take Music Beta by Google off the chopping block. Google’s music service, which, like Apple’s, lacks the subscription options offered here by Sony, requires users to upload actual files rather than having them automatically mirrored, the way Apple and Sony do. My collection took five days to upload to Google, but on Windows, Sony’s service takes minutes (you can’t upload from the Android).
Unlike Apple iCloud, Sony offers no way for you to sync music to the cloud for which it can’t find a match in its database of music. So if you have rare stuff, unofficial live recordings, songs you’ve recorded yourself, songs your friends recorded, unofficial remixes, mash-ups, and so on — it will be left to molder on your hard drive. So once again, Sony’s service proves suitable mainly for fans of mainstream pop.
While Sony avoids going head-to-head with Apple on the Mac or iOS, it takes a shot at Google, where mainstream music fans are concerned, by offering more functionality on Android. This should increase pressure on Google to get its act together in the licensing department. With two competing cloud services now licensed by the major labels to offer music mirroring to an online locker — one of which (Sony) now offers a music subscription on Android — Google probably has to do more than it’s doing now.
(The funny thing about it: To offer either collection mirroring or an unlimited music subscription, Google would need licenses from the majors — including Sony.)