July 25, 2011 at 12:54 pm

AOL Music’s ‘Play’ Adds Sharing, Free Music to iPhone, Android Music Players

play by aol musicIn an age when so many apps seem to come from a couple of people building stuff on nights and weekends, the big guys can still bring the goods too.

AOL, which made its billions in part by snail-mailing countless CD-Rs to introduce web naifs to the internet (and AOL’s private version of it), has joined the ranks of music app developers, recently adding an iPhone version of its Play by AOL Music app to its already popular Android app.

Both let music fans listen to their own music, AOL’s “CD Listening Party” and “MP3 of the Day,” and AOL’s user-generated Shoutcast stations — and then talk about all of this on Twitter, Facebook, and/or AOL’s own Play network.

First, let’s talk about the name. Apple sought to make “app store” proprietary, a similar fight does not accompany “play.” Yahoo issued an Android app by the same name as AOL’s app, but AOL’s mobile team took it in stride, releasing a parody video instead of a cease-and-desist letter, although that has since been made private.

Anyway, AOL’s Play app offers a wide range of functionality similar to other sharing-enhanced music players out there. Unfortunately, we encountered a few issues with the early version, something which we’ve come to expect from these Swiss-Army-knife-type apps.

The player looks nice, though I wasn’t the only user who initially fumbled to find the pause button (hmm… “Play” indeed). After you’ve selected a track, you access standard playback controls through a green arrow next to the “Now Playing” banner. Everything — Shuffle, Play/Pause, Rewind, Fast-Forward, and the Share button are present hidden behind that arrow (the last of which is quickly becoming almost as commonplace as the previous four.)

play by aol musicAs mentioned above, Play shares your listening activity with your Play, Facebook, and/or Twitter friends, and lets you keep tabs on theirs. My first attempt to share a track on Facebook failed, but the second time was a charm. The key, we found, is to let the blank Facebook login page do its own thing for a second before trying to post your song.

The way Play posts tracks to Facebook is nice, because it doesn’t look like wall spam, but there’s no way for your friends to preview or play songs. Clicking the link redirects your friends to a track information page, before suggesting that they download Play as well. So while the share feature is not spam, perhaps it has a slightly spammy aftertaste.(Apps seem to be split on this feature; Rdio doesn’t allow previews from wall posts either.)

Like ex.fm’s social app, Play establishes a simple user profile, and allows you to import friends from Twitter and Facebook or share to those directly. At the very least, you’ll be sharing your activity stream within the Play network. This system allows users to track and comment on each other’s listening habits (I personally couldn’t find any of my friends among Play’s 400,000-plus registered users; my editor found seven of his).

Double-tapping the music button in the menu bar augments your phone’s music library with free music: Shoutcast radio; and on-demand tracks from SXSW, AOL CD Listening Party, and MP3 of the Day. AOL offers these free music options, which are missing from other sharing-enhanced music players, largely on the strength of its acquisitions of Nullsoft (Winamp player, Shoutcast streaming) and Spinner.com (free music listening parties).

Free music is always nice, but Shoutcast is long in the tooth. We appreciate that it includes over 47,000 radio stations, but with no search option, selecting a station involves rifling through genres manually. Anything outside the norm, like Delta Blues, Cajun/Zydeco, half of all the Classical stations, Dream Pop, Lo-Fi, Post Punk, Ethnic Fusion, and Alt-Country returned an error message (personally speaking, I’m really only upset about the first three).

Shoutcast was also the only feature that crashed the app — specifically Impressionist radio — but I know the Debussy-Ravel debate can be a lot for an app to handle, so I’ll give it a pass there.

Overall, I like where this app is heading: an adequate but not omnipresent social angle, a nice player design (although I’d prefer an easier-to-access Pause button),  streaming radio, and free tracks that might help you find new stuff to obsess over. It’s not totally cooked yet, but with the right updates, AOL could be well on its way to growing Play (and the social network that hides within it) to break the million-user mark.

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