Peter Kafka

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What Kind of Music Service Does Google Really Want, and When Will It Show Up?

What kind of music service did Google really want to unveil yesterday?

And why did talks between Google and the music labels really break down, resulting in the locker service that debuted instead?

I don’t know!

Here’s what I do know: Music Beta isn’t the service Google has been trying to build for the last year. And it’s not the service that Google thinks it’s going to eventually have.

Google has been clear that while it launched yesterday without approval from the big labels and publishers, it intends to re-engage with them sooner rather than later.

Which makes sense. Because while the storage-plus-playback system Google introduced yesterday isn’t a bad thing–particularly for Android users, who haven’t had great options when it comes to music players for their gadgets–it’s not a big leap forward. Just like the similar system that Amazon introduced in March.

Both those services were launched without new licenses–or in Google’s case, any license at all–from the big music labels. Apple, meanwhile, is working on its own cloud service, with the labels’ approval.

Okay. So what does label approval mean for a cloud service?

In Google’s case, label sign-on would give the company the ability to sell music, which it doesn’t do right now.  And it could let Google use a “scan and match” system, which would mean users wouldn’t have to upload every one of their songs to the cloud–instead, Google could use a single file to serve multiple users.

That would be helpful, because uploading every one of your songs to the cloud can take a very long time, unless you have industrial-strength broadband.*

But those are all smallish tweaks, too. Nice to have, but not have-to-haves. So what was Google really trying to get done?

I don’t know, and one of the frequent complaints I heard from music executives over the past nine months or so was that Google didn’t seem to know, either–they said the search giant’s goals kept shifting.

Still, we can get a decent sense of what Google wanted based on a proposal that leaked out last fall. Among other features, Google wanted a system that would let users sample any song they wanted, at least once. And the ability to share songs they owned with their friends.

Combine that with the ability to access your own music, whenever you want, wherever you are, and you could end up with something very compelling.

And industry sources claim Google may be looking to add even more features: One music executive, for instance, tells me Google has been talking about an “interactive radio” service–which would mean something with more features than Pandora offers, but less than a full-blown all-you-can eat subscription service like Rdio, Mog or Spotify.

Even more interesting, right? So why isn’t it here?

Google has made a point of telling reporters it blames two labels in particular for the collapse of negotiations last month, but wouldn’t identify them. Billboard, though, believes that Sony and Universal Music Group are the roadblocks Google is complaining about; reps at both labels declined to comment on the trade pub’s report.

Google also won’t be specific about what caused it to walk away from the table. So it’s possible the dispute was about something other than money. Perhaps the labels were insistent that Google crack down on piracy in a way the search engine can’t or won’t do.

But my hunch is that it’s about money.

Whatever the cause, Google and the labels are now in a very interesting spot. The music industry has been pining for real competition to Apple’s iTunes for a very long time, and many hoped that Google would be the one to do it.

Now it looks as if Apple will be the one introducing a full-featured cloud service, perhaps as early as next month. If it does, it means that Apple’s influence on the digital music industry will increase, and that the service Google rolled out yesterday will look even less impressive.

Which would give both Google and the labels plenty of incentive to get something done, quickly. Let’s see if they respond.

*A few months ago, I discovered that Columbia University has just such a connection. Free, too. Just sayin.


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