True confession: I thought about quitting Google Play Music.
After declaring it better than Spotify last spring, I found myself disappointed with some features. Play Music's Concierge, which suggested music through a flow-chart of prompts it thought were relevant, wasn't adapting as much as I'd hoped, and its suggestions were getting old. Meanwhile, the app's personalized recommendations weren't as varied as I wanted. I knew I wasn’t alone when a friend, who'd taken my suggestion to use Play, said she was thinking about switching back to Pandora.
Play Music erased my complaints this week with a major update.
Google has torn down the wall between contextual recommendations and personalized recommendations, introducing one simple interface that takes into account everything the service knows about you.
It is not only simpler than the old Play Music but also apparently a lot smarter.
I’ve had the opportunity to compare and contrast versions because my Sonos app still uses the old Play Music interface. The difference is so stark that I tend to look up suggestions on the new Play Music and then search for them on Sonos.
One night this week OLD PLAY offered a set of underwhelming activity-based suggestions. Some were boring: "focusing" and "working to a beat" tend to lead to the same suggested stations I’ve heard dozens of times. Some weren’t relevant: I rarely spend my evening "watching the sunset" and I never listen to the comedy stations associated with "laughing out loud." As for the non-contextual recommendations, there was some good stuff but little variety and, annoyingly, "Simply Christmas" from Leslie Odom Jr. kept appearing on top despite my having no interest in Christmas music in November.
Meanwhile, NEW PLAY offered six great suggestions in one place. There was "Falsettoland," a musical I’ve been listening to all month, which the old app never thought to recommend. "Focusing" with "Lisztomania" was a good activity-based suggestion and an option I don’t remember landing on in the old app. "Similar to head-nodding beats" got my attention, and the suggested station, featuring Tribe, Roots, Mos Def, and Pete Rock sounded good and was a station I never saw on the old app. Count Bass D radio was a great option, which might show up on the old app but wasn't then. "More like the Bamboos" referred to a band I hadn't heard of but which I must have thumbed up on a another station. Finally, a recommended new release in "Slum Village, Vol. 0."
If none of those suggestions worked, of course, the app has other ways to browse or search for music.
The new Play Music is not only simple and smart but deep. While the app has nowhere near as many playlists as Spotify, Play Music’s team puts a lot of work into building curated stations (stations that are now easier to find than ever). With those curated stations, top-level custom radio, and a huge library that is very similar to the competition, aside from a few weeks of Kanye exclusivity here and there, packaged in an unmatched interface, Play Music is a great choice.
Free users can listen to radio with occasional ads. $9.99/month subscribers get on-demand, ad-free listening as well as a subscription to YouTube Red, letting them watch YouTube videos without ads and some exclusive content.
Spotify, Apple Music, and others are striving for the same thing: a smart interface that quickly surfaces what you want at any given moment. So for that matter are Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and almost any online service company. When it comes to music streaming, though, I think Google does it best.