Google Hits Play On Subscriptions

As expected Google just announced their music subscription service: Google Play Music All Access.  To cut a not-so-long story even shorter, it’s another $9.99 streaming subscription service.  To be fair it looks like a solid offering with clean, mobile optimized flat design aesthetics and some nice features, including:

  • ‘radio without rules’: fully editable auto-programmed radio based on tracks your listening to
  • blended algorithmic and curated programming
  • 30 days free trial
  • seamless integration with the cloud locker service

The locker service integration is a great move and transforms a relatively isolated product concept into a natural extension of the music experience.  Of course locker services are a transition product aimed at helping consumers migrate from the ownership mindset to remote access, so the life cycle of the product is inherently limited.

The ‘uniquely Google’ recommendations and discovery are designed to ‘know exactly what you want’.  The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but there is a risk of creating an ever shrinking filter bubble where the range of recommendations narrows the more the service learns about you.

A Great v1.0 But….

Make no mistake, it looks like a great version 1.0, streets ahead of where its peers were at 1.0.  But is it enough?  There are many things that Google could have done to stand out, including innovative pricing, Google+ and YouTube integration, a Motorola device bundle etc.  But of course Google never needed to push the envelope on this one.

The streaming market is only just getting going with 20 million global paying subscribers in 2012 paling compared to Apple’s half a billion iTunes accounts.  Streaming and subscription accounted for just 20% of global digital revenues in 2012 and only 8% of US digital revenues.  So Google’s view, correctly, is that this is a market waiting to happen, so focus on refining the model rather than reinventing the wheel.  That’s exactly what Apple did in 2003 when it launched the iTunes Music Store.  The market was pretty crowded with download stores back then, but how many people remember any of them now?

But that’s not to say though that Google is going to do for streaming what Apple did for downloads.  In fact it faces a number of key challenges:

  • Don’t pay won’t pay? Google’s consumer base is predominately built around ad-funded free access and associate Google with free. Even though it will not be offering a free tier, Google still face the freemium challenge of convincing swathes of free users that they should pay for something.  By contrast Apple has the largest single addressable audience of paid content consumers in the globe.
  • Paid subscriptions don’t drive ad revenue: for all of Google’s desire to diversify its business and revenue streams, advertising pays the bills. Whereas initiatives like Android, Google+ and YouTube all help drive advertising, premium subscriptions do not. And given that premium subscriptions are a low margin business, the profit rate Google earns from subscription services will be less than it gets from ad supported consumers, even if total ARPU is higher.  So there seems little reason for All Access to become a strategic priority for Google.
  • $9.99 is not a mass market price point: Google’s biggest asset for the labels is its unrivalled scale and reach, the potential to take digital music to the mainstream. But 9.99 is not a mainstream proposition, it is in fact what the top 10% of music buyers spend in the UK.  Spotify et al have done a great job of engaging the higher spending music aficionados, but there is a finite pool of them, especially in the increasingly crowded US market.  Unless Google plans on stealing everyone else’s subscribers it is going to find mid term growth potential limited (though expect some near term surge from pent-up demand among Google aficionados).
  • Balkanized organizational siloes: on paper Google has the most fantastic combination of music service assets (Play, YouTube, Google+, Motorola, Android etc.).  Tie all of those assets together into a 360 degree music service and you have a world beater on your hands.  But Google can’t. It can’t because these business units operate so autonomously and because each one has business conflicts and commercial constraints that prevent them from being fully unified.  For example, ‘doing an Apple’ with Motorola and turning it into a closed Google Play ecosystem would alienate Android partners.  While YouTube’s music licenses are wholly different and distinct from Google Play licenses. 

 What’s In A Name?

Let’s assume that Google has got an ambitious roadmap for All Access that will include innovation on price, product and channel, perhaps even rolling version 2.0 within 6 to 9 months.  Even then, all of the above still apply, and it is the organizational challenge that clips Google’s wings the most.  Even the elongated name hints at the organizational quagmire: Google Play Music All Access. Doesn’t roll off the tongue in the way Spotify, Deezer, Rhapsody or Rdio do does it?  ‘All Access’ is the service, ‘Music’ is the division and ‘Play’ is the strategic overlay and of course ‘Google’ is the company.  Just to get to where it has, All Access has had to coalesce numerous internal Google fiefdoms.

Google is Becoming Microsoft

Google is beginning to look for music what Microsoft did 10 years ago.  Up to and beyond the launch of the iTunes Store everyone expected Microsoft to be the dominant player.  It held most of the cards in the deck, including the industry standard media player and DRM system.  Then along came Apple with the aces.  Try as Microsoft might to compete, it simply couldn’t get over itself.  It couldn’t pull together the disparate business units that needed to cooperate and it was scared of harming other revenue streams and relationships. Microsoft feared that if it pushed too hard with its own service it would alienate the business partners that relied on WDRM for their music services.  All this begat strategic paralysis.  Much the same is happening to Google.  Fear of alienating Android partners precludes them from doing-an-Apple with Motorola (which I suggested they should do).  Also, pulling together YouTube, Google+ and Android into the All Access mix appears to be a step too far.

Google is at a similar stage of its corporate evolution as Microsoft was ten years ago.  It is a big company that is still learning how to actually be a big company.  Before Google can fulfill its vast digital music potential it needs to learn how to get the best out of its organizational structure first.

Here’s looking forward to version 2.0.

3 thoughts on “Google Hits Play On Subscriptions

  1. Pingback: Odwrót robotów (Kiosk 2/2013) | Ziemia Niczyja | Mariusz Herma

  2. The initial response from I/O crowd was … awkward: http://youtu.be/9pmPa_KxsAM?t=52m19s.

    I have no doubt Google can do a better job of data mining, indexing, auto-suggesting, recommendations better than anyone. But at best, I concur – it is noise in their revenue stream. It does smell of keeping pace with what Amazon or Apple might do.

  3. The locker service has completely changed the way I listen to music when out of the house. No more creating playlists for my phone, I can walk around with my complete library. Not sold on the streaming service, I’d much rather just buy the songs I want and stream those I just want to try out with a free version of Spotify.

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