Amazon launched an on-demand streaming music service, Amazon Music Unlimited, earlier this week. Most reviews of it have focused on two things: its pricing and its tight integration with Amazon’s Echo digital assistant. And many commentators have questioned whether even a company as powerful and ubiquitous as Amazon can have a meaningful impact as a new entrant in a crowded market. But while there is one aspect of the market where Amazon has a window of opportunity, Amazon Music Unlimited doesn’t seem well positioned to exploit it.
The window of opportunity is Android. It’s clear that Amazon wants to use Amazon Music Unlimited as yet another way to add value to Echo devices. That’s why Amazon struck what I suspect are loss-leader deals with record labels to be able to offer the service to Echo owners for only $3.99 per month, with usage restricted to Echo devices only.
If you want to use the service on a smartphone, you have to pay the standard $9.99 a month, or $7.99 per month if you’re an Amazon Prime member. Now is a great time for a superior on-demand music service to grab a share of the market that uses Android devices — which account for 87.6% of the smartphone market worldwide. While the features of music services are largely down to personal tastes, my view is that all of the widely-used services for Android leave something to be desired.
Spotify has great social features, but it suffers from a not-very-intuitive user interface, inferior codec, and a lack of curation. Apple Music has unsurpassed curation and great sound quality, but the current Android version is unstable and falls short in music search and browse functions. The new version of Apple Music for iOS 10 is a serious improvement over the current version, but judging from past experience, the Android version is likely to lag months behind. And Google’s on-demand music experience — spanning YouTube, YT Music (a music-oriented overlay to YouTube) and Google Play Music — is confusing and messy.
Unfortunately, Amazon Music Unlimited’s Android client isn’t likely to convert many on-demand music users. Many of its shortcomings are classic “cold start” problems, where features that rely on lots of data from previous usage don’t work very well. For example, I listened to some Miles Davis, and it suggested that based on other customers’ listening habits, I might like to listen to Green Day or Solange; and it made recommendations based on songs it claimed I listened to but hadn’t. The pre-programmed playlists and “radio stations” are generic compared to the handcrafted atomic-music-geek playlists that Apple Music inherited (and built on) from Beats Music.
And while Amazon claims that the catalog available in Amazon Music Unlimited is much larger than Amazon Prime Music, it still falls short in comparison to those of Spotify, Apple Music, and any of the Google services. In fact, it seems that Amazon Music Unlimited only has — or can only display? – up to 25 albums by any one artist. For example, its Rolling Stones catalog is limited to 25 albums and omits core titles like Black and Blue, It’s Only Rock & Roll, 12 x 5, and Rolling Stones Now, while Apple Music lists 74 Stones albums. For Miles Davis, Apple Music has about 150 albums, while Amazon Music Unlimited has the same 25. Godfather of Soul James Brown? Apple Music 81, Amazon Music Unlimited (yes, that’s right) 25. Nobel laureate Bob Dylan? Apple Music 67, Amazon Music Unlimited (once again) 25. This is a limitation in either Amazon’s music catalog or the app itself.
In other respects, Amazon Music Unlimited is a solid service, with a clean and simple user interface. (My canonical test case is this: enter the name of an artist, find a list of all of the artist’s albums in chronological order of release, browse the list, and select one to play. This is harder than it ought to be on both Apple Music for Android and Google Play Music.) Amazon Music Unlimited also features cross-platform syncing, integration with your existing music library and Amazon’s cloud storage, and — of course — links to Amazon’s shopping for music purchases. It just isn’t likely to turn the heads and ears of Android-using music fans for a while, after which time the window of opportunity might be closed.