Amazon Prime is sort of like the digital culture equivalent of those discount subscription programs that travel and credit companies offer to lure you in -- they're only awesome if you actually use them.
Because I live in a small, rural town, free of almost any big-box stores, the cost of Prime is easily justifiable for the shipping discounts alone, and occasionally I'll stream an episode of "Orphan Black" or something else from the Prime free video streaming collection. Maybe once a year I utilize the free Kindle lending library feature that's also included in Prime.
So I was excited to learn Thursday morning that Amazon Prime had gained music streaming similar to what Spotify offers. I've been handing Spotify 10 bucks a month for the past few years, but would happily keep that money and relinquish control of my daily streaming habit to Amazon if it could offer all that Spotify does.
Sadly, Amazon Prime Music as it exists on day one couldn't replace Spotify in my life for even a single hour, let alone an entire month.
How about a sample?
Within about two minutes of opening up the updated Amazon Music Android app with Prime Music enabled, it became pretty obvious that Amazon is not selling exactly the same thing as Spotify, which shouldn't be surprising. While Spotify and its competitors are true streaming subscription services, Amazon has always used its Prime offerings the same way that grocers use samples of onion dip and new coffee varieties to entice you to actually buy something; Here, watch the entire first season of "Orphan Black" for free, loyal customer -- because we love you and we know you'll then want to pay us to watch season two.
Likewise, while Amazon offers over 20 million songs for purchase as downloadable MP3s, it's only making somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent of those tracks available for free streaming to Prime customers. On just about every screen while trying to soak up my benefits as a Prime member, I'm reminded that I can purchase all kinds of tracks from Amazon for $.99 or $1.29 each.
Spotify, on the other hand, offers 20 million songs for ad-free streaming and download to play offline anytime, so long as you pay the monthly subscription fee. Or you can stream for free with ads.
Not ready for 'Prime' time
So Prime Music streaming doesn't add much value to my life. The extra 19 million tracks I can stream and download to play offline with Spotify easily make it worth the 10 bucks a month. In addition, the offline listening capability of Prime music was wonky for me at best on my Android phone, but I think we can probably chalk this up to launch difficulties, as my colleague Rick Broida was able to get offline listening working right away on his iPhone.
I also found Amazon's collection of playlists and recommendations to be surprisingly thin, especially given how strong the use of recommendations is elsewhere in the Amazon universe. Over the past few years, Spotify has managed to create quite a robust system for music discovery, social sharing, playlists and even the integration of apps like Last.fm. That's made it my home base for anything with a melody since... well, since I stopped buying MP3s from Amazon.
It seems to me that if Amazon wanted to, they have the capability to outdo Spotify in all the areas where it remains strong: music library, recommendations and discovery, and platform and social sharing. But if it did, it may as well stop selling MP3s altogether.
If enough people move from MP3 purchases to streaming, perhaps that's what Amazon will do one day, and perhaps Prime Music is the prep work for that day.
Until then, Prime Music will likely remain another part of my Prime subscription that I use rarely, if at all. In fact, while I started out listening to a Prime playlist as I wrote this, I quickly tired of its limitations and switched over to Spotify around the third paragraph to listen to a playlist of this week's new releases to get me through to this sentence.
So, in closing, I recommend the new album by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, unless you're using Prime Music, where you'll get redirected to the Amazon store to pay for the MP3 album.