Google brings online music to the masses

Even though the experience isn't perfect, the integration of streaming songs into Google search results will change the landscape of online music forever.

How far we've come in such a short time. When I began this blog in 2007, finding a particular song online was an exercise in frustration. You could subscribe to an all-you-can-eat service like Rhapsody, but cheapskates and occasional music listeners either had to dig deep, engage with a questionably legal file-trading service, or settle for 30-second previews from iTunes or one of its Web-based competitors.

Search results for "U2 Beautiful Day" earlier today. The box at the upper-right is an embedded version of the Lala player, which let me play the complete song multiple times.

Since then, as readers of this blog know, dozens of sites offering free streaming music have emerged, from the dead-simple like Songerize and its successor Songite (enter a song title to play it now) to the fiendishly complicated Imeem (whose original user interface gave me a headache , although it's since gotten much better ).

But, let's face it, most people don't read this blog. Again and again, nontechnical music fans are blown away when I show them a site like Grooveshark , which lets you play any song, any time, and even arrange songs in queues and playlists. "Is that legal?" they often ask. (Answer: it depends .)

Today, that all changes. Google announced the integration of playable songs into its search results yesterday, and is slowly rolling the feature out to U.S. searchers. I finally saw the feature in action this afternoon, when I ran a search on "U2 Beautiful Day." (You can test it here.)

To an experienced online music listener, the feature seems a little bit random because Google is using both iLike (recently acquired by MySpace ) and Lala to power playable results, and the two offer different experiences. For my first search, Google randomly chose iLike as the default player, and iLike only let me play the song once, then relegated me to a 30-second sample. When I cleared my cookies and tried again, Google made Lala my default player, and I was able to play the full song as many times as I liked. (The experience will also vary by song and artist, depending on what the copyright holders dictate--Led Zeppelin, for example, is available only in 30-second samples on iLike, and most of its songs are completely missing from Lala.)

Some searches also give you links to Imeem, Rhapsody, and Pandora, each of which offers yet another experience--Rhapsody lets you play up to 25 songs per month for free, Imeem is best for finding unusual versions of popular songs (like live takes), and Pandora requires you to create a virtual radio station based on a particular artist or song, which can be useful for discovering other music you might like, but doesn't give you an instant fix.

Whatever. For the average Internet user, this distinction doesn't matter. What matters: when users go to Google to search for an artist's name, song name, album name, or even a snippet of lyrics, they won't just get random text links or YouTube videos. Instead, the first set of links will be to the audio recording itself--in many cases, the entire song. Everybody knows that there's free music available on the Internet, but most casual listeners don't bother to find it. Now, the most-visited site on the Internet will put it right in front of their faces. As awareness spreads, it'll be another nail in the coffin of traditional music media--why listen to the radio?--and a boon for the five companies who signed this deal with Google. Artists and record labels might also get a shot in the arm, as users discover new music for free and perhaps eventually buy a copy to keep.

As for the rest of the online music start-ups out there? They better be on the phone right now, looking for a benefactor.

 

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