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Google Music hits almost all the high notes

Google cut deals with three of four top labels that included free music sharing and cloud storage. But there's plenty of room for improvement.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
3 min read
Rapper Busta Rhymes hams it up for the cameras in front of the Android mascot following the press event to unveil Google Music. Greg Sandoval/CNET

LOS ANGELES--This is how Google grooves:

By building a music service that offers free-of-charge cloud music storage and streaming and unprecedented full-length song and album samples--again free of charge. Google even took a stab at filling the gap left by MySpace with a feature directed at unsigned acts called the Artists Hub.

By launching Google Music here today, the company took a significant step into online music retailing, which means endless comparisons to Apple's iTunes. We'll get to that later. First, the letter grade I give Google Music at this very early stage is a solid B.

"We're the first store that enables users to share their purchased music with their friends," Zahavah Levine, Android's director of content partnerships, said after the press event. "This is the single most important way that people discover new music. I think that has the potential to transform purchasing behavior."

The shortcomings of the service make it obvious that Google Music in its current form is no iTunes killer. Without improvement, it's unlikely to even maim.

The songs and albums that Google enables users of Google+ to share with contacts can only be heard once. Compare that with Spotify, which provides listeners with unlimited free music for months before requiring them to shell out subscription fees.

Google was successful at signing licensing agreements with three of the four top record companies, but its main rivals offer songs from all four. Warner Music Group, home of such marquee bands as Green Day and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, has not licensed to Google Music.

If you combine Warner's market share, which is nearly 20 percent, with some of the indie labels Google has yet to bring on board, Google Music is missing perhaps a quarter of the market.

But in the current music industry-environment, Google deserves credit for signing any deals. The large record companies are trying to corral the free-music craze. The labels are also pressuring Google to use its search and large Web profile to take a larger role in the fight against online piracy.

Zahavah Levine, Android's director of content partnerships, says 'We continue to talk to our friends at Warner and we hope they will join us soon.' Greg Sandoval/CNET

When it comes to some of Google's troubles getting the service launched, the company largely has only itself to blame. Google told record executives in the summer of 2010 that they hoped to launch in the fall that year. The project is barely getting off the ground a year later.

According to numerous music industry sources, Google moved in starts and stops with the record companies as it labored to build its music service. Managers would pitch numerous ideas and then change them abruptly or abandon them all together, the sources said.

While Android's brain trust was no doubt looking for a sweet spot that would help the service stand out from iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify, the changes continued to push back the launch and made it hard for the labels to build trust in the service, the sources said.

Be that as it may, Apple shouldn't take the Google threat lightly. All the time and work Google put into this music service suggests that the company is committed to it and won't drop it the way it did Google Buzz, one of the company's early attempts at social networking, or Google Wave, the collaborative-editing software.

Apple now faces its arch rival in the retail-music sector where Apple is a juggernaut. But it also means that iTunes will face a company with deep pockets, a history of success in music (YouTube is one of the popular music distributors on the Web) and popular consumer devices, Android phones and tablets, that can help market the music store. This is something few previous rivals possessed.

Which one will win between those two? Who knows? But competition has always been good for consumers. Rock on, Google.