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Can Xbox Music Outdo Spotify?

Doubts about Microsoft’s new offering.
October 15, 2012

This week, Microsoft announces a new music service called Xbox Music. It will begin rolling out tomorrow on the Xbox 360, and then will come bundled with Windows 8 on October 26. Microsoft claims that the service “combines the best aspects of free-streaming radio, music subscription services and music purchasing options, all in one elegant package.” Microsoft wants Xbox music to be the music service to end all music services–and it apparently hopes the service will drive the adoption of Windows 8 devices, despite the mixed reviews the OS has been receiving.

The Times spoke to analysts who say that whether or not Xbox Music itself is good is besides the point; the devices (and operating systems) it’s associated with will have to be good in order for anyone to be excited about a music program. “This is not going to matter if no one wants the devices,” said one analyst. “You need to have a killer device.” And the WSJ sees this as part of a broader push on the part of Microsoft to address its “lack of coolness.”

I’m skeptical about Xbox Music, for two reasons. First, it seems to fundamentally misunderstand what the Xbox is about, in my experience. And second, I simply don’t see how Xbox Music is measurably superior to Spotify.

It’s curious that Microsoft is calling the service Xbox Music, rather than, say, Windows 8 Music, or Surface Music, or something of the sort. The Xbox is the centerpiece of your living room, and it connects to your television. Personally, I have never wanted to play music on my television. I remember when music-only channels first started appearing in my family’s cable package in the mid-90s. Turning on the jazz station always seemed like a disappointment wrapped in energy-wasting guilt: I had a TV screen on that wasn’t being used for the picture, and the audio quality wasn’t really sufficient for me to fully appreciate the music.

I understand that the Xbox is only one element of Xbox Music, but it’s the device on which the service first goes live, and it’s the device that has leant its name to the service. Microsoft has a hard sell, from my perspective, on why the living room, the Xbox, and the television should be cornerstones of your music experience.

Microsoft is offering a compelling package–free streaming with advertisements, or a $10-a-month option that lets you take music to the cloud and enjoy without ads. But I frankly don’t see how this adds a significant amount of value over what Spotify is offering.

A few months ago, I started using Spotify, and I’ve never turned back. Every incarnation of the app–on my MacBook, on my iPhone, on my iPad–has been a delight to use. I abandoned Rhapsody, the music streaming service I had been using for months, without a twinge of guilt, so superior was Spotify’s service. I hardly use Pandora anymore, and I don’t think I’ve downloaded a song on iTunes for months, if not years, at this point.

Microsoft conjures a “not-that-outlandish scenario” in its press release:

“you’re listening to an Internet radio station at work, say Pandora, and you hear a new song you love. You quickly stop what you’re doing and bookmark the song before it stops playing. Later, in the car, you open Pandora to look up the name of the bookmarked song, then you open Spotify so you can use your subscription to listen to it again. Two weeks later, you’re thoroughly in love with the song, and decide you want to buy it so you can burn it to a mix CD you’re making a friend, so you purchase the MP3 on Amazon or iTunes..”

I can only speak for my own musical habits, but this whole anecdote smacks of straw man-ism to me. First of all, I don’t use Pandora for Internet radio anymore–I use Spotify. The second step–about using Spotify to listen to the music again–rings true to me. But the third step about sharing the song again rings false: my thorough love for the song doesn’t compel me to buy it, since I have unlimited access to it–through Spotify. And if I want to share the song with a friend, all I need to do is share it on… well, you get the point.

The only perk I see to Xbox Music at this point is that they claim access to 30 million songs, while with Spotify I can’t seem to nail down a precise figure. Various sources put the number around the 20 million mark, but Spotify also says that it’s adding 10,000 tracks a day, and it’s hard to see how Microsoft would have suddenly surged ahead of Spotify despite being a newcomer to this sort of service. I can say that apart from searching for The Beatles (also absent from Xbox Music), I’ve never been disappointed by Spotify’s offerings, or felt that its catalogue was anything but thorough.

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