Google Play Music

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.

Google and Podcasts

podcasts01

This week we heard the first news that Google is starting to get into the podcast game. Recode had the first decent report on the move.

Currently, Apple dominates podcasts. Indeed, the word “podcast” might seem to imply to casual listener, that listening to a podcast means having an actual “iPod” to listen to them on. It doesn’t, although Apple’s inclusion of podcasts into iTunes fairly early on gave the medium a massive boost. At a time when you had to sync your mp3 player with some software on a PC, podcasting was technically complicated business. Tying it into the same system that got your music on your portable audio device was a smart move by Apple.

But in a mobile world with WiFi networks and 4G, podcasting should have become simpler. Apple spun out its Podcasts app, and a myriad of apps appeared on Android devices.

So why then are podcasts listened to on mobile devices still so heavily skewed towards Apple? It’s reported that Libsyn-hosted podcasts see more than five times as many iOS downloads as Android ones! That’s astonishing. And awful.

It’s so skewed because Apple fully supports podcasts, and when you turn on a new iPhone, you have the Podcasts app waiting to go. You can browse easily within the app for something to listen to, and when podcasts you might have caught because someone shared a link on social media, suggest you subscribe, they invariably mention that this podcast can be found in iTunes – where you can leave a review!

And so it becomes self-fulfilling. Indeed, too many people continue to believe that if they’ve got their podcasts in iTunes, then a simple link to that page is all they need to share. (See also my Top Tips for Podcasters.)

Yet while all of this is going on, there are more Android handset owners than iPhone owners in pretty much every market. Way more.

Podcasters are missing out. More to the point, they’re missing the opportunity to more than double their audience. But it’s not their fault. There’s just an in-built bias towards Apple in the podcasting ecosystem.

If we assume that an Android user is no more or less interested in audio than an iPhone user, then that leaves a lot of low hanging fruit ready to be picked. I’ve written about this in the past as The Android Problem. Yes, I know that iOS users buy more games and spend more money per device – maybe their more engaged with smartphones overall. But that doesn’t account for those massive discrepancies.

Earlier this year when I last wrote that piece, I was hoping that Google would get into this game, because podcasts are the obvious part of the iTunes store that the Google Play store is missing.

But what Google is talking about, as far as I can see, is something a bit different to Apple. Apple essentially allows anyone to place their podcast on iTunes. You complete a form, upload some graphics and meta data, find a host to serve your podcast and you’re away. If you have a podcast, you have to place it on iTunes.

podcasts03

But Google looks like it’s suggesting something a little beyond this. Yes, they want podcasters to upload their wares. And yes, they say that you’ll be able to search for and browse for podcasts by category – the same ones as Apple. But from what they’re talking about in their blog piece, they also want to automatically recommend appropriate podcasts – which sounds a little more like services such as Stitcher.

Since Google bought Songza, they’ve been implementing smart technologies to deliver music appropriate to the time of day and what you’re doing. Initially this was solely available in the paid-for Google Play Music subscription offering, but in the US, there’s now also a free version of this, with advertising support and limitations on how much music you can skip. (Regular readers may recall that as a UK listener, I was tortured with getting access to this, and then losing it for several weeks!)

Incorporating podcasts into this sort of thing is interesting, and listening to Google Play Music product manager Elias Roman on The Feed, it’s clear that this is a major part of what they want to offer. Indeed, it’s worth noting that as well as Android, there will be iOS and web apps to enable wide adoption of what they’re planning.

But at the moment, there’s nothing to actually listen to, and in any case, only US podcasters seem able to upload their podcasts to the site. I understand that a service that’s potentially supported by advertising may want to launch on a regional basis, but whisper it: Americans do listen to podcasts from outside America too!

podcasts02

Google also seems to pushing very hard the fact that their app – presumably Google Music – will be the default pre-installed way to listen to Podcasts.

Anyway, this all leaves lots of unanswered questions:

1. When will anyone be able to upload a podcast to Google, regardless of geography? At the moment the site geo-blocks non-US uploaders. Even if the service isn’t available outside the US, it’d be nice to be able to get international podcasts hosted there!

2. Will podcasts in Google Play be essentially open to all as with Apple, or is Google looking for premium suppliers only? It would seem to be the former.

3. Advertising – how will it work, if at all, and what might I earn? The US-only free Google Play Music service is ad-supported. There’s obviously a revenue-sharing operation currently working with music rights holders. I assume that’s why this whole thing is limited to the US at the moment as it’s the advertising market Google is most comfortable with. But what kind of deals will be on the table for podcasters, if any? Who can earn what? And in the longer term, what if anything will that mean for podcasts and podcast networks that already have very profitable ad operations? I note that the likes of Panoply and Gimlet are already on board with Google, and they are already ad-supported. The episode of The Feed I mentioned above is well worth a listen because a lot of basic questions are answered, but advertising was not – aside from the fact that Google will not be dicing or slicing your podcast or removing adverts already embedded into your podcasts. [See my follow-up post for more on this]

4. What does this all mean for other podcast app providers on Android? Is Google effectively killing them off? Do the likes of PocketCasts or Doggcatcher have enough points of difference to keep going? iOS has other podcast providers – PocketCasts is one of them. Will I be able to directly subscribe to a podcast in PocketCasts from Google Play – in the same way that I get to choose my choice for apps like browsers and music players. It doesn’t sound like it’ll work that way.

5. Are we going to end up in a messy world of platform exclusives? Let’s hope not.

6. Might this pave the way for better metrics? I think this is critically important from an advertising and accountability perspective. Google says that it will be taking a copy of your podcast from your feed, re-encoding it themselves, and then hosting it for listeners. That means that your metrics will come from Google, and at this point that sounds like a basic play count a la YouTube. What Google is talking about doing is different to iTunes. Apple does not host your podcast – you sort out your hosting requirements yourself – perhaps with a specialist like Libsyn. That provider may well offer a measurement service so you can see detailed statistics on your podcasts’ performance. Now Stitcher also caches a local copy of podcasts, but I understand that it pings your feed so that your host’s stats are broadly correct tallying Sticher plays with wider downloads (Stitcher also has a bespoke stats platform you can view). Will Google do this? I must admit, that I don’t know what happens with TuneIn, and whether it caches a copy or just redirects to your host. And there are a myriad of other places of varying scales. Some hosts provide some of this, taking account of duplicated and failed attempts to download. But if podcasts are held in multiple systems with multiple sets of metrics, coming to a cumulative picture of your podcast’s performance becomes hard. Every podcast provider would love to be able to determine whether just because a podcast was downloaded, was it actually listened to, and was it listened all the way through? That really helps support advertising. Google could potentially supply that information back to podcasters as it does to YouTube creators via their analytics platform.

7. How will Apple react? In some respects, they’ve never really developed podcasting beyond separating the app out of their overall music player. Will they be incorporating podcasts into their Apple Music offering?

There are just some of my initial questions.

Further down the line, it’ll be really important to see how Google promotes the very existence of podcasts in its software. This is how consumers can be motivated to at least try podcasts and see if they’re something they find interesting. I still have a feeling that Google needs to work hard to promote Google Play much more – particularly its Music offering which is where podcasts will sit. That will be key to how successful this is.

But overall it can only be fantastic news that Google is properly supporting podcasts now.

Oh, and Google is sticking with the name “Podcast.” So no need for anyone to reinvent the terminology now.

[I wrote a follow-up post covering advertising in particular]

Not Predicting the Mercury Music Prize

Here’s an oddity.

Music Week has published a list of albums that Google Play Music says represent the volume of streams that albums eligible for the Mercury Music Prize have achieved.

So they’ve looked at acts that released albums between September, 9 2014 and September 25, 2015. The official shortlist is published in a couple of days.

Google Play Music says it’s not trying to predict the outcome of the nominations but is looking at what’s popular on its service. But I find the list a little curious.

I should say up front that I’ve only personally listened to one of the shortlisted albums (Jamie xx). But the list seems very heavily skewed. So I thought I’d add the album release dates to the list. Here’s what you get.

ArtistAlbum% of StreamsRelease DateEligible Days
Bring Me The HorizonThat’s The Spirit24.16%11 Sept 1514
Jess GlynneI Cry When I Laugh17.95%21 Aug 1535
FoalsWhat Went Down11.33%28 Aug 1528
Years & YearsCommunion10.32%22 Jun 1595
James BayChaos & The Calm8.62%23 Mar 15186
The LibertinesAnthems For Doomed Youth5.29%11 Sep 1514
Krept & KonanThe Long Way Home5.02%3 Jul 1584
Catfish & The BottlemenThe Balcony4.69%15 Sep 14375
Mumford & SonsWilder Mind4.16%4 May 15144
Florence & The MachineHow Big, How Beautiful, How Blue3.28%29 May 15119
Jamie xxIn Colour2.63%29 May 15119
Everything EverythingGet To Heaven2.56%22 Jun 1595

A couple of things immediately jump out at you. The sum of the percentages comes to 100% (100.01%, but that’s rounding error). So these percentages are within the universe of these albums only. I imagine this is to hide the relative sizes of these albums to others.

It also seems very curious that the albums released most recently have the highest percentage of streams. That’s The Spirit apparently achieved a quarter of all streams, yet was only available for two weeks. Whereas Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind has been out for a good 6 months yet only got 4%.

That means either those most recently released albums have achieved astonishing playback in a short period of time, or someone has only sampled data from the very recent past, and unsurprisingly, the newest music got streamed the most.

If you chart these figures it becomes a little clearer

It’s by no means a perfect relationship, since popular albums will do well, but it’s clear that the most recent releases get the most plays.

In other words, Google Play Music used a very recent sample to determine its list, which hardly seems a fair way to produce a list as it skews the data towards recent releases that have lots of buzz.

Oh, and of course the Mercury Music Prize is judged on slightly more than popularity, or (I would hope) albums with the biggest marketing budgets. But hey, any PR is good PR right?

[Update 16 October: In completely unsuprising news, the actual Mercury shortlist looks nothing like this list, with only Florence & The Machine and Jamie xx appearing on the real list, and five of the shortlisted albums not having charted at all, which is probably part of the point of the awards.]

A Curious Case of Google Play Music

Screenshot 2015-09-06 at 11.51.39

Note: See multiple updates on this story at the end.

I use Google Play Music as my primary music service. That is, Google Play Music hosts my audio files allowing me to play them back via my phone, the Chrome browser or a Chromecast. I’ve never felt the need to subscribe to a music service because I own an awful lot of music – around 20,000 tracks you may recall. If I subscribed, I’d end up playing a lot of that music anyway. And in any case, I like to know with certainty that the music I want to listen is available to me and hasn’t been removed at the whim of an artist or because a record label’s agreement had lapsed with my service provider.

(For what it’s worth, I keep a local duplicate library in iTunes.)

A little while ago when Google launched its subscription service – charging the same £9.99 a month that Spotify and everyone else does – I got a free trial of their full service. I used it a little to experiment with – going beyond my own library and being able to play anything I wanted. In general I wasn’t that bothered with it. However the most interesting part was their integration of Songza into the app.

If you’re a full subscriber, you’ll get suggested playlists dependent of the time of day, day of week and so on. So first thing in the morning it might be upbeat music, music to exercise with or to commute to. Then during the work day it may offer you tracks to get you through that, or do to chores to. By the end of the night it could be offering songs to go to sleep to, or music to play at your house party. You get the picture.

It’s pretty intuitive, and there are usually two or three sub-menus to get to some music that suits you. It was kind of fun, but not enough on its own to make me want to pay a subscription.

Then last weekend my Google Play Music account changed. I logged in and up popped those options for radio stations. It seemed as though I was able to access the service that launched in June in the US. This is a free version of the service that offers limited skips and supposedly serves visual ads. You can’t see upcoming tracks, but it was clear that the service was making good use of my own healthy library (like Spotify, Google doesn’t have to pay rights if I already own the track).

The same service was replicated on my mobile phone. I was quite excited about it, and spent a couple of mornings listening to the service. It seemed pretty decent.

And then it was gone.

My phone was displaying a repeated “Connection error,” despite the fact that there was no loss of data connectivity.

Loading the service into my browser displayed my old familiar service. What had happened?

Searching Twitter only resulted in finding a couple of other people who’d noticed the service.

Is Google trialling the service in the UK? Is it because I initially got Google Play Music through a loophole when it was US only? Was it because I occasionally use a US VPN?

Who knows. But I wouldn’t mind getting the service back. I was quite enjoying “Ambient Scandinavian Stargazing.” (See screenshot above from a tab I left open)

[Update 7 September: And radio seems to be back again!]

Screenshot 2015-09-07 at 22.45.40

[Update 10 September: And it’s gone again. This is getting ridiculous.]

[Update 11 September: And it’s back again. I’ve literally no idea whether I should or shouldn’t have access to this service and whether Google has genuinely launched it in the UK or not.]

[Final update: It went again pretty quickly, and it’s not been back. So new proper UK launch of the service yet.]