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Google launches Music Beta (without licenses)

Proving unable to come to an agreement with all the major labels for the music service it originally wanted, Google is going to pull an Amazon and unveil a digital music locker service without any licensing deals at all during a keynote today at its I/O conference in San Francisco, Google execs tell Billboard.

Called Music Beta by Google, the service will allow users to upload their music library to a personal online storage locker, from where they can stream and download files from Internet connected devices.

This is virtually identical to Amazon’s Cloud Drive, with a few differences. Most notably, the service is available on a limited, invite-only basis limited to U.S. users. Those wanting to use the service will have to request an invite at google.music.com, with priority given to those with the Motorola Xoom tablet and to attendees of the I/O conference. Additionally, Google is limiting the number of songs that can be uploaded to the music locker to 20,000. The service is free while in beta, and the company would not comment on what future pricing options it may have planned.

Clearly, this is not the music service Google wanted to offer. And Google director of content partnerships Zahavah Levine — who led the company’s negotiations with the major labels — made it clear who she feels is to blame.

“We’ve been in negotiations with the industry for a different set of features, with mixed results,” she told Billboard the night before the announcement was made. “[But] a couple of major labels were less focused on innovation and more on demanding unreasonable and unsustainable business terms.”

Sources tell Billboard that Sony Music Group and Universal Music Group proved the bottlenecks in this case. Google wanted to offer a scan-and-match style locker service — where instead of uploading different copies of the same track to store in a locker for each users, the service would scan users’ libraries and match the songs they own to a centralized server, paying rightsholders for each stream. Without the rights to do so, the message from Google is clear — either get on board or we’ll move on without you.

Driving the launch is the completion of Google’s new music player app, which will also be unveiled tomorrow. The app is for Android devices that anyone can download. It can be used to play any music stored on Android devices, but can’t access music from the cloud unless users are part of the beta.

Insiders reveal that the app was only fully backed about six weeks ago, and until that app was finished Google had no intention of launching any kind of music service — unlicensed or otherwise. Getting this music player out was obviously a priority for Google, so it could start establishing Android products as music devices in their own right.

While it may not be what Google originally intended, the beta music service shows flashes of what Google ultimately has in mind. For instance, the music app has an Instant Mix feature that creates a playlist based on a single song. The service analyzes the song’s characteristics (not just metadata) and pulls other similar songs from the users’ music library. Another cool feature is that the playlists created can be synched across devices. So playlists created on a user’s mobile phone will immediately show up on a tablet device or Google account online. There’s no need to transfer files between devices.

Other features of Music Beta by Google include:

  • Any Web-connected device with a browser or supporting Flash can stream music from the locker. Requires Android-powered devices with the app installed to download and play cached streams.
  • Users who sign up for the locker service will get free music added, similar to how some mp3 players ship with sample tracks. Google negotiated rights to this free music with various rightsholders.
  • All music available to each device is available in a single view, meaning users won’t see one list for music stored native on the device and another list of music stored in the locker.
  • Audio quality for streaming files can be as high as 320kbps if the device and network supports it.
  • Optimized for Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) but any Android device version 2.2 or above can support it.

Levine stressed that many more features may be added to the service over time, and that Google will continue to seek licenses with the major labels.

“A large segment of the music industry worked cooperatively and was extremely helpful sorting out the issues of online licensing,” she said, giving particular credit to the independent label and publishing communities. “We certainly remain open to partnerships with the music industry for new features and functionality. This is the beginning of what we hope will be a long relationship with music and users and helping users engage with music and artist and fans.”

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