Other than maybe the NSA, nobody knows more about you than Google. It’s got a read on where you are, what you’re doing, what you’re thinking and watching and searching for and chatting with your friends about. Which means nobody should be better equipped to soundtrack every second of your life than Google Play Music. Starting today, the company’s taking full advantage of its smarts to deliver you the sounds you want, when you want them. All you have to do is press play.
Next time you open Google Play Music on any device, the first thing you’ll see is a list of playlists you might like, plus a short description for why the app made any given selection. If you’re at work, and it’s raining, maybe you get some ambient piano to help you focus the afternoon away. Just got home, pouring some wine? Sunset music. Friday night, you’re at a bar? EDM all night. It’s a bit like Google Now, the predictive feed of everything you probably want to know about right now, except fully focused on music. Think of it as a super-smart, hyper-personalized set of radio station presets. Just open the app, tap one, and go.
To do all this, the Play Music team is tapping into the full Google Data Machine for the first time. It’s choosing playlists by looking at the music you’ve listened to before, of course, but also your search history, your YouTube plays, even what’s in your email and calendar. It considers that data alongside things like time of day, location (a bar is different from a library is different from your office), the weather, and more. So you like classical at work, but you need a boost because it’s raining and you’ve been in meetings all day, plus it’s almost time to get to the gym? Play Music might show you Epic Movie Scores, followed by your favorite workout jams.
Google thinks that it has something like a complete picture of your life at all times. And it knows enough about music to know what you might want to hear as a result.
That contextual awareness for tunes has been the long-time goal of Elias Roman, the lead product manager for Google Play Music. He’s been working on it ever since his days at Songza, which Google acquired in 2014. And as Google has programmed more mood- and moment-based playlists, and added more diverse content like podcasts, Play Music been creeping toward smarter recommendations. But now, with the full power of Google’s data and algorithms finally at his back, Roman says that his goal is for you to hit the play button on the very first thing on your home screen, every single time.
Anything less means Google’s machine-learning tools need to get a little smarter, a little sharper. “We want it to feel as easy as radio,” he tells me, showing off the Instrumental Beatles Covers playlist that shows up at the top of his own feed. (Good music to work to, he says.) Of course, you can still manage your library, make your own playlists, or search for whatever you want to listen to, but Roman wants Google to do the work for you.
Music personalization is clearly the next task for every streaming service. But where Spotify’s trying to break down your music taste into its many component parts, then assemble playlists you’ll love, Google’s going one step further. It’s not just trying to say “here’s some music you’ll like,” but “here’s the song you need right now.” It’s a bold gambit: music taste can be finicky, and there’s nothing worse than when you press play and hear the exact wrong thing. Plus, you don’t always want the same things at the same time, right? Algorithms can’t account for mood. Though Roman says they can, at least sort of. Color me skeptical.
Roman is confident that because Google knows so much about your online life, Play Music can at least be right a lot more than it’s wrong. That could mean finally combining the simplicity and just-press-play nature of the radio with your own music taste. And doing it not once a week, or every morning, but every second of every day. Because everyone’s life could use an epic soundtrack.