Hands on: Sky Songs review
14th Oct 2009 | 13:20
Sky Songs takes on iTunes and Spotify - and it rocks
Sky Songs: first look
The Sky Songs beta launches on PC and Mac this month, with TechRadar being treated to a first-look preview of Sky's new subscription-based music streaming and download service.
First impressions? It seriously rocks.
The service is very much based on the Spotify-model of offering instant access to stream or download DRM-free MP3s from a library of over 4,000,000 tunes (and growing).
Firstly, the really interesting news about Sky Songs is the fact that Sky has decided to partner with respected pop music blog Popjustice and the UK's leading online celeb gossip destination Holy Moly! to provide editorial for the site, meaning it's not just a place to get music, but to read about it too.
And while the service will only be available via PC and Mac initially, Sky Song's General Manager Justin Moodie informed us that the editorial features on Sky Songs that provide "useful information on music and artists and so on... is really something different from what other sites are offering."
"It's quite irreverent, quite light-hearted, giving you recommendations of what's going on... and this is obviously on top of the recommendation engine built into the service."
If you wish to stream your music, then tunes play instantly through Sky Song's web-based player – providing of course you are logged-in to your account. Or if you wish to download your MP3s, the service will automatically open up your default media player – iTunes, Windows Media Player and so on.
"The majority of the tunes on there are 320Kbps MP3s," says Moodie. "We've asked for the highest bit-rate the labels can provide."
Easy to play and share
The service also allows you to share your playlists with friends, as well as posting links to your favourite tunes and playlists via all the major social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
So why the urge to make it a paid-for subscription model and not follow the Spotify model of offering an option of a 'free-to-end-user' streaming and download service funded by advertising?
"It is who Sky are. What we do is we offer subscription services to customers and try to make them easy to use and great value. So we have followed that model from our existing businesses with Sky Songs.
"Also, our rates are very competitive," adds the Sky Songs boss. "On the other side, you can choose to dip in and dip out. You can try out one month's session then choose to leave us for a month or two and then come back if you like. That's fine with us."
A hybrid model
Essentially Sky's service is a hybrid between the streaming model (Spotify) and the download model (iTunes) pitched squarely at mainstream pop music fans.
Discussing plans for further, deeper integration with the likes of Facebook and MySpace, Moodie adds that "at launch you will be able to link and mention us on those services and going forward we are looking at what would be most appropriate with such services... what we are very keen on is making sure whatever we do makes sense [for Sky Songs].
"Sky Songs is not a me-too proposition. We are leading the way with the business model. We are leading the way with the service."
As for future plans to bring Sky Songs to other devices – mobile, Xbox 360 and set-top box – Moodie tells us: "At launch this is PC and Mac only, but Sky Songs on Xbox is something that we are discussing.
"It is no surprise. We are absolutely committed to pushing this beyond the PC. We think it is a fabulous proposition. We think mobile platforms and the connection with our customers in their homes via set-top box and Xbox is going to be great. There are currently technical issues with us bringing the service to set-top box, but we think that this is something we can overcome."
Taking on iTunes LPs
Does Sky have any plans to offer any additional 'added-value' type services to music consumers – along the lines of Apple's recently announced iTunes LP format, which offers a whole host of extras such as exclusive visuals, videos, lyric sheets and the like to fans, on top of the MP3s they are downloading?
"It is absolutely something that we are looking at. However, as this is an online service, we could have delayed the project indefinitely until it was absolutely perfect in every way. But at some point we want customers to start using this service and to start enjoying it.
"So we are launching in beta. We think the service is of a superb quality and it's fantastic. But it also recognises the fact that we are going to be making lots of improvements as we go along."
Interestingly, Sky Song's recommendation engine is powered by Gracenote – the service that is also used by Apple's iTunes.
The paralysis of choice
'What should I listen to?' is often the question that pops into your head when you use a music streaming service. And on many occasions users will choose, quite naturally, to listen to what they know and what they like. Or what their friends recommend.
Yet while collaborative, user-generated playlists and the like are going to be an important part of the Sky Songs offering, Justin Moodie is adamant that the service has to have a strong editorial voice to appeal to British music fans.
"We think we have got a really strong and clear voice, editorially. We think that customers will enjoy and like to hear from us and like what we have to say," says the Sky Songs boss.
"I mean, when you sit down in front of a service where there are already over four million tracks instantly available, you are almost paralysed by choice. Our [editorial] brief to Popjustice is simple. We want entertaining and interesting stories linked to our music and to playlists that customers can use to discover and re-discover music."
Moodie demonstrates this by showing off recent editorial features on Sky Songs relating to the recent tragic deaths of Boyzone's Stephen Gately and 'King of Pop' Michael Jackson. Alongside each story there is a playlist tab, that will take users immediately to that artists' (or bands') entire discography.
Basically, he shows that the service lets users choose "any album, any playlist, anything that they are engaged with... and add them immediately to their own playlists."
Sky loves Holy Moly!
And what was the thinking behind employing Holy Moly! and Popjustice to provide the editorial and music features for Sky Songs?
"Well, we love them, we love their irreverent style and – while we are Sky and the sorts of things Popjustice does might not seem entirely appropriate for us – they are professionals and they understand UK music and they are great guys to work with."
Sky Songs launches (in 'beta') on 19 October and is going to cost from £6.49 a month. Customers can then purchase music per-track (from 65p) and per album (from £6.49).
With over 4 million tunes up there already, it is well worth checking out. If you are already a Sky broadband customer, you also have the carrot of a free downloadable album worth £6.49 to tempt you to give the service a month's trial to suck it and see if you like it more than other streaming and download services you currently use.
Plus, in addition to Sky's deals with the likes of EMI, Sony Music, Warner Music and Universal, they also have deals in place with a range of independents and distributors such as the Beggars Group (4AD, Rough Trade, Matador and XL recordings).
Whether it is going to truly be a 'Spotify-killer' and take a significant chunk of revenue away from Apple's iTunes (the elephant in the corner of the room) of course remains to be seen...
Stay tuned for TechRadar's fully-detailed review with Sky Songs early next week.
In the meantime, for more (and to sign up for the beta launch on October 19) head over to Sky Song's website.