Microsoft’s Xbox Music service, previously known under the Zune brand, has always been difficult to describe. Maybe that’s one reason that Microsoft has decided that effective December 1st, 2014, you’ll no longer be able to stream music for free with the service.
First it would be best to describe exactly what the Xbox Music service is. If you’re familiar with Spotify, it’s just like that service except that you can also purchase music tracks through it. To clarify it a little more, there are multiple ways that it can be used. First, on a Windows 8 device, or through the Xbox Music site, anyone can stream any songs available in the catalog. You’re not limited to radio-like playback that services like Pandora are known for. You can pick any artists, album, or song, and listen to the tracks however you would prefer. The only downside is that occasionally your listening will be interrupted by an advertisement. You can also purchase music through the service. Purchased tracks are downloaded as MP3 files without DRM.
Xbox Music is also available on Windows Phone, Xbox One, iOS, and Android. However, to stream music on these devices you are required to have a subscription to the Xbox Music Pass. The music pass, which costs $9.99/month, gives you unlimited access to the entire catalog of music. You’ll never hear an advertisement, and you can download tracks for offline playback. Not having access to free streaming on the mobile devices was some-what understandable due to the fact that all of the competitors in this space, like Spotify, have the same restrictions. It never made sense to require a Music Pass to listen via the Xbox though.
So what is it that’s being discontinued? The only feature that is going away is the ability to stream for free on Windows devices and the web client. Nothing is changing on the mobile devices or on the Xbox consoles. Why has Microsoft decided to cut the free offering? According to their FAQ:
We are focusing Xbox Music to deliver the ultimate music purchase and subscription service experience for our customers. With Xbox Music Pass, you have access to millions of songs on your PC, tablet, Xbox, phone, and the web. Download music for offline listening and create playlists that automatically sync across all your devices. Don’t have a Music Pass? Sign up for a free 30-day trial at http://www.xbox.com/music/music-pass.
One thing that we know about Microsoft is that they never make any decisions without abundant telemetry data to back them up. We suspect that there are really two primary reasons for Microsoft to be switching their focus entirely on the subscription and purchase models.
The first is, of course, telemetry. The usage of the free streaming service was probably quite low. If hardly anyone has been using it, then they probably aren’t making much revenue from advertisers either. This could be a chicken and egg problem though. How many people actually knew about the Xbox Music website? Probably not many people even knew it was an option. What about the Windows 8 app? We also know that adoption of Windows 8 modern-style apps hasn’t been what Microsoft has hoped for.
The other possibility is that the service was simply too limiting. There have been numerous occasions where I would have gladly dealt with a few advertisements to easily stream music through my Xbox One. That’s simply not an option unless you have an Xbox Music Pass though. How many others have opened the Xbox Music app on their Xbox One exactly one time after discovering it requires a monthly subscription to use?
Isn’t the idea of a free streaming service to lure people into purchasing the monthly subscription? It’s a model that has worked out incredibly well for Spotify! Imagine how many more customers might have signed up for an Xbox Music Pass after using a free service through their Xbox a few times? The Xbox One, and to a lesser extent the Xbox 360, is attempting to be the ultimate living room entertainment device. For that goal to be a reality, music has to factor prominently into it.
Xbox Music is a nice service with well built apps. I’ve been using the free service since the launch of Windows 8, and for a few months I even paid for the Xbox Music Pass. The primary reason I don’t anymore is that some of my obscure musical preferences aren’t represented in Microsoft’s library. Many people though would be more than satisfied with the size and breadth of the Xbox Music catalog. For anyone heavily invested in the Microsoft ecosystem, from Windows Phone, to Windows, to Xbox, the Xbox Music service is one that should definitely be looked into. It’s just a shame that Microsoft has chosen to cut off the free entry route into their music service.