Amazon's "free" music service lacks the right stuff

Amazon recently unveiled a new element of its Prime subscription service: Amazon Prime Music. With that, Amazon has thrown itself into the ring with a slew of other music streaming services, including Spotify, Rhapsody, Pandora, and Songza.

The question is: How does it compare to the competition?

The service is free, after a fashion: It is included with any Amazon Prime subscription, which costs $100 a year for most users (though there is a discounted version for students). There's no way to get Prime Music without a Prime membership, which also includes free overnight shipping and free Prime movie rentals.

Of course, you don't have to pay a subscription to access free music online. Virtually all streaming music services (including favorites like Songza, Pandora, and Spotify) offer completely free versions that let you access music on the desktop and mobile devices, albeit supported by ads.

To eliminate ads, though, you need to pay: Pandora One costs $5/month, while both Spotify and Rhapsody run twice that at $10/month. In exchange, those services let you actually download songs and listen to them offline. Even Songza now offers an ad-free version, called Club Songza, for a buck a week.

The yardstick by which most music services are measured is the number of songs in its catalog, and by that metric, Amazon comes up fairly short. The retailer claims to offer about a million songs, which might sound like a lot, but that's small compared to the 20 million songs offered by Spotify and 16 million at Rhapsody.

The order of magnitude difference in volume means that Amazon is far less likely to have a specific song you want to hear. And real-world testing bears that out; many searches for popular songs by common artists, not to mention deep cuts by older musicians, turns up nothing of value.

Many searches do turn up something, but those results are very likely to be disappointing. Try searching for the Beatles, for example, and you won't get any original music by the band. But you will get dozens of results for covers of classic Beatles songs by artists you probably don't want to hear. Try the same search on Pandora, on the other hand, and you'll be listening to "Hello Goodbye" in seconds.

The Beatles might be a bad example; you won't find the Fab Four on Spotify or Rhapsody either. But Lady Gaga and 50 Cent (if you are into contemporary music) are also conspicuously absent, and you'll find them on all of the major services. For folks with older tastes, there's no Amy Winehouse, Johnny Cash, or The Who. And that's just scratching the surface of artists you can hear anywhere except Amazon.

To its credit, Amazon has rolled out a variety of ways to stream its music. Like all the other major services, there are mobile apps for iPhone and Android, along with a desktop app.

You can access Amazon Music directly from a browser, but Amazon has made its browser-based player ridiculously convoluted. There's no way to simply start streaming music; you need to add it to your library first, even if you have no interest in ever hearing it a second time. The interface feels more like something Microsoft would have cooked up than, say, Apple or Google.

The bottom line is that you probably already have access to another music service that is significantly better. If you don't, you would be far better off using one of the other services rather than getting a Prime subscription (assuming the music was your primary attraction to Prime).

If all of Prime's other features aren't enough to woo you, Prime Music certainly brings nothing new or notable to the table. Save your money and try a proven winner like Spotify or Rhapsody.

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