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Google's bid to save the music industry, one search at a time [UPDATED]

October 28, 2009 |  4:01 pm

Google music search, onebox, Lala, iLike, MySpace Music, iTunes, music piracy Google's new "music search feature" -- that's the official name, although some folks have been calling it "OneBox" -- is like a relief pitcher arriving in the middle of a game with his team trailing. It can help expose millions of people to legitimate Internet music outlets, which will help those companies compete with free (and, in many cases, unauthorized) sources of music online. Whether consumers will actually spend more on music than they've been doing, however, is a whole 'nother question.

The rap against Google from label executives and online music companies has been that its search results seem indifferent to legality. For example, searching for a legitimate site often yields sponsored results for unlicensed ones; Googling an MP3 will call up dozens of free download sites and probably some unauthorized lyrics outlets, too. The new music search initiative won't scrub the unlicensed sites from the search results, but at least it tries to steer people to sites that compensate copyright holders. The hope, according to Thomas Hesse, president of Sony Music Entertainment's global digital business, is that music fans will have a significantly better experience on a MySpace or a Lala than they would on an illegitimate site.

No doubt they will. Three of the five music services that Google is working with initially -- Lala, Rhapsody and Pandora -- are far easier to use and are much more entertaining than BitTorrent or LimeWire. I'm not a huge fan of the user interfaces at the two others -- MySpace Music and imeem -- but they're far better tools for sampling music and discovering bands than the illegal downloading sites are. And it's certainly true that with the exception of iTunes, which is notably absent from this initiative, legitimate online music services have been woefully undermarketed and underexposed. So the considerable traffic Google is likely to send their way should be a tremendous boon.

Having said that, I think it's still an open question whether the new search function leads the masses to buy more music. It's likely to lead people to listen to more songs -- Google and its streaming partners will enable searchers to play any given song once, in full and for free, right from the search results page. And if they follow up a sample by diving further into MySpace Music or Lala, they'll certainly discover more artists that they like. But if they're accustomed to acquiring music for free online, it's not clear to me why they wouldn't continue to do so after sampling to their heart's content on MySpace or Lala. Alternatively, they may be happy to stick with the free ad-supported streams on MySpace or imeem, or the 10-cent "web songs" on Lala, instead of plunking down 89 cents or more for an MP3. That's fine only if there's enough volume to make up for the lower margins.

At least Google's pushing people in the right direction, or at least some of the right directions. The search sovereign needs to learn how to work more subscription-music services into the mix, too, for the sake of eMusic, Napster and Microsoft's Zune Pass. And you have to wonder how innovative new services will find a way to get a piece of the traffic that Google's search initiative will generate for its short list of partners. R.J. Pittman, who led Google's efforts to develop the new search function, said the company would consider adding partners to the list, but they'll have to be "online, Web-based, easily accessible and offer some interesting approaches to music discovery." Lots of companies fit that bill, so it will be interesting to see how Google decides who's in and who's out.

Updated at 4:43 p.m.: Now that I've played with it a bit, I see that Google still has some work to do on the new feature. The intelligence it applies to search results -- for example, guessing the right band or song name despite errors in the search -- haven't been integrated into music searches. So if, for example, if you search for "Martha Muffins," Google will guess that you were looking for Martha and the Muffins, and return a bunch of links to the band and its work. But it won't trigger a chance to stream songs from the band via MySpace or Lala. Similarly, if you go looking for "the angels want to wear my red shoes," you won't get the chance to stream the song on the search page. But you will get lots of links to the song on other sites. Searching for the song by its correct title -- "Red Shoes" -- won't help, 'cause the new feature doesn't recognize that as a search for a song. It's similarly befuddled by searches for songs covered by multiple artists, such as "Moon River."

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him on Twitter: @jcahealey

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