He’s Dead, Jim: Google Wades into Streaming Music

“If we were motivated by money, we would have sold the company a long time ago and ended up on a beach.”   — Larry Page, 2006


Just months after Grooveshark met a similar fate, the streaming music app Streamus was silenced by powerful critics.

I discovered Streamus after our forced migration from Grooveshark. I wanted an ad-free, streaming music service that could operate on its own background tab. After looking around for free options, I came across a helpful article (which I can’t find now..) similar to the Wikipedia one charting various streaming music services.

Streamus allowed the user to play music on-demand. It was linked to YouTube, so literally anything on YouTube could be streamed (video-free) through this app. With ad-blocker, this was the ad-free, streaming service I was looking for, albeit not nearly as robust as Grooveshark.

It’s important to note that YouTube already plays music on a different tab than the one you’re working in. Hell, I’m doing that right now. Streamus was better – it was an add-on in Chrome that operated in the background of my Chrome browser, no tab necessary.

Well, last month Google sent a cease and desist email to Sean Anderson, the guy who created the Streamus app three years ago. TechCrunch’s piece about it in January 2014 had put Sean in an uncomfortable spotlight, which is a dangerous place to be for an independent developer creating middle-man software. While it can create exposure to seed investors and a larger user base, it can also alert the powers that be to your existence.

The latter is what happened to Streamus. After accruing over 303,000 users and earning a 5-star rating, a Google developer relations official contacted Sean in February 2014. Over the course of the next year, the situation deteriorated behind the scenes. I had no clue this was happening when I joined the service in May.

Here was Sean’s farewell message:

Streamus Announcement 1

Streamus Announcement 2

Streamus Announcement 3


What’s At Stake for Google?

I reached out to Sean last week, via an email address I found on GitHub, to get an idea of the conversation that took place. I haven’t heard back. This doesn’t surprise me, because nobody ever answers my anonymous emails.

That’s the main reason I didn’t bother contacting Google. Besides, even if they answered, I wouldn’t expect them to admit that their role in this narrative was always one of self-serving mediation.

Google is accountable to the music production companies, which Google pays to host their content on YouTube. The truth is that artists and songwriters don’t get much from streaming services like YouTube (which is on-demand) and Pandora, Spotify, et al (which are not). But Google still owes the production companies their check, and ads (which Streamus was presumably omitting) meant money came out of Google’s pocket for those royalty contracts.

The production companies are also bitter rivals to free streaming music services. Universal Music Group took the matter into their own hands when they blocked their songs from Streamus in 2014, and if you want to know how I feel about those bastards just read my Grooveshark eulogy.

Still, even if Google weren’t accountable to anyone, YouTube belongs to Google, so any circumvention of usage means less clicks on the site itself. This is risky to a conglomerate that relies on clicks and brand recognition, and people using Streamus weren’t using YouTube the way it was intended.

However, more and more people have been misusing YouTube as a streaming music service. In fact, 64% of American teenagers stream their music on YouTube, so to continue ignoring Streamus’ mission statement was ignoring a significant hole in Google’s product line.

So, Google offered Sean an interview.


What Happened?

Feel free to read the narrative of the email exchanges in TheNextWeb article here (I couldn’t access the imgur post), but it looks like Sean was more than eager to work with Google to keep his app in service.

Whether or not they actually wanted Sean as an employee is a mystery, but they definitely wanted a deeper view of his app. Coincidentally, around the same time all these conversations were taking place, Google released the Music Key streaming app for YouTube in November 2014.

What Sean was experiencing was a brain rape. Google had the team and resources in place to implement whatever they wanted, but new and innovative ideas come arduously to large corporations, and it doesn’t hurt to plumb the minds of young innovators.

When Sean declined whatever he was offered, Google’s demands for changes increased. A final email was sent on June 30 threatening to take the app down at the end of the month (i.e. the next day) if some updates weren’t made.

Sean stayed up all night trying to fix the code, but the July 1 release was met with widespread disappointment from both users and Google. A new deadline was provided: Fix everything by July 17, or you lose your precious API keys. Sean wasn’t able to comply with all of Google’s demands, so he pulled the app himself.

In Google’s last email, the sender trumpets the company’s willingness to work so closely with Sean on his app, telling him that “I hope you can appreciate that we’ve given you an unprecedented amount of time and attention on these issues.” It’s sad to see Google implying how much of a hassle it is to work with developers, when the company was founded on and tries to promote just that.


What’s Up With Google?

Now, I’m not implying that Google stole Sean’s idea, but I’m not convinced that Google didn’t toy with Sean long enough to get their own replacement for his app off the ground. Google was willing to bring Sean on board to be a part of that team, but they weren’t willing to pay Sean for the work he’d already done (i.e. a buyout). Google wanted to solve a problem, not work with an independent developer.

This flies in the face of how Google began – two independent developers relying on donations from professors and the help of friends to start “googol” at Stanford in the late ’90s. The company that proclaimed “Don’t be evil” has become one of the most infamous tech companies out there in recent years, but when was the tipping point?

Was it the acceptance of illegal ads that ended up in court in 2009? Was it the privacy issues of GoogleBuzz and the Skyhook Wireless lawsuit in 2010? Was it the iPhone privacy bypass and multi-platform data sharing change to the TOS in 2012? Was it when users were required to have Google+ accounts throughout 2013?

My guess is the timing of Google’s conversion overlapped with Larry Page’s return as CEO of Google in January 2011. It was then that Google started integrating its operations in such a way that would reduce leeway outside the organization, for users and competition.

Almost immediately, Page started selling off successful former acquisitions like Picnik and Slide, and investing heavily into products that competed directly with Facebook (Google+), Apple (Android), and Amazon (the Channel Intelligence acquisition). Google is just too damn big, and it doesn’t care about user access to free, streaming music. In fact, it bought Songza to break into that, too.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to want to be more profitable, but not at the expense of your principles. Page has stated before that it’s not about money, and he and Brin both wanted the company to be more than just another evil corporation.

By wading into the streaming music market, Google is exposing itself to even more criticism. Will it play valuable interference between the Big 3 and users/listeners, or will it simply try to do what Pandora does, but better?

I ask because Pandora sucks, and I’m tired of hearing the same shit played over and over again when there are literally thousands of songs out there that match my user-driven algorithm. Music Genome Project my ass, so Google, if you want to do the world a service, let Songza be Songza and don’t shut it down 2 years from now.

I don’t even want to join another streaming music service for fear of it being shut down, too.

I’ll just stick to NPR. At least that’s still free.







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