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The Genius of KISS: A Conversation with the Chief Architect of Google All Access

Pretty much everyone likes music, and Google is interested in reaching pretty much everyone. It makes sense than that the company has gotten into the streaming music game with the new Google Play All Access. Our intrepid Chris Martins tested the service shortly after it launched in mid-May. Now, we spoke with Tim Quirk, Google’s Head of Global Content Programming, Android, about the digital giant’s goals for the service and its place in the music world.  

What does All Access do that other streaming services don’t? Why should someone who’s happy with Spotify or YouTube make the switch?
People aren’t accustomed to music as a cloud service, but if you think of all the things that Google is really good at, it’s basically cloud services. So just getting people into the cloud and accustomed to the thought that there’s no more syncing, that wherever they can get to an Internet connection they can get their music, is a good starting point. I don’t think any of the other services have mastered the integration of your own collection with that wider super-set of all the music that was ever recorded in the history of the world and how to mix and match those two things. Getting that right is really difficult, and I think we did it. 

What is Google’s overarching goal for All Access? To sell more tablets? To have the largest base of subscribers?
The easiest way to answer that is to say that All Access is one piece of our music offering, and music offering is one piece of Google Play’s digital content offering, and Play is one piece of things to do with your Android, and Play and Android are one piece of Google’s larger corporate strategy. To answer solely for music, there are different ways that people want to access music; we want to be the best for all of them. We don’t call Google Play a store because it’s supposed to be much more than that. We’re trying to do away with the distinction between acquiring content and consuming content. You go to this service and you can listen to anything you want and if you want to own it, that’s simple. When you just know you want something, but you’re not sure what it is, we should be serving that up instantly. All Access helps us do that in music, but eventually we want to do it in movies and books and apps and games as well.

Does All Access function as a gatekeeper?
A spiel that I give anyone who joins my team is that this is not the 20th Century and you are not a gatekeeper. Everything that anyone can possibly want is available with or without you. You’re not even a tastemaker; you’re a park ranger. For any given starting point, whatever you come in wanting to listen to, our job is to make sure there are no dead ends. Everything that you’re listening to is connected to ten other things that you might want to listen to that are all highly relevant to you. The general idea is that once someone comes into the service, it should feel like falling down a rabbit hole. Maybe you just said, “Oh, I’ll listen to ‘Get Lucky.’ I guess I’ll listen to the whole album.” Then you get to the track about Giorgio Moroder and listen to some of his ’70s stuff. Maybe from there there’s a curated playlist of early soul songs from ’70s disco stars. Before you know it, you’re like “Oh shit, three hours just went by!” You should feel like you’re choosing your own adventure. You should never feel our hand pushing you in a particular direction but our hand is on your back. It’s just much subtler than it used to be.  

Do you have a sense of whether or not people are more likely to let All Access guide their music choices through recommendations as opposed to making their own choices? I’d guess that more people are willing to exercise less control about their music choices then they are over, say, what movies they watch.
The data within Google Play suggests the opposite.  If you look at the percentage of actions that are driven by search, which is clearly intentional, versus just randomly selecting from whatever we put up for them, search draws a much higher percentage of music than it does movies. No movie service, not even Netflix, has everything, so you’re bounded by what’s in the window at any given time. But a lot of people feel like, “I want to watch a movie. What’s available?” rather than “I want to see Jackie Brown this second.” With music, I think more than fifty percent of people start with a specific thing in mind, and once they’re done with that, whatever that starting point was, our job is give them a bunch of other things that are closely constellated. You’re only going to keep paying a monthly fee if you’re constantly surprised by new stuff.  

What does Google give back to the music business? I guess one of the arguments for why streaming services are somewhat detrimental to artists is that companies like Google and Spotify take content and don’t reinvest in creating that content. You can say what you want about record companies, but at least they made more records.
That charge against streaming services is completely off base. Did Tower Records fund more artists? No. Tower paid the label and the label used the money to invest in the artist — poorly. Those critics are looking at the services as though they’re labels as opposed to distributors. The mistake that a lot of people make when they look at streaming services is comparing them to what they used to get from Tower Records. But, and this is not a good fact of life but it’s just a fact of life, we are all competing with free. So we’re not attempting to drive the prices as low as we possibly can in the name of our profit margins, we’re trying to make the price as affordable to consumers as possible, so they will actually pay for the music.  If it weren’t for the fact that all of this music is available for free, it would have a higher market value than it does right now, but it doesn’t. That’s neither good nor bad; it just is. It’s not some nefarious plot that somebody came up with. It’s the reality of the business in the 21st century.

Is there validity to the idea that streaming services devalue music?
When you talk about money and compensating the artist, I’ve spent the last fifteen years trying to devise ways to get people to pay for the privilege of stuff that they can have for free. Music is priceless and it’s always been priceless. I don’t mean that in a hippy-dippy way. I mean that a song is not worth 99 cents: songs are worth different things to different people at different times. You can think about music consumers like a pyramid: At the bottom you have people who’ve never heard of you and your goal is just to get them to pay attention. A subset of those people, ideally, will become casual fans and maybe they’ll pay 99 cents for a song or $9.99 for an album. The next level up in the pyramid is a subset of people who will pay for bootlegs, and b sides, and rarities, and t-shirts, and they’ll go to all your concerts. Then at the tippy top of the pyramid, there’s a subset of people — and in 20th Century only KISS ever figured this out — who will buy a KISS casket and get buried in the casket because they love KISS so much. I’ve been convinced for fifteen years now that getting people from one level to the next on that pyramid is well worth the ten dollars.