I have been an ardent proponent of the Zune/Xbox Music since first acquiring a Windows Phone in November 2010, when I realized the value in having a combined streaming + download cloud-based music service available on a myriad of devices. Since the introduction of the Xbox Music platform last year, it’s safe to say that most previous Zune and Zune Music Pass users have had a love/hate relationship with the service and its Windows 8 app counterpart. While I haven’t come to terms with the significant performance decrease and functional reduction of the app, and the service’s inability to fully sync music between Windows Phone 8 and the Cloud Collection; there has been one major change that is far more difficult to tolerate. Since this platform has re-launched last year, the value provided by Microsoft’s Xbox Music Pass has consistently degraded with no explanation.
Let me explain. First, this meant that new releases didn’t always appear in the Xbox Music Store when they became available on iTunes, Amazon.com, and other popular music marketplaces. I complained about this on Twitter to @XboxEntertain when Microsoft likely missed out on hundreds of thousands of song and album sales as online and physical retail stores simultaneous began carrying Taylor Swift’s Red album last October, an album that now holds a quadruple platinum certification largely aided by iTunes sales. On Xbox Music it was nowhere to be seen. In fact, it didn’t appear for nearly a month; where, to this day, it is still unavailable to Xbox Music Pass subscribers for streaming or cloud matching. Whether you even care about this album’s (or artist’s) presence on Xbox Music is a moot point, Microsoft completely missed an opportunity to carry an album that sold over four million copies for no good reason other than to ignorantly prove that after all these years of failing to sell Zune as a competitive platform (which from a technical perspective, it was), it still isn’t capable of competing with Apple on their home turf.
And that was just the beginning. Soon, more new releases would only be available for purchase, and Xbox Music Pass subscribers who used to get instant access to that content now had to either wait several weeks or buy the songs outright. One of these was Bridgit Mendler’s Hello My Name Is…, which was released in standard and deluxe editions. Album releases with deluxe editions that carry additional tracks or secondary discs are a recent trend in the music industry’s attempt to encourage album sales over individual track sales by making a more affordable album option available. Zune Music Pass traditionally carried both versions of albums released in this fashion until Xbox Music replaced it. Now these deluxe albums are often carried as “buy only,” another reduction in value for paying subscribers of the Xbox Music Pass.
Now, I’m beginning to see complete albums disappear from the Xbox Music library entirely. Not just for Xbox Music Pass subscribers, but from the Xbox Music marketplace as a whole. About a year and a half ago, the power-pop band The Click Five released their much-anticipated third studio album TCV in North America. Unsurprisingly, it was quickly available with the Zune Music Pass. When I was in the process of transitioning my old Zune Music Pass collection to the Xbox Music Cloud Collection this winter, it came to my attention that TCV was inexplicably removed from Xbox Music. I can’t stream it, download it, or even buy it. However, somehow my Samsung Focus that carried the DRMed copies of the downloaded tracks using the Zune/Xbox Music Pass service still managed to let me play the tracks until I had to wipe the phone. Now the tracks exist on my PC with Zune, but will not sync to the phone any more because the DRM license will not renew.
Finally, this morning I noticed that in spite of actually getting Green River Ordinance’s Under Fire into my Cloud Collection about two months ago, it has also completely disappeared from Xbox Music without a trace. That means it is visible from the “My Music” view in Xbox Music, but instead of playing or even offering to let me buy it, I receive this error message (click for full size).
Until today, I had no apprehensions about recommending the Xbox Music Pass to friends and family with a Windows 8 PC, Xbox 360, or even the few who have Windows Phones. The predecessor of this service was amazing. With better marketing, it could have easily outshined iTunes and its lackluster app. Xbox Music’s underpinnings did not need rewritten, a simple rebranding of Zune would have sufficed. In fact, it would have been perfect. Instead, there is far less value in this service today than there was even two or three years ago.
iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and others are successfully competing with Xbox Music and providing more value-added features. Where is social sharing, Microsoft? The competition is already doing it, so there is no excuse for anything less than a complete, consistent experience; an experience the Xbox Music service and app are both catastrophically failing to deliver. I deliberately chose to avoid addressing the extensive problems with the Windows 8 app in this article, but since it’s out there I have to ask: how about an Xbox Music web player? The Zune.net web player was abruptly dropped with the rebranding, and in spite of the Zune desktop software in its minimally supported state continuing to work with the new Xbox Music platform, the web app has never reappeared with or without new branding. In spite of Xbox SmartGlass appearing on iOS and Android, and rumors that Microsoft Office will make an iPad appearance, Xbox Music shows no signs of ever supporting non-Windows OSes. Yet another blow to the already-struggling platform.
A music subscription service should always be growing. I recall a time when Microsoft proudly touted their 30 million track collection. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it is less than that today. All this being said, I hope someone at Microsoft reads this and finally gets the message: Xbox Music is in serious trouble if it does not receive some serious attention now. Microsoft needs to fix these issues because nobody is going pay a monthly fee to subscribe to a service that literally loses value the longer you have it.