December 12, 2018
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Amazon Music customers can now talk to Alexa more naturally

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Amazon Music, reportedly the third-largest subscription-based music service worldwide, is doubling down on voice. The company is today announcing the launch of new set of features that will allow Amazon Music customers to chat with Alexa in a more natural way in order to find and play the music they want to hear. The features allow Amazon Music customers and Alexa to engage in back-and-forth conversations to narrow down playlist options, and will allow users to tell Alexa what songs they like or hate, and have her remember.

Alexa’s integration with Amazon Music isn’t new. The company has been working to add a variety of voice control options for its music service since launch so customers could easily play songs on their Echo speakers and other Alexa-powered devices.

Over the years, it has offered the ability for customers to ask Alexa for music by mood, genre, or even lyrics, and more. But these have been simple voice commands, like “Alexa, play pop music,” for example, or “Alexa, play the song that goes…”, followed by some lyrics.

Now, Alexa will be able to have more of a discussion with the customer.

At launch, this feature will help customers fight the right playlist – like a holiday playlist or one for a dinner party, Amazon suggests.

To get started, customers can say, “Alexa, help me find a playlist,” “Alexa, help me find music for a holiday party,” or “Alexa, help me find dinner music.”

For help finding a playlist by genre, you have to start by saying “Alexa, help me find a playlist,” then direct the assistant to the genre you want. (Asking her, “Alexa, help me find a workout playlist,” didn’t work to trigger this feature during testing, unfortunately).

Amazon says Alexa can also be directed to playlists by mood or tempo, in addition to genre or occasion.

After the initial voice command, Alexa responds with follow-up questions to customize the playlist selection for the individual user.

When answering, the assistant sometimes injects her personality into the conversation, as well, by way of her typical corny jokes and comments.

In testing the feature, the conversations often began in different ways.

For example:

Me: Alexa, help me find a holiday playlist.
Alexa: We’ll be rocking around the Christmas tree. Any vibe in particular? Mellow? Or maybe upbeat?

Me: Alexa, help me find a holiday playlist.
Alexa: Sure, let’s sample a few holiday playlists. Shall we narrow the options down to country or maybe jazz?

Me: Alexa, help me find a holiday playlist.
Alexa: Let’s sample a few holiday playlists. Were you thinking any vibe in particular? Relaxed or upbeat, perhaps?

Me: Alexa, help me find a holiday playlist.
Alexa: It’s the most wonderful time of the year. So many options. Should we narrow it down to a classical style or maybe pop?

You can respond to Alexa’s questions naturally, as she offered her various suggestions.

For example:

Me: Alexa, help me find a holiday playlist.
Alexa: Amazon Music has a ton of merry, merry good playlists. Let’s find the right one for you. Were you thinking any vibe in particular? Relaxed or upbeat, perhap?
Me: Relaxed.
Alexa: Relaxing sounds good. Here’s one of my more popular Christmas playlists, Christmas Choirs.
[A sample of the playlist’s music begins]
Alexa: Will that work?
Me: Let’s do something else.
Alexa: Alright. Try this.
[Another playlist begins]
Alexa: An Irish Christmas. How about that?
Me: Nah. Something else.
Alexa: Okay. You might like this.
[A third playlist begins]
Alexa: Christmas Oldies. Will that work?
Me: Okay, that’s cool.
Alexa: Great. Happy Holidays.
[Music plays]

“It’s a paradigm shift because you’re getting into conversations,” explains  Kintan Brahmbhatt, Director of Product for Amazon Music, about the new feature. “Before, customers would ask Alexa to do something and Alexa would respond with music. Today, we’re shifting into deep personalization and Alexa will have an interactive conversation with the customer,” he says.

“The vision and the mission is to provide a very magical and simple customer experience when it comes to discovering music and enjoying music,” Brahmbhatt adds.

The ability to have back-and-forth chats with Alexa isn’t the only new feature today.

The voice assistant will work to help make the music experience more personalized, too.

Now, you can tell Alexa when you like or dislike the song that’s playing. There isn’t one specific command to use here. Instead, any number of phrases will work, like “Alexa, I like this song,” “Alexa, this is my favorite,” or “Alexa, I don’t like this.”

In addition to these explicit signals of interest, Alexa will also learn from your implicit actions – like which songs you play most often. These signals then feed into her ability to play something you like when you ask her to simply “Play Music.”

That command will now trigger a more personalized response that’s based on algorithms that consider factors like your personalized playlist, songs you’ve said you liked, artists you’ve asked Alexa to follow in the past who have new music out, and even forgotten songs you haven’t heard in a while, but used to like.

The features are rolling out starting to today to Amazon’s tens of millions of Amazon Music subscribers, which includes both Prime Music and Amazon Music Unlimited. It will work across any Alexa device, not just Echo speakers and screens.

Amazon is also running a deal that gives customers access to the premium streaming service, Amazon Music Unlimited’s 50+ million songs, for $0.99 per month for the first three months.

In the near future, Amazon says Alexa will be able to suggest music, too, when asked for recommendations.

She’ll do so by using cues from your previous listening habits, and by asking a few questions regarding your favorite genres, eras and other preferences. This will allow Alexa to be able to anticipate what customers are in the mood to hear, and suggest relevant music, or new releases tailored to them.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Spotify for Xbox One now works with Cortana voice commands

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Spotify arrived on the Xbox One back in August 2017 to give gamers the option of streaming their own tunes while in a gaming session. Today, Spotify is upgrading its app with a few key additions, including most notably support for Cortana voice control along with other personalization features. With Cortana, gamers will be able to speak their music requests instead of using the controller. That means they can command the music – including being able to play, skip and pause songs – without having to leave their current gaming session, Spotify says.

Before, gamers would have to use Spotify Connect via an app on their phone, tablet or laptop to control or change the music while gaming.

For example, you’ll be able to say things like “Hey, Cortana, play my playlist on Spotify,” or “Hey Cortana, play my Discover Weekly on Spotify.”

This upgrade is currently only available in the U.S., however.

The new app is also introducing an updated experienced that’s designed to make it easier for Spotify users to access recently played songs, plus your “Made for You” hub, and your music library.

Spotify says the app can help gamers find their favorite background music, too, by taking into account their listening history when making its recommendations for a more personalized experience.

This part of the update is rolling out more broadly, including the U.S. as well as in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, and the U.K.

Options like repeat and shuffle are available, too, as are a selection of curated gaming playlists over on Spotify’s “Gaming Hub” if you get stumped as to what to play.

The update will require the latest version of the Spotify app which can be downloaded from the Microsoft Store, the company notes.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Plex teams with TIDAL to bring a discounted streaming music subscription to its media app

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Media center app Plex today announced a partnership with streaming music service TIDAL, offering discounted access to TIDAL’s 60 million tracks and 244,000+ music videos for Plex Pass subscribers. The Plex Pass is the media center app’s own subscription program, which adds support for watching and recording from live TV as well as other premium features and advanced controls.

Now, Plex Pass holders will be able to add TIDAL into the mix for $8.99 per month, instead of its usual $9.99 per month price. It’s not a steep discount, but one that could prove compelling for serious Plex users who have already centralized their access to entertainment within the Plex app.

Over the past year or so, Plex has doubled down on its mission to become a one-stop show for all your media, having added support for podcasts, streaming TV (by way of a digital antenna) and a DVR, personalized news, and, most recently, web shows. This is in addition to the software’s ability to organize your home media collections of movies, TV shows, personal video, music, and photos.

The company’s goal is to capitalize on its expansive entertainment library in order to offer better recommendations across media types. That is – it could suggest podcasts or web shows based on the TV or music you enjoy, for example.

Plex customers who add TIDAL will have access to the streamer’s entire music catalog, along with artist recommendations for those who aren’t already in your media library, as well as a feature that will display the missing albums from artists in your library. The service also offers artist radio, discovery radio for finding new tunes from those not in your library, new release recommendations, music videos, and more.

Universal search and playlists features will combine results from Plex’s library and TIDAL, allowing you to locate tracks from your local library alongside TIDAL tracks, and add both to the same playlist.

“An incredible music and media experience is something that matters to both TIDAL and Plex users, and the addition of TIDAL’s music streaming service within Plex makes it the only solution that organizes and curates all major media types in one place,” said Keith Valory, CEO of Plex, in a statement. “It’s another step closer to making all the media that matters to you accessible from one app, on any device, anytime.”

TIDAL will also point its subscribers to Plex as a part of the deal, giving them access to Plex’s music features and mobile app, or, in the case of Tidal HiFi subscribers ($19.99/mo), they get a Plex Pass for free.

Once signed up for TIDAL, Plex users can quickly merge their subscription to Plex from here.

The TIDAL subscription is available on Plex mobile and web* to start, with expansion to other TV platforms expected to follow.

Versions required: Plex Media Server; iOS 5.7.2; Android 7.8.0; Web 3.77.2 

News Source = techcrunch.com

Social music app Playlist lets you listen to music with others in real time

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A new app called Playlist aims to make music a more social experience than what’s offered today by the major music platforms like Apple Music, Pandora or Spotify, for example. In Playlist, you can find others who share your musical tastes and join group chats where you listen to playlists together in real time. You can collaborate on playlists, too.

The app, backed by investment from Stanford’s StartX fund, was founded by Karen Katz and Steve Petersen, both Stanford engineers and serial entrepreneurs. Katz previously co-founded AdSpace Networks and another social music platform, Jam Music. She also was a founding executive team member at Photobucket, and founded a company called Project Playlist, which was like a Google search for music back in the Myspace era.

Peterson, meanwhile, has 35 patents and more than a decade of experience in digital music. In the early 2000s he created the software architecture and ran the team at PortalPlayer Inc., which powered the iPod’s music player and was later sold to Nvidia for $357 million. Afterwards, he was CTO at Concert Technology, a technology incubator and intellectual property company with a focus on mobile, social and digital music services.

“The world has gone social, but music has been largely left behind. That’s a real gap,” explains Katz, as to why the founders wanted to build Playlist in the first place.

“Ever since we started listening to music from our mobile phones, it’s become an isolated experience. And music is the number one thing we do on our phones,” she says.

The idea they came up with was to unite music and messaging by synchronizing streams, so people could listen to songs together at the same time and chat while they do so.

During last year’s beta testing period, Playlist (which was listed under a different name on the App Store), saw a huge number of engagements as a result of its real-time nature.

“Out of the gate, we saw 10 times the engagement of Pandora. People have, on average, 60 interactions per hour — like chats, likes, follows, joins, adds and creates,” Katz says. 

Under the hood, the app uses a lot of technology beyond just its synchronized streaming. It also leverages machine learning for its social recommendations, as well as collaborative playlists, large-scale group chat, and behavior-based music programming, and has “Music Match” algorithms to help you find people who listen to the same sort of things you do.

The social aspects of the app involves a following/follower model, and presents playlists from the people you follow in your home feed, much like a music-focused version of Instagram. A separate Discover section lets you find more people to follow or join in other popular listening and chat sessions.

At launch, the app has a catalog of more than 45 million songs and has a music license for the U.S. It plans to monetize through advertising.

The core idea here — real-time music listening and chat — is interesting. It’s like a Turntable.fm for the Instagram age. But the app sometimes overcomplicates things, it seems. For example, importing a playlist from another music app involves switching over to that app, finding the playlist and copying its sharing URL, then switching back to Playlist to paste it in a pop-up box. It then offers a way for you to add your own custom photo to the playlist, which feels a little unnecessary as the default is album art.

Another odd choice is that it’s difficult to figure out how to leave a group chat once you’ve joined. You can mute the playlist that’s streaming or you can minimize the player, but the option to “leave” is tucked away under another menu, making it harder to find.

The player interface also offers a heart, a plus (+), a share button, a mute button and a skip button all on the bottom row. It’s… well… it’s a lot.

But Katz says that the design choices they’ve made here are based on extensive user testing and feedback. Plus, the app’s younger users — often high schoolers, and not much older than 21 — are the ones demanding all the buttons and options.

It’s hard to argue with the results. The beta app acquired more than 500,000 users during last year’s test period, and those users are being switched over to the now publicly available Playlist app, which has some 80K installs as of last week, according to Sensor Tower data.

The company also plans to leverage the assets it acquired from the old Project Playlist, which includes some 30 million emails, 21 million Facebook IDs and 14 million Twitter IDs. A “Throwback Thursday” marketing campaign will reach out to those users to offer them a way to listen to their old playlists.

The startup has raised $5 million in funding (convertible notes) from Stanford StartX Fund, Garage Technology Ventures, Miramar Ventures, IT-Farm, Dixon Doll (DCM founder), Stanford Farmers & Angels, Zapis Capital and Amino Capital.

The Palo Alto-based company is a team of six full-time.

Playlist is a free download for iOS. An Android version is in the works.

News Source = techcrunch.com

YouTube and YouTube Music launch discounted subscriptions for students

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YouTube today is launching lower-cost subscription plans for students who want to enjoy an ad-free version of YouTube or its music streaming service, YouTube Music. The new plans are the first significant changes to YouTube’s music subscription program since its launch last year. At that time, YouTube had also rebranded its ad-free YouTube Red subscription as YouTube Premium.

For eligible students, YouTube Music Premium is now $4.99 per month instead of $9.99 per month, and YouTube Premium is now $6.99 per month instead of $11.99 per month.

YouTube is also running a special promotion which offers YouTube Premium for $5.99 per month if students sign up by January 31, 2019.

YouTube Music Premium competes with Spotify Premium, Apple Music, Pandora Premium, and others, as it offers a way to stream tracks on demand, browse playlists, get personalized recommendations, play artist radio stations, and more. But it also caters to those who want a video component to their music listening experience. And it provides access to remixes, covers, live versions, and deep cuts that aren’t available elsewhere.

In addition to the removal of ads, the paid subscription to the music service includes support for background listening and offline access through a downloads feature, like its rivals.

Upgrading to YouTube Premium then expands that ad-free experience across all of YouTube’s videos – not just music videos – and adds access to YouTube Originals.

It’s not unusual for streaming services to go after students with discounted pricing. Getting younger users addicted to a particular service early on can be a valuable long-term strategy – especially on apps which customize themselves to your likes and interests over time. That makes it more difficult to switch to a competitor at a later date, as you’d lose your personalized playlists and new music suggestions.

Spotify began offering half-priced student plans five years ago, which expanded worldwide in spring 2017. Last fall, it also began offering a discounted bundle with Hulu aimed at students, which later added access to Showtime to further sweeten the deal.

Apple Music also introduced its own student plans in 2016, similarly discounting its subscription by 50 percent.

These moves have likely paid off in terms of growth among the young adult demographic. Spotify’s Premium Subscribers grew to 83 million in Q2 2018, while Apple Music passed the 50 million subscriber mark this fall.

By comparison, YouTube proper is far larger with 1.8 billion logged-in monthly users, but the company hasn’t shared how many of those are paying subscribers to either YouTube Premium or YouTube Music Premium. However, as YouTube Red, the service had only reached 1.5 million subscribers within its first year.

YouTube says full-time students at an accredited college or university in the U.S. can take advantage of the new student pricing. Those discounts will roll out to users in other countries later in the future.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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