Google's Music Timeline Is A Brilliant Timewaster... And Deadly Sales Tool For Play

Google has just launched Music Timeline, an incredible infographic based on its massive database culled from millions of Google Play users.

Start with the Music Timeline homepage and you’ll see all the trends as they rise and fall from the 1950s to right now.

It’s interesting to note that everything’s pretty much found its plateau since the mid-90s, apart from a slow but steady rise in the popularity of Hip-Hop/Rap.

And it’s important to note that it doesn’t in any reflect the real-world popularity of music through any era, despite the use of the word “popularity” on the y axis.

Here’s how Google explains it:

The Music Timeline shows genres of music waxing and waning, based on how many Google Play Music users have an artist or album in their music library, and other data (such as album release dates). Each stripe on the graph represents a genre; the thickness of the stripe tells you roughly the popularity of music released in a given year in that genre. (For example, the “jazz” stripe is thick in the 1950s since many users’ libraries contain jazz albums released in the ’50s.)

Drilling down is where it gets fun. Say you’re a Metal fan, so that’s where you head from the homepage. You’ll get this brief history of popular Metal styles:

Obviously, you’ll want to know what happened to Hair Metal. In particular, Cinderella, where you’ll find they battled on gamely until 2005:

So it’s a neat toy which will keep any music fan heading down the rabbit hole for a couple of hours.

But of course, being a Cinderella fan, I’ve already got those albums on Rdio, my streaming service of choice.

And if I don’t, every service has a search bar (as does Google’s Music Timeline) and Recommendations which throw up music you might also like.

Except music you might want to listen to almost never comes to you when you’re staring at a search bar, and recommendations aren’t always, well, good.

Google’s service adds a bit extra simply by making it kind of fun to scroll around over your selected genre and see what pops up.

(Tesla! Yes!)

It’s at that point where Timeline morphs from an information tool into a marketing machine.

I now know, for instance, that Google Play has far more Butthole Surfers albums in its shop than Rdio, which is extremely important to me. (I was rolling around over Alternative when they popped up.)

From there, buying one is a ridiculously simple one-click process.

So simple, in fact, that I actually went through with this purchase, as much as a sucker it makes me feel to admit that here. And I’ll probably make a few more until the novelty wears off in a week or so, but by then I’ll no doubt be familiar enough with Play to keep it on my desktop.

So as a selling tool, it’s a clear winner. As a research tool, not so much… yet.

The Atlantic asked writer and record-label owner Douglas Wolk to sum up problems with Music Timeline in one sentence. His main gripe was pretty much the caveat Google offered in its About this visualization terms – that:

“…it’s reflecting is what Google play users have in their personal libraries, which is different from what people listen to, which in turn is different from what people historically listen to.”

He pointed to the fact that the tool’s U2 data only reflects what been bought on Google Play, hence Rattle and Hum (5 million units in real world sale) is the peak of the band’s success, whereas Achtung Baby (8 million) and All That You Can’t Leave Behind (12 million) don’t even appear in their timeline.

So it’s far from perfect. But it’s fun enough that I was happy to part with some cash at the end of it, and that’s probably exactly what Google is aiming for.

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