Xbox Music combines streaming radio, music subscription services and music purchasing options. It simplifies finding, managing and listening to music, no matter which devices you use. But there is one downside: The availability of Xbox Music features varies by device, and requires a subscription service called Xbox Music Pass to take advantage of all of the available features.
Note: This article is excerpted from my free e-book, Xbox Music Field Guide, which you can download in PDF, ePub and Mobi formats from the Field Guide Books web site. Thanks for reading! –Paul
If you are serious about using Xbox Music, I strongly recommend subscribing to Xbox Music Pass, which is described below. This excellent and affordable service lights up all Xbox Music features on Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8.1, Xbox One, and the Web, providing the best-possible experience. It’s also required if you intend to use Xbox Music with Android handsets and tablets, and iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. Beyond that I make no assumptions about whether you subscribe to Xbox Music Pass, and this book describes how (or if) each feature works in either eventuality.
Here are the features available in Xbox Music.
With Xbox Music your music collection is stored in the cloud, and not just on a single PC or device. This core feature of Xbox Music is what separates this service most obviously from its predecessor, Zune, and from many rival services. Under the previous scheme, you were forced to duplicate your PC-based music collection—including albums and songs, of course, but also playlists and radio stations—across your various devices. With Xbox Music, you store all of your music in your cloud-based collection, which will then be accessible from all of your devices automatically.
Note: Again, some device types do require an Xbox Music Pass subscription, however.
You don’t need to download music to your PC or device in order to play it. Instead, you can stream the music over the Internet and listen to individual songs, full albums, playlists or radio stations. There are a few caveats. This functionality requires an Xbox Music Pass subscription, or for you to have purchased music from Xbox Music Store or supplied your own music. If you are streaming from Xbox Music Store, most of the music is available for streaming but you will occasionally run into artists that will not allow this functionality.
Like rival services such as Apple iTunes, Amazon MP3 and Google Play Music, Xbox Music does of course allow you to purchase the music you want to own, in this case via the Xbox Music Store. The purchase experience works as you would expect. But though those with Xbox Music Pass subscriptions may find that the need to actually buy music has essentially disappeared.
Note: You cannot purchase music from Xbox Music Store with Xbox One.
Playlists are lists of songs that can be played together as a group, like the modern version of a mix tape. They’re a way for you to organize songs you like, or that go together well. Xbox Music of course supports playlists on each of the supported platforms, and the playlists you create automatically sync to your cloud collection so they are available from all your devices.
Note: Some digital music platforms support two kinds of playlists: Basic, or static, playlists—simply called playlists—and dynamic playlists called auto playlists or smart playlists that can be automatically populated using certain criteria. Dynamic playlists are very powerful, and their contents can change over time as new music matching the criteria is added (or removed) from your music collection over time. Alas, Xbox Music does not currently support dynamic playlists. Instead, it only supports basic playlists.
As noted previously, any playlists you create in Xbox Music are automatically synced to your cloud-based collection so they’re available from all your devices. But playlists can only sync content that is available in the Xbox Music Store. So if you have a playlist that contains five songs which are in the store and five that are not, the playlist will sync across your devices, but it will contain only the five songs that are available in the store.
Radio helps you create a special kind of dynamic playlist, called a radio station, which uses a favorite artist as “seed” music. That is, you supply the name of a favorite artist and radio creates a radio station of songs that are from artists similar to that artist. Radio stations are like Internet-based radio stations that you don’t have to manually curate and manage. And they help you discover new music by choosing songs that are based on the artists you already know you like. Radio stations also support unlimited skipping, unlike the similar functionality in some rival music services.
The bad news? Radio requires an Xbox Music Pass subscription.
Xbox Music lets you move your existing music collection—which you may have acquired by ripping audio CDs, purchasing digital music from other services, or other means—to your personal cloud collection. This functionality is called music match, and it is available only via the Xbox Music app for Windows 8.1. It supports the following features:
Manual album match. You can manually match individual albums one-by-one to the Xbox Music Store library. If the album is found in Xbox Music, it is added to your collection and made available for streaming or download on your other devices.
Automatic music match. The Xbox Music app will automatically match albums in your PC’s music library to the Xbox Music Store library. As albums are matched, they are silently added to your cloud-based collection and made available for streaming or download on all of your devices.
Music match currently works somewhat like similar functionality in Amazon Cloud Player, Google Play Music, or Apple iTunes Match in that music matched from your own personal collection is stored in the cloud, and no uploading is required. But it doesn’t (yet) support uploading music to your collection that can’t be found in Xbox Music Store. There’s always room for improvement.
Xbox Music Pass is a subscription service that lets you stream almost all of the music in Microsoft’s voluminous online music catalog with your PCs and devices. And on Windows, Windows Phone, Android and iOS, you can also download music from the service to your devices for offline use.
Xbox Music Pass is comparable to services like Spotify Premium in that it provides unlimited streaming on compatible devices, lets you download music for offline use on a set number of devices (four, for Xbox Music Pass), and integrates with other platform features, like Radio, that help you discover new music.
It’s a reasonable expense for music lovers: Xbox Music Pass costs $9.99 per month, but you can sign up for a 12 month Music Pass for $99.90, which works out to just $8.35 per month. That’s like getting two months free per year. (And if you’re not sure if you want Xbox Music Pass, Microsoft offers a free 30-day trial so you can see how the service works with your own devices.)
While Xbox Music Pass provides unlimited streaming to all of your PCs and devices, you can assign up to four devices to be used for downloading music and listening to it offline. This can include any combination of Windows 8.1 PCs and devices, Windows Phone 8.1 handsets, iPhone, iPod touch and iPad devices, and Android devices. Your Xbox One does not count against your device list, nor does using Xbox Music for Web, since neither supports music downloading or offline playback. A device is assigned to your account when you download music to it, and you can use a web-based interface to remove up to two devices every 30 days.
Microsoft offers a Music Deals mobile app for Windows and Windows Phone that highlights specially priced music you can buy from the Xbox Music Store. The deals change each week and there is usually a single new album priced at 99 cents plus some number of other albums available at low prices.
Though it’s not strictly an Xbox Music feature, Microsoft provides an amazing degree of integration between the various platforms that support Xbox Music via the Xbox One SmartGlass mobile app for Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8.1, iOS (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad) and Android.
Xbox One SmartGlass provides a variety of “second screen” experiences in which you can interact with games and entertainments apps running on the console. While many of these experiences are beyond the scope of the book, Xbox One SmartGlass allows you to control Xbox Music playback on the console—and thus your HDTV and home theater system—from your PC or mobile device and use it like a smart remote control..