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After a Decade of Failure, Sony Bails on Building Its Own Music Service, Brings In Spotify Instead

Better really, really late ...

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Sony has been trying for years, in stops and starts, to build its own digital music service. It has finally come to its senses.

Sony is ditching Music Unlimited, its most recent attempt at a home-grown service, and bringing in Spotify instead.

Sony and Spotify aren’t going into much detail about the timing of the swap-out and some of the specifics, but the gist is this: If you have a Spotify subscription, you’ll be able to use Spotify on Sony game consoles like its PS4. And if you were one of the handful of people paying $10 a month for a Music Unlimited subscription, you’ll be be able to buy Spotify for the same price.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek says this is a “bespoke” collaboration between the two companies, not a conventional distribution deal. But when I asked him to explain what is “bespoke” about merging the two services he didn’t have much to say, beyond noting that Spotify subscribers would be able to play the service while they played video games — just like Music Unlimited subscribers can today.

Anyway, it doesn’t really matter how “bespoke” the combination is. For Spotify, the big news is that it now has a distribution partner with an installed base of 64 million users. That’s a huge opportunity to boost Spotify’s core business, which currently has 15 million paid subscribers.

And for Sony, the upside is clear as well: The company that brought you the Walkman has never figured out digital music, and it has been trying and failing to figure out digital music distribution for about a decade, after watching Apple’s runaway success with iTunes. Whenever Sony launched a service, it was some combination of unremarkable, late to market or underfeatured.

Back in 2010, for instance, when Sony launched the original version of Music Unlimited, it cost the same as the competition, but wouldn’t let you take your music on the go, like the competition did.

This made no sense, and if you pointed this out to Sony executives, they just gave you a blank look. And then they’d do something else underwhelming.

Maybe the fact that the company owned its own music label and made its own hardware — which would seem like advantages to the rest of us — made it harder to get this right. For whatever reason, it never did.

So good for Sony for pulling the plug. Better really, really late than never.

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