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Amazon Pairs Its Speaker With Streaming Music, at a Bargain Price


Steve Boom of Amazon said, “We think the next phase of growth for streaming is really going to come in the home.” Credit Kyle Johnson for The New York Times

For years, Amazon has been a quiet but potent force in the music industry, selling more CDs and vinyl albums than any other retailer.

But its latest foray into digital music may prove disruptive both in the way it connects to people’s homes and in the amount of money it will cost.

On Wednesday, the company unveils Amazon Music Unlimited, a streaming service that will compete directly with Spotify, Apple Music and every other outlet in the increasingly crowded on-demand audio market. Like most of those, Amazon’s offering will have a catalog of tens of millions of songs, offering essentially most commercially available music. That is a big increase from Amazon’s two-year-old Prime Music service, which caters to a casual audience with playlists and just two million tracks, a fraction of the songs other services offer.

Amazon’s wrinkle, however, will be in how it allows its customers to listen. The new service is closely tied to Amazon’s Echo devices, a line of speakers with a proprietary voice recognition technology called Alexa. Instead of fiddling with a phone, a customer can simply give the speaker commands like, “Alexa, play the new Bruno Mars song,” and the track starts immediately.

Echo speakers can also be used to get access to other streaming services, including Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio, but its more advanced features, like combing through lyrics, will work only with Amazon’s service.

“We think the next phase of growth for streaming is really going to come in the home,” Steve Boom, Amazon’s vice president of digital music, said in an interview.

Since it was introduced two years ago, Amazon’s speaker line — which includes the cylindrical Echo, for $ 180, and two cheaper models, Tap and Dot — has become a surprise hit, and the company has been expanding its services for the connected home. The technology can be used to check the weather, order a pizza and, of course, buy stuff from Amazon. It is already causing competitive ripples. Google introduced its own version and the connected-speaker company Sonos announced an Amazon partnership, in what was widely interpreted as an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” moment.

While Apple’s Siri has long had the ability to answer voice commands, Amazon’s speakers and new music service represent a new frontier. In some ways they work to create a so-called lean-back experience, letting people play the music of their choice with a minimum of effort. According to Amazon, one of the most popular commands on the service is simply, “Alexa, play music,” which generates a Pandora-like playlist based on a customer’s past listening.

But as with Siri, it is hard not to try to stump Alexa’s electronic brain. Amazon says it has applied machine learning to anticipate conversational inquiries, like searching for lyrics or half-remembered titles. For example, say, “Alexa, play that song that goes ‘put up a parking lot,’ ” and the speaker will play Counting Crows’ version of the Joni Mitchell classic “Big Yellow Taxi.” (Purists may cringe, but this version was chosen because it is the most popular one on Amazon. “Alexa, play the song that goes ‘put up a parking lot’ from the ’70s” will bring forth Ms. Mitchell’s original.)

The cost of Amazon’s new service may have even more impact. The standard price for Music Unlimited is $ 10 a month, the same as Spotify, Apple Music and most others. For members of Amazon’s Prime program — which costs $ 99 a year and brings perks like free shipping and access to online videos — it will cost an additional $ 8 a month, or $ 79 a year, a discount that itself represents a triumph of negotiation, since a year ago the major record labels balked at Apple’s wanting to charge less than $ 10 for Apple Music.

But for customers who own an Echo device, Amazon will offer the service at just $ 4 a month, deeply undercutting its competitors. That price comes with a restriction: The service can be used on a single Echo device and nowhere else, like a phone or a computer. But the price is far lower than has ever been charged for what is essentially a complete catalog of music online — except for outlets like YouTube and Spotify’s free version, which charge nothing but have advertising.

“Alexa, will this lead to a digital music price war?” It just might.

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