When Buying From Amazon Isn’t So Simple

When Buying From Amazon Isn’t So Simple

For this edition of The Amazon Chronicles, I thought I’d offer another personal narrative. This one, though, will be a lot more about Amazon.

It started with my brothers, Sean and Kevin. Sean is two years older than I am, Kevin a year and a half younger. We’re all big bearded redheads who played football in high school, had kids, and took jobs in education. And we have similar tastes and senses of humor; as with all siblings, the narcissism of small differences is everything, but we’re pretty compatible in our fandoms. So when my brother Kevin suggested that this year, in lieu of presents, we exchange music playlists, I initially thought there wouldn’t be a problem.

As it turned out, the issue wasn’t about musical taste so much as software choices. Kevin wanted to exchange playlists in Spotify. Sean doesn’t use Spotify; either he listens to CDs or records (yes, still), or fires up iTunes. He only uses one music streaming service, and that’s Amazon’s Prime Music, which he gets for free because he’s a member of Amazon Prime. And it turns out that it’s kind of hard to export playlists into or out of Amazon Prime.

Me, I’m pretty ecumenical when it comes to digital music. I have a big library of MP3s and lossless ALACs I’ve built up over the years. I mostly like Apple Music on my iPhone. I’m a frequent user of and off-and-on subscriber to Spotify, which I like because it works well on a bunch of different machines. And until recently, I loved backing up my library of music and audiobooks to Google Play Music, which let you store a huge amount of audio in a digital locker and play it back just about anywhere (although notably, not an Amazon Echo device). What’s more, I had a copy of FreeYourMusic, an app that converts playlists and other collections between streaming music services, including Spotify and Amazon.

So, since Google Play folded and I was clearly going to be put in the position of converting playlists between Spotify and Amazon for my only two brothers, I thought it was time I gave Amazon Music a whirl. Fortuitously, I’d even gotten an email coupon for a free three-month trial membership to Amazon Music Unlimited, just for select Prime Members. Amazingly, even though I’m a digital media reporter and music lover with a special interest in Amazon, who also has an Amazon Prime membership and is thus eligible for the free-with-subscription Prime Music tier, I had never installed it on a machine or tried it out once.

Initially, though, I was confused. Sean had just told me used “Amazon.” Did he mean Amazon Music Unlimited, Prime Music, purchased MP3s stored in Amazon’s cloud, or even Amazon Music HD, its newer service for audiophiles? Add in the CDs and vinyl records it still sells retail (both under its own name and by way of third-party merchants), and there are a lot of ways to buy music from Amazon.

Consider, too, that podcasts and music videos also fit under the Amazon Music app. Audible sells audiobooks. The overlapping worlds of music and digital audio are a huge and varied market, with lots of short heads and long tails. They require huge amounts of infrastructure to function, and so far have found it difficult to generate enough profits to satisfy all the stakeholders involved.

You need big bucks and a strong negotiating hand to hold out long enough to make a profit from music. Customers want more and more at a lower and lower cost, and musicians and labels are desperate to put food on the table and get themselves noticed. So at this moment, the major players are the technology companies who act as retailers, software developers, and hardware designers all-in-one.

It’s a perfect situation for Amazon. But Apple and Google have strong positions too. Meanwhile, Spotify has so far been able not just to survive but thrive by building stronger relationships with media companies and creators and getting its service on as many devices as possible. It’s very competitive, and whoever can claim the biggest space can make money from their customers in lots of different ways, so Amazon has very good reasons to aggressively try to get my business.

Yet, it’s not clear which service I should sign up for, what app I should download, or how and whether I can import my playlists from another service into Amazon. So there’s some friction here, which is weird for a company devoted to dissolving friction between a customer and their purchase.

Look at the picture above. This is from the Amazon Music app. I’ve just started my trial subscription to Amazon Music Unlimited. (It turned out my brother only had Prime Music, but I didn’t know that yet.) Note that it doesn’t say how much Music Unlimited costs after the trial expires, or note that I can pay monthly or annually, or that these costs are different depending on whether or not I am a Prime Member.

That’s a problem. Amazon’s gotten me to sign up for something—they’ve actually gotten me to agree to be charged monthly after the trial ends—yet I don’t know and can’t see confirmed exactly what I’m on the hook for. That might be good if Amazon’s goal was just to ring me up for this music subscription. But what Amazon really wants, and why it’s offering so much music at such a competitive price, is for me to be a longtime and content Amazon customer, across all its divisions. So I don’t feel like this is a swindle. I think the copywriting and UX are just not very good.

Note also that I’m already being offered/pushed into an additional subscription, to Amazon Music HD. I can see that this offers higher-quality streaming audio, but that doesn’t tell me a lot. I can also here see an actual price, $12.99/month. But I don’t know if that’s in addition to the money I’m spending on Music Unlimited (either $7.99 or $9.99/month depending on whether or not I’m a Prime member), or if $12.99 is the total. (And, actually, it turns out, there are different prices still if you want to sign up for any of the Amazon Musics for a single device like an Amazon Echo (or possibly an Alexa-enabled car stereo) or as many devices as you’d like. And different still if you want a potentially multi-household family plan rather than an individual one. Yikes.)

I don’t know if I can get Music HD without having Music Unlimited; maybe Music HD is the Prime Music plan, but with better audio? I really don’t think I’d want that. I don’t know if I also get podcasts and music videos in HD. I’ve also learned that some of the music in Music HD comes in HD and some comes in Ultra HD? But I can’t really say I fully grasp the difference.

None of this makes me happy. It makes me feel confused and frustrated. (And I’ll say it again; I am neither of my brothers, who are both very smart and technologically savvy, but usually call me when they run into stuff like this. Because I literally do this for a living.)

So, for a while, I ignore the prompt to sign up for Music HD. But it keeps popping up every time I open the app. In fact, Amazon Music defaults to opening whenever your computer starts up, so I see the Music HD nag prompt All. The. Time.

It seems like it could be a good deal. I read reviews on the web from people who really like it. But I’m already stumbling, and I haven’t even started on my brothers’ playlists yet.

Eventually, I do click on the button to sign up for the Music HD trial. What happens? POW! BAM! BOOM!:

The browser within the Amazon Music app, at least at the time I was trying to do this, wasn’t actually supported for the site you’re sent to to upgrade your music subscription or to change or cancel it. I’ve got to admit: that’s hilarious. But it’s maybe less good if you actually want this process to be easy for customers.

(And, indeed, I don’t have a screenshot of this, and can’t find the text after spending too long searching for it online and on my phone, but if memory serves me well, the release notes for a recent update to the Amazon Music app included an upgrade to the built-in browser, quite possibly to address this very issue.)

So, whatever. I copy-and-paste the link from the Amazon Music app into my web browser (Firefox for Mac, if you care) and upgrade to Music HD there. It goes pretty smoothly. I don’t lose the free three months promotion. I do wonder a little bit why I got a three-month promotion for Music Unlimited only to separately get a three-month promotion for Music HD, but maybe that has something to do with different paths depending on whether you’re a Prime subscriber or not or got a particular email promotion. Kind of tough if I were to try to persuade or describe to either of my brothers how to get the same deal, but I get it.

Now, though, I want to figure out exactly what I’m going to pay for these two things once my trials are up. And I want to know how to cancel Music HD if I feel like I don’t need it. So I Google it.

I don’t know why I can’t do this directly from this screen instead:

But I know I can’t.

Eventually, I do manage to find the right portal to cancel Music HD, and I even find out what Music HD is: it’s just Music Unlimited, but in (mostly) high-definition and (sometimes) Ultra High-Definition. There aren’t two separate prices. If you pay for HD, you get Unlimited, i.e., access to a much broader music library than the Prime Music plan, but not vice versa. An extra $5/month (or $50 a year) gets you better audio quality. That’s it.

And here’s the difference between HD and Ultra HD:

HD tracks are 16-bit audio, with a minimum sample rate of 44.1 kHz (16/44.1 is also referred to as CD-quality), and an average bitrate of 850 kbps. Ultra HD tracks have a bit depth of 24 bits, with sample rates ranging from 44.1 kHz up to 192 kHz, and an average bitrate of 3730 kbps.

Not bad. But at this point, I decide to cancel Music HD. My trial isn’t up. I haven’t even listened to any music yet. I just want to see what happens.

Still, this surprised me:

Did you notice what happened there? I see two big problems.

First, it suggests that cancelling my Music HD (now suddenly just called “HD,” no “Music”) trial would also cancel my free trial for Music Unlimited (likewise now just “Unlimited”) and I’d be charged for that subscription right away. At any rate, it doesn’t explicitly say my free trial will continue.

The other thing is that it ups the price! As a Prime member, I’m only supposed to pay $7.99/month for Music Unlimited after my trial ends. $12.99/month is the cost for Music HD. But this button authorizes Amazon to charge me HD money for an Unlimited plan, possibly as soon as immediately.

Suffice to say, I did not press the button.

So what’s going on here? Again, I don’t think Amazon is trying to rip me off. At least not right away. If they’re ripping anyone off, it’s musicians who are getting crappy royalty deals and maybe some subscribers who will sign up for these free trials and promptly forget about Amazon Music altogether as their credit or debit cards are charged in perpetuity.

I think it’s that music and audio more broadly are just not simple businesses. Not any more, if indeed they ever were. And Amazon, like all of us, hasn’t quite yet caught up to that complexity.

There was a certain purity to Apple’s 99 cents a song, $9.99 an album model on iTunes. DRM complicated that, especially once you wanted to put a song on more than one device or share it with somebody close to you. The shift away from carrying dedicated hard drives with headphone jacks in your pocket toward smartphones and the cloud complicated it further. Finally, the media and software industries, not just the music industry, realized that recurring subscriptions for access to a broad library on as many devices as possible served their aims better than competing download-for-download with ripped CDs and torrent files, which could circulate everywhere without a dime changing hands.

Everyone lost a lot, and everyone paid a cost. But eventually, everyone ended up buying in to a model that made sense for this moment in hardware, software, systems architecture, commerce, and culture. Until, at least, it all changes again.

So, what’s the verdict? I actually like Amazon Music a lot. I am much more a music fan than an audiophile, but the HD and Ultra HD tracks sound fantastic, even on my first-generation Echo Show or my tinny little first-gen iPhone SE. On the Sonos speaker downstairs, they sound really, really good. The Unlimited library is very extensive, although you miss some things that are exclusive to other platforms like Tidal or Spotify. The Prime library is much more limited: I eventually sent my brother Sean a playlist of 46 songs, none of them obscure or obviously restricted, and he could only play about 27 of them in Prime Music. He could see the songs in the playlist and was offered a prompt to buy them individually or subscribe to Unlimited. Well. So much for that Christmas present idea.

It also has me using my Echo Show a lot more, a device which, frankly, I’d unplugged for the last year or so when I needed the space on my power strip. I don’t love the constant audio and optional video surveillance, but I do really like having a tidy little boombox across the room that can act as an alarm clock, music and video box, and podcast machine.

Plus, it’s got a voice interface, and I remain a sucker for anything with a slightly different, rapidly improving interface. Especially since I’ve started having trouble typing after my shoulder injury? Voice interfaces have become very appealing.

(For years, I’ve named all of my computing devices (with some exceptions) after characters from the TV show The Wire, but I’d never gotten around to naming my Echo Show. Once I started going through the names of unused characters, it became clear that the Echo Show had to be called “Snoop.”)

And that in turn has me listening to more audiobooks. I also got yet another free trial to Audible (Amazon knows how to turn its screws into us around the holidays), and spent hours searching for different books on which I could spend my two complimentary credits, only to come back to my two original choices: Michelle Obama’s memoir and Barack Obama’s memoir. They’re long, they’re read by charismatic people (both authors), and they’re expensive, but a free Audible credit costs exactly the same for an expensive book as a cheap one, so I always use them on the expensive ones.

I still like Spotify for podcasts, so I set up Alexa to make Amazon Music Unlimited (technically, I guess, Music HD) my preferred service for music but Spotify my preferred choice for podcasts. After the rigmarole I’d had signing up, this turned out to be refreshingly easy.

And actually, I think it’s a good thing that Amazon Music is a little complicated. I don’t think its UX or copywriting should be so muddled, but that’s a different problem. Again, Amazon Music is complicated because Music is complicated. And Audio writ large is even more complicated. It supports a lot of different use cases for a lot of different users operating an impossibly wide range of devices, and that often means you need different plans to do different things. Simplicity here can actually be a curse; it just pisses everybody off.

Consider what Google just did by collapsing Google Play Music into YouTube Music. First of all, yes; what Google had going with two completely different music subscription plans and stores was, if anything, even more confusing than what’s going on with Amazon.

But as an early and avid Google Play Music user, I can tell you, I hated seeing it go. As a person who’s spent a couple decades now thinking and writing about digital media, I understood why it was happening. But as a music fan, I felt screwed over.

I’d trusted a big damn company with my music. It wasn’t Google’s, even if it was their own copy on the cloud they were streaming back to me. It was mine. After years of updating it, even as it saved me from a near-total loss of my music library in an external hard drive disaster, I now had to download my entire enormous catalog over the course of a few nights onto my PC, the only machine I had with hard drive space big enough to hold it.

I worried about my friends to whom I’d recommended Google Play Music, because they had a Chromecast to play music on, or just because it offered so much storage and versatility for free. Did they know the service was shutting down? Were they able to save all their music? Or did their libraries burn down? Was that, in some sense, my fault?

It was a betrayal. I know they’d offered to transfer my library and playlists and even my DRM-free audiobooks over to YouTube Music, which I now had the privilege of paying for every month. But I didn’t care. I was never going to use Google’s music services. They’d lost me.

So had Spotify, whose subsidiary companies in the podcast space were working to bust their media unions, refusing to recognize or negotiate, and seeking to reclassify their biggest stars as independent contractors. After the employees of those companies walked out, I wasn’t interested in paying for their parent company’s services again either. (I even unsubscribed from Bill Simmons’s sports podcast for The Ringer, which, as a man now in his forties who loves NBA basketball… I’d spent a lot of time with that podcast. Didn’t matter. After many shaky steps, this was one too far. Time to go.)

Which, amazingly, gave AmazonI d an opening. Amazon! The labor-friendly, privacy-friendly, user-friendly choice! Even as (maybe especially as) somebody who’s followed this company for years, I never saw it coming.

I don’t even remember where I eventually found this, only that it’s what I had been looking for the entire time, spelled out so clearly it felt like cool water in the desert:

I don’t trust Amazon to do a lot. I don’t buy print books from them any more. I didn’t want them getting tax breaks to build a second headquarters in Queens. I think it’s a good idea for antitrust investigators to take a long look at their practices towards their competitors and partners (who are sometimes the same people). I think their labor practices are too often unfair and dangerous, especially to their warehouse workers and delivery agents, but even their white-collar workforce, who too often get burned out and set aside (with the somewhat better consolation of usually having made some pretty good money). I think our reliance on a small handful of cloud computing companies puts us at serious risk of disaster in the event of an outage, and we need to think seriously about making a lot more of our digital infrastructure genuinely public, not just open to the market. I think counterfeit goods and bad information on Amazon’s marketplace are one of the biggest problems the company has ever had, because they erode the customer’s trust in the most elemental part of their services: an infrastructure to buy and sell stuff using the internet. I keep the camera to my Echo Show turned off and would never buy a Halo. I am just not interested.

But I do still trust Amazon to get my holiday gifts (not books, and not anything sketchy) across the country on time, in good condition, and at a favorable price. I still mostly trust their customer-facing websites to be easy to use and figure out. And I still trust Amazon to be one of the best and most versatile options for buying, renting, and/or streaming digital media. And for now, that definitely includes media and other audio.

Check back with me again in three months.

I was going to add a link roundup, but this email is seriously already long enough. I will write to you all again after the new year. Stay safe, stay alive, and enjoy yourselves.

— Tim