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Could Music Breathe Life Into Google+?

New Google service integrated with struggling social network

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For the past few weeks, the “Google+ is a ghost town” meme has haunted the new social networking site. But maybe the search giant has finally found the hook to draw eyeballs to its floundering Facebook alternative: free music.

At a Los Angeles event Wednesday afternoon, the company launched its widely anticipated digital music hub, Google Music, which evolved out of the Music Beta cloud service Google launched in May. The new product not only offers storage and streaming services, but an iTunes-like digital marketplace for purchasing and discovering songs.

In its announcement, the company touted the attributes of the new music service—more than 13 million music tracks from about 1,000 major and independent record labels, including big guns EMI, Universal, and Sony (not Warner Music Group, by the way). But one of the key takeaways was what Google hopes the new site could ultimately do for its fledgling social network.

Once someone makes a purchase on Google Music, he or she can give Google+ friends a full listen to a track, or even an album, for free.

“We think this social feature has the potential to really transform purchasing behavior,” Zahavah Levine, Google’s director of content partnerships for Android, said at the launch event Wednesday.

For the music labels, social sharing provides the kind of discovery process consumers no longer get in music stores, Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin says. “They’re hoping that the social driver leads to discovery, which leads to purchases,” he says.

And for Google, in addition to driving downloads and streaming, the social tie-in could finally give Google+ a much-needed lift.

“One of the ways Facebook got to where it is today is through gaming,” says Paul Verna, a senior analyst with eMarketer. “They see music as a similar hook. It’s legitimate to expect that this kind of music service could help Google+ in a similar way that social gaming helped Facebook.”

Google Music could also be the connective tissue that finally helps other innovative but underexercised Google products gain some traction.

“They’re hoping that Google Music is one of those things that gets people to say, ‘Now I’ll set up a Google Wallet account or a Google+ account,’” says Bajarin.

They’ll still need to differentiate the service from Apple’s iTunes and Amazon, but Google’s announcement that it would offer exclusive free content from artists like Coldplay, Rolling Stones, and Busta Rhymes is a good start, Bajarin says.

Beyond integrating with Google+, the new music service also leverages Android Market and YouTube by letting independent artists sell their tracks through an artist hub on Google Music and alongside their YouTube channels. And the service also builds on the success of Google’s Android mobile operating system, which the company says is now running on 200 million devices worldwide.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst with Enderle Group, says the synergy reflected in the announcement may reveal the influence of a new Google that's thinking more like one unified company instead of a group of scattered products.

“It strengthens Google+, Android, and YouTube," he says. "This music app is actually tying together a series of properties, and this is certainly the first time I've seen them do this this broadly."