Why We Can’t Trust Subscription Music Services Like Rdio, Rhapsody, Spotify, MOG, etc.

In the post-CD world of music, the challenge is to keep our favorite songs forever even though we have nothing physical to hold and protect.  If your computer crashes or you lose your smart phone, can you recover all your favorite songs you’ve bought over the years?  (Or stolen.)

Digital music is in a total state of chaos.  I have songs in Windows Media Play, iTunes, Google Music, Amazon Cloud Player, iTunes Music Match and I have rights to listen to albums in Rdio, Rhapsody and Spotify, plus I own about 1500+ CDs.  No one site can play all the songs.

My favorite way to listen to music is via Rdio.  Rdio plays on all my computers at home and work.  It plays on my iPod touch, iPad 2, and it plays on my TV/stereo through a Roku box.  However, it doesn’t play all the albums I own, nor out-of-print albums, but it does play millions and millions of songs, so for 90% of what I want it’s excellent.  However, for those favorite songs it doesn’t have, it ruins the whole concept of subscription music.

For example, one of my favorite albums is No Guru No Method No Teacher by Van Morrison.  It’s now out-of-print, and I recently discovered that  when the song “Thanks for the Information” disappeared from my Songs Rated 10 playlist.  I thought I had it on CD, but evidently not.  I did have it on LP, but I got rid of my LPs years ago.

I probably didn’t get it on CD because it was on Rhapsody and Rdio and I got used to it being there, and thought it would always be there.  I was wrong, it’s been pulled.  I just ordered a used copy on Amazon for $10.25 + $2.98 shipping.  I’m sure I could have gone and found a stolen copy, but I’m not into that.  Once I get it I can rip it and put the songs on Amazon and Google.  I’m not renewing iTunes Music Match.

The problem is my favorite way to play my favorite songs is via playlists on Rdio.  Over time some songs disappear from subscription music services because the album goes out-of-print.  I HATE THAT!  I’ve been trusting subscription music services for years, and slowly it’s becoming obvious that if you really love a song and want to play it for the rest of your life you have to buy it.

But buying digital songs is iffy.  I’m trusting Amazon to always preserve the songs I buy from them – but what if Amazon goes out of business or gives up on Amazon Cloud Player?  How long will Amazon, iTunes and Google back up music if you buy it from them?  And what if they don’t sell the songs you want?

I should consider the CD as my master copy for life, but the CD format might not last that much longer.  Is the MP3 any kind of real archival medium?

Because music goes out-of-print and gets removed from Rdio and Rhapsody I’m going to have to change the way I listen to music.   I might need to move my playlists to Amazon Cloud Player (and maybe Google Music) and then use Rdio and Rhapsody as tools to discover music.  When I find a great song I want to listen to the rest of my life, I’m going to have to buy it and put it on Amazon Cloud Player.  I’m paying Amazon $20 a year to store the 20,000 songs I own so I can play them from all my computers and mobile devices.

Or I could stick with Rdio and just let out-of-print songs become forgotten songs.  I wish there was a way to upload out-of-print songs I own to Rdio so I could keep all my songs in one library.  Rdio is far superior to Amazon Cloud Player for managing playlists.  I can’t even find a way to delete a playlist on Amazon Cloud Player.

Why can’t I have all my music in one place where I can play it from all my devices?  Life was so much simpler when I had LPs and all the music I owned was on one bookshelf.  But back in those nostalgic times, I could only play that music in one place.  Now I can play my music anywhere, if I can keep up with all my song files.

JWH – 10/28/12

How To Pay for Music?

David Lowery, of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker wrote “Letter to Emily White at NPR All Thing Songs Consider” last week that got a lot of attention on the net.  The post currently has 533 comments, many of which try to justify stealing music with various self-serving excuses, even after Lowry carefully explained why stealing music is hurting musicians.  Emily White had written “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With” at NPR Music, confessing how she has 11,000 songs on her iPod but never bought more than 15 CDs in her life.  Emily loves music and wants to work in the music business, but confesses she doesn’t pay for music.  There are some fascinating comments for this blog post that’s well worth reading, but basically it comes down to telling hundreds of stories about why people don’t pay for music.

If all these people had their weekly paychecks stolen I wonder if they’d be so willing to admit to stealing other people’s pay?

Is there a solution to this problem?

In another post Lowery shows how it’s quicker to find music at iTunes and Amazon than to find copies to steal, disproving that people steal because it’s convenient.  People steal music because they don’t want to pay.  Lowery also showed that more music is available for sale than to steal, but that doesn’t seem to sway people either.  Most folks just flat out just don’t want to buy music anymore.

Is there anything the record companies can do?  Is there such a thing as music that can’t be stolen?  Before the Internet LPs and cassettes could be copied, but not easily.  The net lets people distribute stolen music easily.  Unless we do away with the Internet it’s doubtful the music industry can stop piracy, even with DRM.  So is this the end of the music industry?

I’ve bought 4 CDs this past month, but that’s a fluke, and one CD, Our Version of Events by Emeli Sandé, I bought two copies, one to give as a gift.  But I primarily listen to Emeli via Rdio ($9.99/month).  I could also listen to her by Rhapsody ($9.99/month) which is my backup streaming music service.  So I’ve paid 4 times for the rights to listen to this one album.  I could also listen to Spotify on my free account.  And if I wanted to take the trouble, I’m sure I could track down a stolen copy.  My point is Rdio is the absolute easiest way to listen to music.  The only reason I bought the CD is because sometimes I want to hear the music played very loud on my big stereo at it’s best sonic version.  But it’s a pain to keep up with CD and to play it.  So I just use Rdio 99% of the time.

emili-sandi

People can pay as little as $4.99 a month to legally listen to most music via Rdio, Rhapsody, Spotify, MOG and other streaming music services on a computer.  So why do people choose to be thieves instead?  I don’t know.  Like Lowery points out, paid for music is far more convenient to use.  They aren’t too cheap to pay $80 a month for a smartphone, but they won’t pay $10 a month to play the music they love on it.

I own two copies of all the Beatles CDs, the old ones and the new re-mastered ones, but I don’t play them because they aren’t on Rdio, and Rdio is too convenient.  People who work so hard to steal music have no idea how easy it is to use legal music.

But there’s a problem with streaming subscription music – some artists don’t feel they pay enough.  And that might be true.  In the comments to Lowery’s post, one person wrote in they were paid $.0091 per stream from Rhapsody and $.0008 from Spotify.  In other words, Rhapsody pays just under a cent per play and Spotify under one tenth of a cent per play.

For Our Version of Events I paid $8.99 for the CD.  That’s just 64.21 cents for my favorite song, “River.”  But that’s the whole cost which includes Amazon’s cut, the record company’s take and Emeli’s royalty.  I don’t know how accurate these streaming play figures are, but it’s enough to give us an idea.

“River” by Emeli Sandé Cost to Buy/Play
Amazon CD 65 cents (whole cost)
Amazon MP3 99 cents (whole cost)
iTunes 129 cents (whole cost)
Rhapsody .91 cents (royalty)
Spotify .08 cents (royalty)

For Emeli to make as much money as whole cost of the CD song, I’d have to play the “River” 71.43 times on Rhapsody or   812.5 times on Spotify.  No wonder artists think Spotify is a rip-off.  If anyone can document the actual payment schemes please post a reply.

I have no idea what Rdio pays per stream, but I’ve been playing the hell out of this song.  I’m sure I’m coming close to the 71.43 figure, meaning for people who love a song it can pay as much or more than buying a CD.

The problem with pay per stream method is songs that don’t get played don’t earn money, whereas CDs buyers do pay for them, even if they don’t listen to them.  Pay per stream is actually more fair, but it’s a big cut in pay to artists used to the CD sales method.  I’ve bought hundreds of CDs I’ve only played once or twice.

I wish all the streaming services would post their stream rates so us music fans could use that knowledge in deciding on which streaming service to use.  I’m about to settle on Rdio and abandon Rhapsody, but if I learned Rdio paid so little as Spotify I’d change my mind.

I don’t know how to make everyone pay for music, but I’m more than willing to pay for subscription streaming music.  $9.99 a month is little enough to be an honest music fan.  I’d be willing to pay more if I knew the artists were getting a better deal.  Even though I still buy CDs, they are very inconvenient to use and I prefer the emerging subscription streaming services.

Other sources about earnings:

JWH – 6/24/12

Sharing Music

Yesterday WordPress informed their bloggers we could add links to Spotify and Rdio to our blog posts and they would be converted into music players.  Great!  I’ve always wanted to review music and let people play it while they read the review.  It’s very hard to describe music in words.  Last night I posted a couple test posts and discovered there’s some real limitations to the endeavor.

I’ve also started a new blog site, Streaming Music, where I will branch off my writing about music. To give you some idea what I can do there I’ve created some tests of embedded music players.

Rdio only played 30 second clips to the people I got to try it, none of which were subscribers to Rdio.  I’m going to try again here and see if I can find some subscribers and see if they hear more than 30 second clips.

You can join Rdio for free and get limited access to their music. You can also join Spotify for free and get quite a bit of free music, but you’ll need to install their software client. Rdio works with a web client.

Spotify won’t play at all unless you have the Spotify client installed.  This is free, but requires people to go off and install the client.  However, Spotify has millions of subscribers, and millions more free users.  And they have users in Europe.

The next downside to the project is people outside of U.S. and Europe can’t use either service.  All the legalities of online borders is a pain to deal with on the Internet where we’re really just one big world.

People have been sharing music on the Internet right from the beginning, but illegally.  For $5 a month you can have legal access to gigantic libraries of music, so subscription music is a new kind of sharing that’s spreading fast.  By WordPress offering linked music players should push this movement further, and hopefully one day I can put a song up to play on my blog and anyone in the world can hear it while they read my post.

If you don’t mind, leave a message and tell me if you can play music from Rdio or Spotify.  Tell me if you only hear 30 second clips or the whole songs.  Tell me if you are a subscriber of either service.  And let me know what country are browsing from.

Spotify

Rdio

Rdio on Roku

I got a Roku 2 XS for Christmas and the first channel I configured after Netflix was Rdio.  Roku is a tiny box that connects to your TV and home network allowing you to watch various “Internet channels” on your TV.  Programmers create apps for the Roku that act like TV channels – some are free, others cost money, like Netflix and Rdio. 

Rdio is a streaming music service with several price levels to use, starting with free, $4.99, $9.99 and $17.99.  You need to be on the $9.99 Rdio Unlimited plan to use it with the Roku.  I love Rdio for streaming music because it has the best web page for managing music, and it has fantastic social networking features for sharing and discovering music.

rsz_rdio_logo

Rdio is also available on mobile phones and tablets if you have the Unlimited plan, so you might think, why listen to music on your television?  Well, if your television is hooked up to a surround sound system to support your home theater it can play music far better than what you can hear through computer speakers or through earbuds.  Most people have no idea how rich music sounds if they’ve always listened to it on earbuds.  Music on a home theater system is like listening to music in the car with a good car stereo system.

Now while the web interface to Rdio is rich and powerful on the computer screen, the Rdio interface on mobile devices and the Roku is severely limited.  You can play your music collection, playlists, and search for songs and albums, or go to the New Releases and listen to new albums.

BUT RDIO ON THE ROKU IS VERY LIMITED IN HOW YOU PLAY SONGS! 

First off there’s no random play.  Basically you see album covers and call them up to play.  You do not even see a list of songs on the album, or even told how many songs are on the album.  All Rdio does is show the first song and gives you three options:  play/pause, next song, previous song.  Now this is fine if you want to put on an album and listen to it, but that’s skips most of Rdio’s wonderful features.

I assume this is Rdio’s first effort and more features will show up on the Roku and mobile devices soon, but here’s a list of critical features I’d like to see much sooner than later:

  • Random play for playlists and albums
  • Show song list for albums with up and down arrows for selecting
  • Show song list for playlists with up and down arrows for selecting
  • Allow us to add album to collection
  • Allow us to add album to queue
  • Allow us to add song to playlists
  • Allow us to create a new playlist
  • Show large photo of album when playing (hey, we’re using 1080p TVs here)

After those very basic requirements are met I’d like to see:

  • All the current social networking features of the web version
  • Wikipedia like info about songs, albums and artists
  • Lyrics to songs (again, we’re combining music with a big screen.  I have a 1080p TV and computer monitor – make the most of it)
  • Allow us to create multiple collections on all devices (this isn’t even on the web version)

Many of these features are missing on my iOS version of Rdio too.  I’m hoping they will also be fixed there too.

Amarok, a music player from the Linux world and KDE, also available for the PC and Mac, has a central window for showing song lyrics and album, artist and song information.  Sitting in front of a TV listening to music sort of demands making use of the large screen don’t you think?  Of course, when I really get into a song I close my eyes.

I know we’re at the beginning of a new era for playing and distributing music.  Right now only MOG and Rdio are available for the Roku, which is the working man’s streaming device.  Rhapsody is on the Sonos, but I can’t afford that system, and besides, it doesn’t have the wonderful melding of music and TV that Rdio and MOG have with the Roku.  (Rhapsody, are you listening?)

I don’t know how many people have Rokus or other streaming music boxes.  Is Rdio available on the Apple TV box?  And I know these services are starting to be built right into TVs and Blu-ray players, but until millions of people see how cool it is to combine TV and streaming music they will not see the amazing potential.

I kid you not, this could be as big as MP3 music players.  Plopping down in front of the big screen and using the clicker to control a music library is brilliant.  I can lay my fat ass body on the couch and with one hand holding the tiny Roku remote and using just one finger, I can call up songs so easily that I went through a dozen new albums in the New Releases section in about 30 minutes.  Of course I didn’t play the whole albums but I play enough to get the feel for them, and if I had had a button to add them to my queue I would have saved three to play later, to give them my full attention.

Rdio has an amazing New Releases page.  Most other subscription services put up a screen or two of new releases each week, usually giving well known artists the promotion.  Rdio just shows what’s coming out from everybody and they have page after page of new releases.  Some of them are pretty crappy, but I often find stuff I like from groups I’ve never heard of, and that’s what its all about for me – discovering new music.  Playing subscription music on TV could be a huge way to promote new groups.

With the current software on the Roku if I want to remember a new album I need to have a pen and paper handy to write down the info so I can go to my computer and process it there.  That’s a drag.

I want Rdio to let us create multiple collections.  I also wish the Queue was a collection too.  Right now if you play an album in the queue it disappears when Rdio goes to the next album in the queue.  I’d rather the finished album stay there until I manually delete it from the queue.  I put stuff in the queue to study.  I’m trying to determine if the songs and albums are worthy of adding to my permanent collection or playlists. 

And that brings up another problem.  As my permanent collection grows it gets harder to find albums.  I want to organize my collection – so I want multiple collections and even sub-collections.  That way I could create a collection called Jazz, and then within it create sub-collections for Bebop, Cool, Big Band, Fusion, etc.

Rdio has tremendous potential, far more than I can even imagine now.  Listening to music ten years from now we’ll all look back and think how primitive these times are.  Politics might be a mess, and the economy is going down the drain, but the future of music looks very bright.

JWH – 12/27/11

Best Revenue Model for Musicians: Sell or Stream?

I’ve bought thousands of LPs and CDs in my life, and a surprising number of them I only played once.  Now I rent music from Rhapsody and Rdio – total cost $15 a month.  In my heyday of buying CDs, I’d usually spend 10x that or more per month.  I never got into stealing music.  I want the artists and record producers to make their money like they deserve.  However, it’s doubtful I’ll ever go back to buying CDs, and since I’ve acquired the streaming music habit, I have no desire to go back to buying music at all.

The question I’d like to know is:  Can the artists and producers make as much money by streaming as they do by selling?  Finding out about revenue from various music distribution sources is difficult, but there are some clues.

Problem #1 – Artists Used To Make a Lot of Money Off of Crappy Songs?

If I buy a CD for $15 and whether I play it once or a million times, the musicians and producers earn the same amount of money.  If I go to iTunes and sample an album and buy one song I like for $1.29, again it doesn’t matter how many times I play the song, they’ve gotten their money.

Now if I go to Rhapsody and play an album or song, the artist and their record company will get a tiny payment, I assume.  Now if I find one song that I love so much I play it 20 times a day for the entire month, that song should theoretically pay the creators of that song more money for my extra love.  But does it pay the music people enough?  Evidently not, according to The Black Keys, who have pulled their new album from streaming services.

I’m pretty sure selling CDs was the best way of making the most money.  Music lovers had to buy everything pretty much on faith.  The money was up front.  Money from streaming comes after fans play the songs.

Problem #2 – Can Streaming Succeed if Too Many Groups Pull Their Catalogs?

Artists and record producers want to sell albums.  But let’s be honest, how many albums in your collection are ones you like to play straight through and love all the songs?  Or even half the songs?  Or even one song?  Music lovers want to find songs push their music loving brain cells into ecstasy.  But we don’t know which songs do that until we play the album.  In the old days you bought a CD and rushed home hoping to find at least one, and hopefully several great songs on an album.   I’m through with that.  Those days are over.  I’ve been burned too many times.  Streaming music lets me try out all the albums I want, and the songs I love get added to playlists.  Life is easy, but will it last?

If music producers start pulling out of deals with the streaming music services it won’t.  Now we could see a tiered delivery service like we see for movies and DVDs.  Netflix is a cheap all you can eat service, but content comes there last.  This might work for streaming music, where albums go on sale for a period of time before they go to streaming.  I can dig that, but then I’m old and patient.

To get some idea what streaming music does offer, read “Spotify vs. Rdio: Who Has The Exclusives?” over at Wired.  I wished Rhapsody had an API to let it be compared too because I feel from just daily use Rhapsody has the best catalog.  What Wired did was look up 5,000 albums at both services to see which had the most.  Rdio was the winner to me, but Spotify had some much loved exclusives.

It also revealed the holdout groups for streaming music:  The Beatles, King Crimson, AC/DC, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin and Frank Zappa – but hell, I’ve already bought those, some more than once, some even three times.  Streaming music still has millions of albums, so for $4.99-$9.99 it’s a great deal.  But, how many groups have to pull their catalogs before people give up on streaming music?

Problem #3 – Can Artists Make Money Only On How Often a Song is Played?

To make money on streaming music services artists must create songs people want to play and play and play.   If you create an album with 10 songs and people only play one of them, then 9 songs won’t be earning revenue.  Streaming is a dog eat dog world of music competition.  Hit songs will make money.  But will they make the same kind of money as selling hit songs?  I don’t know, and I can’t find out.

Problem #4 – Can the Music Industry Convince People to Buy Music Again

Because of stealing sharing songs free on the Internet, a whole generation feel music should be free.  The convenience of streaming makes getting music for $5-10 a month far easier than stealing, so it might be a viable revenue stream, but can it compete with convincing people to buy music again?  And now that I’ve spent years using streaming music, I don’t know if I’d want to go back to buying music.  But then I’ve got 18,000+ songs I’ve already bought and I’m 60 years old, so I could coast awhile without buying.  If I did go back to buying music I’d buy single songs at Amazon and hope Amazon stays in business for the rest of my life.

Problem #5 – What Happens if Most Fans Go With Streaming?

Even though I own the Beatles, Frank Zappa, Eagles and others on CDs, I no longer play their music.  I went out and bought all the remastered Beatles CDs when they came out and then didn’t even play them.  Streaming music is too convenient and great.  I just don’t mess with my collection anymore.  I recently uploaded it to Google Music, but I don’t play it.  Spotify will call up my library when it can’t find it in theirs, and that’s cool, but I wished Rhapsody and Rdio did that.  I want all my music in one place – in one search engine, and I want it in the cloud, so my playlists work from any computer or mobile device.

Sorry Black Keys, but I’m not going to buy your new album.  Leaving Rhapsody and Rdio doesn’t make me want to go buy your album.  My world of music is now streaming.  If the song ain’t there it ain’t anywhere, at least in my musical reality.

Sources of Streaming Music News and Reviews

JWH – 12/14/11

Spotify versus Rdio, MOG, Napster and Rhapsody

[This review of Spotify is essentially part 2 of my review of MOG v. Napster v. Rdio v. Rhapsody.]

Spotify is finally here and I got my invite to use the free portion of the service, which is ad supported for streaming millions of songs through a computer.  Spotify also offers two other pricing options.  For $4.99 you can get unlimited computer streaming without commercials, and for $9.99 get unlimited computer streaming and on-the-go music for your smartphone or iPod.

Spotify requires downloading and installing a client to use, unlike all the other services that can work through the web.  Think of the client as a customized browser just for music.

My first impression is Spotify is BLAZINGLY fast!  Second, the sound quality is excellent with 320kbps streams.  Third, without me noticing it, Spotify indexed all the songs on my computer and added them to their search engine.  One of the first things I did was search for music I know that’s not on the other services, and was deceptively blown away when Spotify started playing Willis Alan Ramsey’s legendary out-of-print CD.  It wasn’t until after I searched on Nanci Griffith’s “Daddy Said” and it started playing that I realized I was playing my own songs.  I was disappointed that Spotify’s library wasn’t truly unlimited, but this is a very cool feature.  With one search engine I can play Spotify’s library of 15 million songs and my library of 18,000+ songs.

Spotify works with a client that must be installed on your computer – and for disciples of Steve Jobs, yes, there is a Mac client.  If you have an iPhone or Android smartphone, and you’re willing to pay the $9.99/month Premium fee you can sync your Spotify playlists to play offline.  If you’re online (Wi-Fi or 3G/4G) you can stream the entire site.  Users of the Free and $4.99 Unlimited plan can use the Spotify client to load your personally owned songs to your mobile phone or iPod.  What this means is Spotify wants to replace Windows Media Player or iTunes to manage your music – but it doesn’t require any conversion – Spotify just indexed my songs immediately after installing.

The client for Spotify is streamlined and basic, with a dark background – it reminds me of sleek basic version of iTunes.  Spotify is rather plain looking compared to Rdio my current favorite streaming music service, and Rhapsody, my longtime favorite.  Those sites love to show lots of album covers, but Spotify doesn’t do that.  It has two areas of the client where random visual ads pop up, but they hardly bother me, and I hate ads.  One reason why they don’t bother me is who looks at the client when they are playing music?  But on the other hand there are audio ads!!!  Now that might take some getting used to.

Having an ad support site means millions of people can try subscription music and discover why spending $4.99-$9.99 a month for subscription music is one of the most fantastic bargains on Earth right now.  I can even get my wife and other friends that refuse to pay for music hooked on Spotify.

I’m playing Colbie Caillat’s new album All of You while I write this review and so far I’ve had three commercial interruptions between songs.  The ads so far seem to be music related spots, and the audio ads have been either for Spotify Premium or other album artists – nothing as offensive as AM radio ads – so far.

Spotify does have social features but not wonderfully integrated like Rdio.  They seem to depend on Facebook or Twitter, although you can get the URL of any album, song or playlist and send it to your friends who have Spotify and they can then play what you want them to hear.  I didn’t test the Facebook feature because I hate sharing on Facebook.  I’m afraid Spotify would annoy my friends like Farmville fanatics with their sharing.

Spotify is slick in its simplicity.  Here’s what it’s Chart’s list page looks like, that show the Top 100 Songs and Albums.  [Try clicking on the images to see larger views.]

Spotify

Notice the ad on the right.  Now here’s what the album page looks like:

Spotify-Album

And here’s how Spotify shows my Bob Dylan albums.

Spotify-LocalSong

Go to http://spotify.com and request free invite.  Try out the service.  If you’ve never used a subscription music service Spotify is a great introduction.  But do yourself a favor if you like it, spend $4.99 and try out http://rdio.com for a month.  Read my review of the four other top music subscription services.  They each have unique features that make them all worthy considerations.  At the very minimum, if you love music get the free version of Spotify.  If I wasn’t so attached to Rdio right now I would buy the Unlimited version of Spotify, and I might still, it’s a very slick and FAST music player.

The reason why I’m sticking to Rdio is I have two friends at work that use it too, and the social features are addictive.  For so long music has become a solitary pursuit with people plugging in and tuning out.  Now, music is becoming social again.  I have great nostalgia for when I was growing up and me and my friends would get together and play albums.  No one seems to do that anymore.  Well, with subscription music services you can, just not together in the same room.

A third co-worker is definitely going to join Rdio, and a fourth is considering it.  That kind of momentum is sealing my allegiance to Rdio.  But subscription music is just catching on and Spotify might be the service to join, especially if you have a lot of music buddies on Facebook.

To sum up the comparisons I’d say MOG is a top consideration if you want the most efficient way to make playlists and you want to play music through your Roku.  Napster is your choice if you love playing songs from Billboard charts that go back to the 1950s.  Rhapsody might have the widest selection of songs, and it seems to have the most supplemental information and it has a great blog.  Spotify is great for two reasons.  First, there’s a free version, so everyone can use it.  Second, it’s perfect for people who have large personal collections of MP3s because Spotify integrates its collection with yours seamlessly.  Finally, I believe Rdio is best for people who like to share music with real world friends and discover new music by social networking with online friends.

I imagine all of these services will evolve quickly and develop new features and copy the best features of their competitors.  I believe streaming music is the future of music distribution and the end of owning music – except for true collectors who like to fill their houses with 78s, 45s, LPs and CDs.

JWH – 7/21/11

Fans Wanted!

We live in a world where fans are in high demand.  There is so much neglected art that needs to be discovered, and your duty as a fan is to discover new work and share it.  It’s how social networking works.

I was looking at the new album releases in Rdio and I noticed that many of the albums had not been listened to all all.  They had 0 plays, and thus no fans.  That made me feel sad for those artists.  Lady Gaga has legions of fans, and I’m not saying she doesn’t deserve her fans, but I think some of her devoted following should spend some of their time listening to new artists who have none.  Consider it a form of artistic charity.  It takes so little to become a patron of the arts, just love and attention.

It’s amazing how many new albums come out every week.  And if you subscribe to a subscription music service you can listen to them all for just $4.99 a month.  So, it would cost you almost nothing to be generous and play a few albums that are going without listeners.  We are all too addicted to success.  We want to hear the top albums of the week – but what if some of those CDs that never make it even to the bottom of a chart have good tunes on them?  Don’t they deserve to be heard?

And think about all those selfish baby boomers who play the same old hits from the sixties over and over again.  Wouldn’t they benefit from hearing something new?  So I say to you, become a fan of some up-and-coming band or singer.  I’m listening to Costello Music by The Fratellis who’ve gotten 11,664 plays on Rdio.  They really don’t seem all that different from a British Invasion band in the 60s.  But eleven thousand plays means they have a lot of fans.  There are 50+ pages of new CDs on Rdio and most of them have no plays at all.

It used to be you had to buy albums to become a fan, but that’s no longer true.  For $4.99 a month you can listen to dozens of new albums every week from one of many subscription music services.  And you might be surprised by the rewards of becoming a fan and discovering a new group.  I’m listening to The Naked and Famous new album, Passive Me, Aggressive You, and it makes me feel young again.  It has a wonderful 80s pop feel to it, so it’s both nostalgic and energetic.  It’s more popular than the last album, with 132,155 plays.  They are famous by Rdio standards, but they should become more famous.

I’m now listening to a very nice song now, “One Hand Loves the Other” by Bodies of Water off of Twist Again.  It reminds me of Judy Collins.  It’s only had 256 listeners.  It deserves way more fans than that.  As I page through the new releases I find albums with fewer and fewer listeners.  Natalie Walker only has 113 for her album Spark.  If you’re an old fart baby boomer and don’t like modern pop like Lady Gaga you might find Walker worthy of your fan attention.

With little effort I found three very enjoyable albums tonight by people I never heard before.  In the old days of CDs that would have cost me $45-55, but it’s just part of my $4.99 monthly fee on Rdio.  I figure if I’m going to get such a bargain I have to do my part and try several new CDs every week and help promote new artists.  Because Rdio is built around social networking, playing an album encourages other people to play it too.  Playing a song produces ripples.  If I play an album enough other people in my network will see it and maybe give it a try too.  And then people in their network will see them playing, and hopefully we help the artist find more fans.

I like myself better when I’m discovering new music.  I still love my old favorites songs that I’ve been playing for almost fifty years, but I don’t want to be trapped in my past.  Finding new music makes me feel younger.  I know I’m not, but my mind feels younger as long as I’m still discover new art.  There are rewards to be a new music fan.

JWH – 6/21/11

MOG v. Napster v. Rdio v. Rhapsody

Owning music is so 20th century.

Subscription music is renting music by the month.  If you are a casual music listener subscription music isn’t for you.  If you are addicted to music, subscription music lets you listen to most of the new albums that come out each week for a very low monthly fee.  Every music friend that I’ve talked into subscribing to music has said, “This is fantastic, I wished I had discovered it sooner.”  Most music fans don’t like the concept of renting music – but that’s how they feel before they try it.  After they subscribe they worry that concept will fail and heaven forbid, they have to go back to the old way of buying music.

Imagine being given a whole music store for your birthday, and not some dinky music section like you see in Target, but a music store as big as a Macy’s, with hundreds of thousands of albums.  What songs do you play first?  That’s what it’s like to subscribe to a music streaming service.  You’ve got millions of songs, so how to you live with so many?  First, you have to pick which subscription music company you want to join.

Picking a Service

There’s at least six subscription music services now in the U.S., with more on the way.  I’ve picked four to review.  I’ve been a subscriber to Rhapsody for years, but I’ve joined MOG, Napster and Rdio to make comparisons for this review, and to consider which service I want to go with in the future.  All these services offer free trials, but the subscription rates are so cheap it doesn’t hurt to try them out for a month or two.

Check out their web pages and look at these intro videos.

Price

Here’s the thing, if you’re a music lover you’ll want to share music with your friends, and you will more than likely want to subscribe to the same subscription music service as your buds because of the social functions.  So the very first feature to consider is price – can everyone afford it.

There are two modes of listening, either at the computer, or on a mobile device.  Bizarrely, these companies charge more if you listen on a carry around device with a tinny sound rather than a big computer you can connect to stereo speakers and blast away your songs in all their sonic glory.

Most people will want the iPhone/Android option, but if you’re poor or cheap, try the computer only option to just test the waters.  And don’t think you have to listen at your computer.  You can run a wire from your laptop to your stereo system, or you can get a digital media server that bypasses the computer and acts like another component in your stereo cabinet.

You listen to the same songs, so why do they charge more for hearing it on a phone?  That’s just weird.  I hope the price difference goes away.

Streaming to the computer can include hooking it up to stereo systems, and digital media centers like Roku and Sonos boxes.  However, MOG and Napster  lets you use a Roku/Sonos with the $4.99 plan, but Rdio requires subscribing to their $9.99 plan, as does Rhapsody for Sonos, but then it doesn’t offer a $4.99 plan.

$4.99/mo
computer
$9.99/mo
computer + 1 mobile
$14.99/mo
computer + 3 mobile
  • MOG
  • Rdio
  • Napster
  • MOG
  • Rdio
  • Napster
  • Rhapsody
  • Rhapsody

Napster does off deep discounts if pay by the year, which brings down the monthly cost to $4.17 for computers and $8.00 a month for computers and 1 mobile.  I think a fairer pricing would be per login, no matter which device you used.  Since I seldom listen on my iPod touch, I’m actually over-paying for Rhapsody, so I’m thinking of stepping down to a $4.99 plan at another service – except that the next consideration is number of songs in the library.

By the way, you can only be logged in from one location.  If you’re married, Rhapsody’s family plan is worth considering.

Size of Library

The next big consideration is the size of the library.  All these services say they have 10-11 million songs, but they don’t seem to have the same exact 10-11 million songs.  Apple claims to have 18 million songs in its library of music for sale. No service streams The Beatles or Led Zeppelin, or a handful of other artists that refuse to make license deals, but for the most part, anything new you see on sale each week is available.  I have found Rhapsody has the most, but that’s perceptual.  I tend to think over time all the services end up signing agreements with all the same labels and music distributors, so as the concept of subscription music catches on this won’t be an issue.  I don’t have trouble finding music to play, I have trouble organizing which of those millions of songs I do want to play.  But for right now, Rhapsody get the A for having the most.

Playlists

I think MOG is the clear winner when it comes to creating play lists.  Look at this:

Rdio comes in second for playlist creation ease of use.  You can create a playlist right on the playlist page with a search box that allows you to click on the return list to add a song to the list, but the MOG way of creating playlists is just better.  You can even play a song from the search results to verify you’ve got the right version.

Napster and Rhapsody creates playlists in a roundabout way.  You find the song, and then click on a button to add it to a playlist.  In other words, you have to be on the album page or on playlist to add the song.  That requires a lot of paging around to build a new list.  MOG gets the gold star here, and Rdio gets a silver.

Following Users and Social Networking

There’s one feature where Rdio shines – you can follow other users, seeing what they are playing, adding to their collection, syncing to their phones.  You can play their playlists.  This is great for meeting other music lovers, or even better if you can get your real life music friends to join Rdio.  It’s like Facebook for music fans.  This is a huge selling point for Rdio.  Right now three of us at work are Rdio members.

Rdio further enhances this feature with your home page.  It shows the most played albums from your collection, or from the friends you follow, or from all of Rdio.  I can’t emphasis enough the importance of this feature.  Ever since the development of the Sony Walkman the evolution of music has been towards private listening.  I wrote a post years ago called, “Why Has Listening to Music Become as Solitary as Masturbation?”  The following other users counters that trend making music social again.  Sadly, only Rdio has it, and its this feature more than anything that will make me pick Rdio in the end.

I’m always looking for new music, and I love finding great songs. To me a great song is one that takes me two weeks of constant playing before I get tired of hearing it. I used to buy a lot of dud LPs and CDs trying to find those great songs. Now the most efficient method is to listen to other people’s playlists. People love to play disc jockey and create public playlists, so it’s just a matter of finding people with similar tastes, or finding playlists that already have a few songs you love and a bunch of songs you’ve never heard.

When it comes to social playlists I think Rdio is first, and MOG is second. Rhapsody and Napster aren’t in the running.

Virtual Collection

Having access to millions of songs sounds like music nirvana, but it has its drawbacks.  Unless you have a photographic memory to remember groups, albums and songs you love it’s difficult to keep up.  The solution is the Collection concept.  You tag songs and albums you like and they get listed separately as your personal library of music.  If you already have a library of music on your computer, Rdio will look at it and tag those albums for your Collection.  That’s handy for some people, but I have 1,500 CDs and I didn’t want them all in my Rdio collection.  I’ve chosen to rebuild my virtual collection by what I like now.

By combining your collection with playlists you build up a database of music you love.

Handling Music You Already Own

This is the weakest area for subscription music.  Rhapsody has a client for Windows that competes with Windows Media Player for features.  I can blend my MP3 library with Rhapsody collection in the desktop client, but this is a messy solution.  So I keep my MP3s in Windows Media Player.  My music and Rhapsody’s music.  If I can’t find it on Rhapsody I have to switch to Windows Media Player and do another search.  I don’t like this solution.  This is why I had such high hopes for Apple.  Mixing a subscription streaming music service with their Music Match cloud service could have solved this problem.

The absolute ideal would be if these services would rip your out-of-print CDs and add them to your virtual library so you never had to switch between two players to hear all your music.

So far none of the four services I’m reviewing have talked about creating a cloud library for personally owned music.  If I put my OOP CDs in the Amazon or Google cloud I’ll have just about everything I want in two places that can stream to any device.

Music goes out of print, and when it does, it disappears from these music services.  This might change in the future, but basically these services are licensing music that somebody is selling somewhere.  If the music is not for sale online or in stores, it doesn’t get license and thus not available to stream.  But not ever song for sale is licensed for use in a subscription music service.  Surprisingly, more and more are.  I think we’re evolving away from owning music.  Owning makes sense when music is on a physical medium, but it doesn’t make sense when it’s digital.

I have lots of old CDs that aren’t available for sale or on subscription services.  They are out of print, like rare books.  My solution so far is just not to play them very often.  Rhapsody is so easy to use that getting out a CD or even calling it up on Windows Media Player is a pain, so I think the cloud music storage concept is great for now.

Until all music is available for renting, some music needs to be owned.  You’ll have two systems to maintain.  Your rental library and your cloud library, or if you collect physical music, your collects of 78s, 45, LPs, CDs, cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes and 8-tracks.  And I tend to think even the people who love physical media music will want to convert their collection to the cloud to make it easier to play.

Sound Quality

Right now MOG and Rdio stream at 256 – 320 kbps.  This may or may not be higher bitrates than Rhapsody and Napster who reported 192 and 128 kbps in the past.  Getting such details is hard, and all the services are evolving.  Apple says it will use 256kbps for it’s Music Match service, so I tend to think that will become the minimum standard.  Depending on how fancy your computer speakers are, or how good your stereo system is, this music sounds very good.  It’s not as good as a CD played loud with deep concentrated listening, but it will do.

All the services downgrade the bitrate to 64-128kbps for mobile devices, but some of them allow users to request the full bitrate.

I think quality is pretty much a wash for comparing the four services.  And I expect that music quality will improve over time too, but you won’t have to buy all your favorite albums again.

Mobile  Device Use

Here’s another features that’s quickly becoming a wash as each service updates their apps for iOS and Android devices, and even Blackberry phones.  You can stream or download albums to play offline.  At first these companies provided a subset of features for their mobile users, but that’s changed.  Now you can pretty much play what you want limited by the restrictions of your data plan.  I find it better to download playlists to my device for songs I like to regularly play, and to stream albums I want to try out.

All these services have features in their apps that let you download while connected with WiFi, and play offline to avoid data plan expenses.

I find it damn annoying that these services charge double to listen on a smartphone.  A smartphone is just another computer.

Rhapsody and Napster do support some MP3 players, so that’s  a plus for them.

Streaming Media Player Support

Sonos, the Cadillac of household streaming digital media supports all four of these services.  Roku, the Chevy of such services does offer MOG and Rdio, and I hope they offer the other two in the future.  MOG has also made plans to integrated into TVs, Blu-ray players and cars.  What this will mean is your HDTV, which people often connect to good sound systems, will become a streaming music player.  This beats the crap out of Apple TV as a music player.  Just imagine a TV with MOG and Netflix, what a combo that will be!

I have a DIY home theater PC hooked up to my HD TV and stereo, so I can stream music from all four services, but I’m tempted to get a Roku to simplify my movie and music streaming.  Sony is setting up a streaming service for all its devices called Qriocity, so if you have a Sony TV, Playstation or PSP, they might be worth considering.

MOG lets you play through the Roku at the $4.99 subscription price, but Rdio requires the $9.99 sub.  But when you think you get nearly all new music for $9.99 a month, that’s a fantastic deal.

Rhapsody made early deals with MP3 players and phone companies to integrate it’s services, but it’s obvious that the TV, smartphone, tablet and computer are the standard devices people use every day, so as streaming music/video becomes better and common, we’ll probably see DVD/Blu-Ray players disappear, as well as dedicated MP3 players, so streaming music services need to target TVs/Computers/Tablets/Smartphones.  This might also signal the end of streaming boxes like Roku and Sonos.  So when you buy your next TV make sure it’s Internet ready with lots of streaming services.

[Update:  I've since tested MOG with a Roku, and a friend has tested Rdio with one too, and our consensus is the Roku is not a good music player.  If you have a Roku and want to play a playlist or try out an album its okay, but we would never use a Roku for a primary interface to a subscription music service.]

Web Interface

As TVs and smartphone apps take over streaming video and music functions, people will probably play less music from the computer, but that’s a shame, because the web designers are getting better and better at presenting music graphically.  Rdio and the new beta of Rhapsody have beautiful web interfaces for hunting finding, playing, sharing and studying music.

A good web interface also determines how easy it is to play music at work or home while you are sitting a computer, which is where I listen to 99% of my music.

The new Rhapsody beta interface and Rdio let you stay in one window, but Napster and MOG want to break out into a second player window.  Rdio and Rhapsody have desktop clients, but Rdio’s desktop client is mainly a little breakout window like MOG and Napster uses.

But Rdio beats Rhapsody when it comes to social networking.  Each have tabs on the album page, but Rhapsody only has Tracks and Similar Albums.  Rdio has Album, Reviews, Collections, Listeners, Playlists.  Those last three tabs let me find other people who also love the album, which will possibly lead to finding new songs to like.

Rdio also lets me know that Blonde on Blonde has been playing 11,431 times by other members.  I love statistics, so that makes another reason to be partial to Rdio.

In terms of finding albums the trend seems to towards showing ever larger photos of the album covers, which is nice to look at, but if you’re looking at an artist with lots of albums, it makes it hard to find a particular one.

In terms of the web design I give Rhapsody the prize for finding albums, but Rdio the gold ring for social networking.

Time Travel

I love time lines.  I’d love to be able to put in a month and year and hear the songs and albums that came out during that time.  Or give a date range, or year, or year and season.  Napster does not do that exactly, but it does offer Billboard Charts.  For the Billboard 200 Albums you can go back to any season until 1966, for the Hot 100 Tracks to any season back to 1955.  That’s pretty cool.  Napster is my least favorite service, but this one feature makes me want to keep it.

Unfortunately, Napster does irritating things with these lists, like substituting re-recordings, live cuts, or Karaoke versions, for when they don’t have rights to a song.  That sucks.  I would prefer they just gray the song out and add OOP (out-of-print) by the title.  That would be an interesting feature in itself because we’d know how many hit songs have gone out of print.  I’d rather not hear Karaoke Beatles because the band has been buttholes about licensing their music.

Now I know this is a tremendous wish to ask for, but I wished the photos showed the covers of the original single sleeve or album sleeve.  These streaming music services could be great resources for collecting music.

Everything In Print

There’s no technical reason for not offering every album ever published.  It’s all about legal issues, copyright, marketing issues, etc.  But as more people start listening to subscription music it will cause music not in the system to be forgotten, especially as older music fans die off.  If streaming music services offered everything that’s ever been published then that would be the Paradise of Music, but I doubt that will happen any time soon.

Last Call for Albums Going Out of Print

Right now when an album goes out of print it just disappears and any reference to a song in a playlist gets grayed out.  What I wished is for these services to give a last call notice before this happens and let us decide if we want to buy the CD or MP3 album, and move that to a cloud music site for lifetime storage.  Again, another reason for music subscription services to offer cloud music storage – the synergy would be so great.

Artist Bibliography Listing

In addition to a album cover listing, I wished we had a bibliographic view that listed all the artist’s work in a list without photos in year order, with links to albums that the service has, and grayed out for out of print albums.  I’d especially like to have original release date and product number.  When an album is rerelease I’d want it relisted with a new product number and date.  I’d want this feature to provide all the information that the most rabid music collector would use.

Original Reviews

Now this might be another pie-in-the-sky wish, but it would be fantastic if these services could provide reviews from periodicals of the time the music original came out.  I have the complete Rolling Stone on DVD, so I don’t see why MOG, Napster, Rdio and Rhapsody couldn’t license rights to link to related material from all the music magazines of the times.  Or at least replicate Wikipedia entries.

Other Reading

I have found several good articles comparing these various services.

JWH – 6/16/11

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