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

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

Why is Apple Killing Lala?

I love Lala, the online music service, and it grieves me that Apple is shutting it down.  I’m not sure how many people love Lala too, but there were three of us in my office.  I get up every morning and put on Lala, and I go to work and put on Lala, and when I come home I put on Lala.  I’m playing Lala as I write this essay.  I’ve been listening to music since the 1950s when my first source of songs was my Dad’s 55 Pontiac’s push button radio, and Lala has been the best system I’ve ever found for playing music.  I’ve been seeking song finding Nirvana for over fifty years.

If you haven’t lived with Lala you won’t know what you’re missing.  Apple is renowned for innovative technology, and when I first heard it bought Lala, I figured it knew a good thing when it saw it, and maybe Apple just wanted to make iTunes the perfect killer app.  But it looks now like iTunes is a different kind of killer app.  The best gossip I can find suggests Apple merely bought Lala for quick access to its cloud music technology.  That’s like killing a person for their kidneys.  Or was Lala music sales model really a threat to iTunes?

Most of the news stories about Apple shutting down Lala didn’t spend any time mourning Lala.  Anything Apple does is big news, but that’s all.  I just don’t think people know how cool Lala really is, and I want praise Lala before its forgotten, and maybe explain why Apple is killing it off.

It’s all about ease of use.  Lala is far easier to use than iTunes, far cheaper, and even more important, it’s far more exciting for finding new music and sharing that excitement with other music lovers.  All is this is much easier on Lala, I kid you not.  On Lala you can play any song or album for free once.  When the new albums come out on Tuesday you can play them all on Lala for free.  (Or could.)  How fantastic is that?  See an album with a neat cover, well give it a try.  See an album with a funny name, give it a play.  Remember flipping through bins of albums wondering what the music was like from looking at the album covers.  Well, with Lala, it was only a matter of taking the time to try them.

But even more important than that, was how cheap it is to buy web songs on Lala.  A dime a song and you can play it forever, or until a giant corporation comes along and stomps Lala.  I’d load up my Lala wallet with $20 and whenever I heard a song I like I hit the Add Song button, and ten cents would disappear from my wallet.  If I really loved the song I’d click another button and add it to a play list.  The year I’ve been a member of Lala meant collecting just the songs I loved and making playlists.  I could play my friends playlists and not spend a cent.  I could play stranger’s playlists for the same great price.  But if I found a song I loved, it was one click, one dime, and it was mine to keep playing.  And I never had to worry about backing my songs up, or finding the song in iTunes, or in Windows Media, or on which computer, or on a shelf, or where I left that CD.  Lala was perfect for keeping my songs organized. 

Like I said, ease of use is the key factor here.  I own about 1,500 CDs, and I have them ripped to 18,000+ songs in my Windows Media library, but it’s far easier to use Lala.  I also subscribe to Rhapsody and have access to millions of songs.  But I’d rather use Lala.  In fact, it was easier to pay Lala ten cents for songs I already owned than play them somewhere else.  Hell, Lala was even willing to give me credit and link my 18,000 songs to my Lala library, but I didn’t want to do that because I loved Lala and I wanted to give it money and I didn’t want my Lala library cluttered up with thousands of songs I didn’t want to play.

Damn you Apple!!!  I’m playing Lala right now and Laura Bell Bundy started singing “Please” and I went to add it to my collection, but the Add Song button is gone.  Luckily I didn’t ditch Rhapsody when it came up for yearly renewal this month.  Now I’ve got to figure out how to configure it to be easier to use.  Having unlimited access to millions of songs sounds great, but it takes work to manage them.  Lala is great at managing my library.  I had already paid Rhapsody and could play the same songs there as I was paying again on Lala for ten cents a song, and I was more than willing to spend my money again on Lala because it was so easy to use, and because Lala is so great at sharing.

Whenever I discover a song I love all I had to do was hit the Share button and send it to my friends.  And they could play it once for free, or add it to their collection for a measly dime.  And that’s a great bonding experience.  By the way, thanks Apple, you are at least letting me replay songs in my month of mourning without taking my dime.  I would add “Please” to my Songs Rated 10 playlist, but that button is gone too.  I’m playing it for the third time in a row.  Steve Jobs, why are you taking this all away from me?  Is it greed?  Must you destroy anything that is better than something you invented?  Do you merely want to crush the competition?  Do you even know the beauty you destroy?

The rumor mill says Apple is killing Lala for its cloud technology that allows users to add their songs to their online library.  This will be great for iTunes users.  One of the HUGE negatives of iTunes is if you lose computer you lose your music.  Web streaming is so freeing because you don’t have to worry about maintaining your music files.  I’m guessing Apple won’t offer web streaming, but they will sell you a song, and they will validate any songs you own, and then let you play those songs from the cloud.  I bet Apple plans to combine the purchase model with the streaming model, so you won’t be renting music, but you’ll get the advantage of streaming once you paid for the song.

The trickier part is whether or not they can load the song onto your iPod.  That ain’t streaming.  But iPhones, iPads and the iPod touch have WiFi and broadband and they could stream music.  One of the greats features of Audible.com is they remember everything you ever buy, and even if they lose the right to keep selling a digital audio book you still have the right to download it again if something happens to your computer.  iTunes never offered such a wonderful backup feature, but Lala type streaming comes close to that.

If Apple kills Lala and then puts all its features into iTunes 10 then I won’t hate Steve Jobs so bad.  I doubt this will happen.  There is no reason why iTunes couldn’t let users play songs and albums once for free like Lala.  There is no reason why iTunes couldn’t sell web streaming songs for ten cents apiece.  Zune offers streaming on a portable device.  You pay $15 a month and can wireless stream any album to your player.  I have a Zune, but I don’t like playing music through ear buds.  I like hearing music through big speakers.  And I dropped my Zune subscription because their desktop software wasn’t as good as Lala or Rhapsody.

Apple could recreate all the features of the Zune Marketplace with its Lala technology and offer streaming to portable players, but that would be the end of selling songs for $1.29.  I’ve written many blog posts begging my readers to try streaming music and got damn few takers.  People are all hung up on owning songs.  Paying Rhapsody $10 a month is even a bargain compared to stealing music, but people can’t even comprehend it.  The work of stealing and maintaining the songs is so time consuming that only someone with no money would consider a stolen song a bargain.

Does Steve Jobs want to stomp out rental music?  If the music companies were against it, why do they let so many services offer it?  Lala was much cheaper than Rhapsody.  I spent $40 during my year on Lala, and $120 at Rhapsody.  At Rhapsody I could listen to the millions of songs as often as I wanted.  At Lala, I had to pick which songs I wanted to hear again and pay ten cents for unlimited listening to each.  I played more new albums at Lala because it was easier, and I only bought a few hundred songs because that’s all I discovered I really liked enough to want to keep playing.

We’re getting closer to a new paradigm for owning music.  Unless you’re a music nut you might not understand these distinctions, but here’s the evolution of music ownership.

  1. You bought and owned the physical 78, 45, LP, CD, cassette, 8-track
  2. You bought the physical CD, but could rip it to MP3
  3. You could steal MP3s, illegally possessing the file
  4. You could buy MP3s without getting the physical album, legally owning the file
  5. You could rent unlimited access to all music but you didn’t own anything
  6. You could buy the streaming rights to a song, but keep it in the cloud, so you own the right to hear the song as often as you want, and you don’t have to worry about maintaining it
  7. And it looks like you will be able to buy the song for download, but also have unlimited streaming rights.

I thought step #5 was the ultimate, but ended up loving step #6, which is the sales model that Lala used.  I’m guessing Apple will modify #6 and make it #7.   But instead of buying the streaming song for ten cents, you’ll buy the song for $1.29, and I guess either keep it in the cloud or download a copy for your iPod.  I wonder if Apple will make a deal with the music companies to get you the legal rights to be able to download that song as many times as you like.

Model #5 came in a number of flavors.  Rhapsody and Napster started off charging one fee for web streaming and a larger fee for the rights to put rental music on a portable player.  Lala didn’t rent music, but sold it in a two-tier pricing.  Ten cents for unlimited streaming (#6), and 79 cents for a download (#4).  I’m guessing the Apple and the music industry will consider ten cents too cheap for the rights to listen to a song for the rest of your life.

I have to wonder if you subtract all the manufacturing costs of CDs, the shipping costs, the warehouse costs, the distributor’s costs, the retailers costs, how much does a song really cost, that is if you remove all the cost factors that don’t go into a digital download.  I’m guessing a physical song was probably 20-40 cents of your $12-15 you spent for a CD.  People used to complain bitterly over the prices of CDs, so a $1.29 for a song is actually more expensive if you factor in actual costs. 

Rental pricing is different.  If I played a 1,000 songs for my Rhapsody rental of $10, that’s only a penny a song.  But if I only play 100 songs, those songs cost me ten cents each.  But if I play the same 100 songs next month, it’s another ten cents each.  The beauty of Lala was its pricing of ten cents per song for unlimited streaming.  Plus it had the inherent side affect of tracking the songs you love, and this beats two problems of rental.  You only pay for the song once, and Lala’s tracking of ownership also was a kind of tracking.  I can listen to 6 million songs on Rhapsody but I have a hard time keeping up with just the ones I love.

Steve Jobs is no dummy.  He knows the future of computing is the cloud.  He knows people will get tired of “buying” the same songs over and over again.  I have some songs I’ve bought on vinyl twice (they wore out, or I lost them), CDs twice (first release, then remastered release), once on SASD, then again on MP3, and by more than one rental service.  Ownership doesn’t appear to be forever when it comes to music.  That’s why I like the idea of rental music, why pretend otherwise?

This rant about Apple destroying Lala is getting too long.  But I hope you get my drift.  Lala was a great model for finding, playing and sharing music, better I think than any other sales model I’ve discovered.  I can’t but believe Steve Jobs will take a step backwards from this model, but I’m sure he sees a music sales model that will dominate in the future, something beyond what iTunes uses now, and maybe one that might last awhile.

JWH – 4/30/10

Living with Music Technology

The options of how you played music used to be rather simple.  You bought a record, put it on the turntable and played the songs you wanted.  Sure, you had to manually pick up the stylus arm and move it carefully to the exact track you wanted, and if you loved a particular song you had to jump out of your chair over and over again to keep that cut playing, but that technology required little thinking because there was little choice.  Of course if you were an eight-track or cassette user, the whole job was even more complicated and time consuming, but the tech skills were still pretty low.  In the twenty-first century you need to be a skilled computer operator to listen to your favorite tunes.

I am a fan of the Rhapsody Music service where I have no stylus arm to maneuver or cassette tape to position, and I no longer have to worry about scratching records or dealing with skips and pops, but it’s not all snap of my fingers easy.  I got so mad at Rhapsody that I almost canceled my subscription last week.  My browser kept disconnecting from the service, interrupting the songs I was playing, which was very annoying.  And I’ve yet to get the Rhapsody client software to play nice with Vista, even after being patient and giving Rhapsody a year to work out the kinks.

Luckily, the browser client has gotten better and better reducing the effort to listen to music down to being able to remember the name of the artist and track I want – not quite that easy as I get older – typing said information in the input box – again, not perfectly easy because I have to be able to spell those bits of data perfectly – but after that the only required effort to play a song is the physical exertion of a mouse click.  Just now I was in the mood to hear live versions of “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds.  Within seconds of thinking of this whim I discovered a newly released live CD on Rhapsody and was playing the song.  After that I remembered the live cut on the (Untitled)/(Unissued) CD, just a couple mouse clicks a way.  This is a breeze compared to the good old days.

This is not to say everything is perfect in tune heaven.  Ease of use depends on how closely tied I am to my computer.  If I’m writing like I am now, the work required is very minimal.  I have to keep a browser window open and pick out songs I want by typing their names and clicking on the play button.  If I want to play music away from the computer it gets more complicated, a lot more complicated.  My life would be easier if I just accepted I had to buy a compatible MP3 player to match Rhapsody’s requirements and pay the extra $5 a month, but I don’t like listening to music through earbud headphones.  What I’d like to do is go out to the living room, sit in my La-Z-Boy and play songs on my big stereo without having to get my lazy butt up whenever I think of a new song to hear.

Before I switched to Vista I had a nice setup with Windows XP, Linksys WiFi, Rhapsody, a Roku SoundBridge M1001 and Firefly Media Server.  I collected my favorite music by downloading files from Rhapsody, ran a system service called Firefly that talked to all my music libraries on my computer.  The M1001 was installed in the living and attached to my receiver via an optical cable and talked to my computer via WiFi.  I was in music nirvana except for all the clicking I had to do on my Roku remote to find songs I wanted to play.  And it was annoying I couldn’t stay in my La-Z-Boy to pick out the music either because the LCD readout on the Roku was too small to see across the room.

For months I dreamed of finding a small device that would allow me to control everything from my chair, with the ease of selecting music just like I was at my computer.  I thought of laptops, PDAs, and the emerging tech like the Nokia N800 Linux handhelds.  Before I could make a decision I upgraded to Vista and my lovely setup stopped working.

I wanted to give Rhapsody the benefit of the doubt and allow them time to catch up with Microsoft, however they never did.  I don’t know if it’s my HP computer, Vista or the Rhapsody software client, but they have never worked together.  Without the Rhapsody software, its DRM would stop Firefly from sending songs to the M1001.  Now I could have easily solved this problem if I was willing to spend a $1000 and buy a Sonos system.

Sonos talks to Rhapsody directly over the Internet, bypassing the computer, and even offers a handheld song selector device that would allow me to keep my fat ass in my chair and play music through my big stereo, or any stereo in my house if I that I was willing to purchase another Sonos connector.  Very cool tech but the price is too hot for me right now.  I keep hoping Sonos and Rhapsody will become a huge iPod level success and come down in price, plus give me some assurance that they have a long future before I invest even more money in my music system.

My wife recently got a new laptop and gave me back my laptop she had appropriated, so I decided to set it up as a Rhapsody music play station.  I reformatted the drive and put a fresh copy of XP on it, and then loaded the Rhapsody client.  I then took a patch cord and plugged the mini-headphone jack into the laptop’s headphone jack and the the split left and right channel RCA connects on the other end into my stereo’s CD input jacks.  I do believe the optical connector from the M1001 to the optical input on the receiver provided better sound, but I decided to leave the M1001 out of the mix right now.  My plan is to use a very long stereo cable so I can sit in my La-Z-Boy and put my laptop in my lap and use it as a music selector.

This isn’t a perfect setup.  The laptop is much bigger than a Sonos remote, and it gets hot on my thighs, but it does the job.  However, I can imagine a fair number of improvements.  Rhapsody provides an extremely large library for $120 a year, but it’s not complete.  It appears to offer almost everything in print – there are a few holdouts like The Beatles and Led Zepplin, but that’s not the big problem.  I have hundreds of CDs in my library that are out of print and no longer offered by Rhapsody.

Now I could consider Rhapsody’s millions of songs all I need and ignore my older CDs, or I’ll have to develop a dual music library system.  I’d have to rip all my old albums to supplement Rhapsody.  That would be a huge job that I’ve avoided until now.  I’d need a newer laptop with a larger hard drive, and I’d have to make backups and keep them off site, and all of that becomes a long job list that bums out thoughts of my future free weekends.  It makes me wonder if the old days were better, even if I could only play one LP in a sitting, and had to leap over to the stereo every time I wanted to skip a song.

I can understand why young people love the portable players like the iPod.  If only Steve Jobs would bless the concept of subscription music.  I could buy an iPod Touch and call it quits.  This past year I finally got rid of all my LPs I had been dragging around the country for forty years.  What a relief that was.  My wife and I still struggle with storing and shelving all our CDs.  Susan hasn’t embraced subscription music because she believes music should only be played in the car where God and 1950s America intended.  Susan recently discovered the powers of the iPod for music, a device she previously only used for audio books, and has began ripping her favorite CDs and taking her iPod for rides and leaving the CDs at home.  Sadly for me, she’s refused the job of becoming our MP3 librarian though.

Even if we did rip 2000 CDs, I can’t imagine using iTunes with so many songs.  Nor can I imagine protecting all those hundreds of gigabytes from now until eternity.  In my quest for finding simplicity in my old age I’ve considered following two musical paths.  One would be to give up digital music and go back to CDs.  The second would be to give up all physical music and live completely with subscription music.  There are even portable players out there that will talk directly to Rhapsody over WiFi, but can you imagine what the world will be like when iPhone 3.0 has subscription music?   Can you see the future where you have a device that goes anywhere and allows you to just name a song and it plays.  That’s pretty damn Sci-Fi to daydream about.

Why choose CD only?  Well, they’re paid for, and if I retire to some nice little town and never relocate again until it’s time to move into my coffin, taking care of all those CDs wouldn’t be too bad.  However, if I make several more moves before I retire, it will be a blessing to go all digital because my old back doesn’t like humping all those boxes of CDs.  To be honest, it’s no choice.  Since I’ve been a Rhapsody subscriber I’ve seldom even touched my CD collection.  I would make the decision right now if I knew subscription music had a solid future.  But except for one blogging friend, I don’t know anyone that enjoys subscription music.  All my music fan buddies prefers to buy digital songs or CDs.

No one seems to understand the Valhalla of digital subscription music, so I have to wait to make my decision.  If the concept of subscription music goes the way of the 78, LP and SACD, I’ll have to rip my CDs and start buying tunes from Amazon one at a time and figure out how to schlep those gigabytes around for the next thirty years.  If only Steve Jobs would give his kiss of approval, owning music would be over.  Why has he embraced subscription movies but not music?

I’m in a holding pattern with music technology.  I’ve heard that Rhapsody and other subscription music services can be had through Tivos and cable TV boxes, but I haven’t played with such devices.  What would be better than Sonos is selecting tracks to play through my HDTV that’s connected to my receiver in the living room with the same remote I use for selecting video to watch.  Now that would be converging technology!

When I’m working at my computer I could play Rhapsody.  If I was in my living room I could play Rhapsody though my TV.  For those people with portable players they can get music over cell phone technology.  And when the Internet comes to the car, music subscription could follow me there.  What more could I ask for from technology?  A chip in my head that when I think of a song it plays in my brain and I hear music like I had a $100,000 stereo system in my head?  Would people call us songheads, and look down on us like we’re dopeheads?

Jim

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