Peter Lyons

Mar 15, 2009

Music subscription and Rhapsody

Flat fee music subscription service has changed my life. I wish there was some less dramatic way to put it, but it's the honest truth. I don't remember exactly when, but somewhere in late 2006 probably, after reading this Joel on Software - The infinite music collection article, I was intrigued by the idea and did a little shopping. I know I looked at Napster, Virgin, Yahoo, and Rhapsody at least. I think I initially went with Rhapsody because of the Sonos integration. I experimented for a bit listening on the computer and then I think that Christmas I asked for a basic set of Sonos gear, which was and still is exorbitantly priced.

OK, so first some comments on the whole notion of subscription music service. It's amazing. For someone like me with a voracious appetite for new music cultivated spending long hours every week in the fantastic Oberlin Conservatory Music Library, it was complete drooling brain-fry. It was a bit overwhelming at first. There were numerous aspects of this arrangement that were just awesome. Obviously, the size of the library is number one. Having extremely ecclectic and somewhat obscure taste in music, I was worried that it would be basically a top-40 archive that I would quickly grow bored with. This was not the case. The collection of jazz, classical, and less main stream stuff was really quite good. Now, every CD in my personal library is not available, but the service library as a whole is so infinitely broad and compelling that I don't care that much.

Secondly, there is the complete removal of the financial penalty for exploring. Before I expound on this let me just state that I listen to whole albums in totality in order. Fuck shuffle. Fuck 30 second previews. I usually listen to complete albums start to finish numerous times before I decide how I feel about them. In addition, when checking out a new artist, I actually prefer to listen to all the albums in chronological order. Sometimes I'll scan a "best of" to see if it's worth my time, but usually I go straight for the debut album. For years, I would gather suggestions from peers, and then go plunk down $17 for a CD. No more. Now I can try relentlessly at full speed for a flat fee. This is fantastic and significant. Now I can actually listen to artists I know I don't care for, if only to better understand what it is about them that I don't like.

Third, in the jazz and classical genres, musicians are vastly more prolific compared to their pop/rock peers. Go try to get the complete recordings of Miles Davis. Be sure to bring like $1500. With a flat fee subscription, I can go and listen to LOTS of music by folks I like. One of the first things that got me completely hooked on this was listening to a 10-disc set of Steve Reich: Works 1965-1995. This retails at amazon.com for $99.98. So the trade-off for this ONE collection is own this collection forever or get over six months access to millions of songs online.

Fourth, you can compare recordings to your heart's content. I have a physical copy of the venerable Emerson String Quartet's recording of the six Bela Bartok String Quartets. Currently going for $22 on amazon. It is a cherished record in my collection. However, the chances of me buying another recording of this work are slim to none, even though I would love to hear various interpretations. Rhapsody has no less than ten complete recordings of these works available! When it comes to jazz and you want to learn a new song, Rhapsody is going to give you about thirty recordings to choose from. No better way to truly absorb the song's full meaning from the repertoire by listening to numerous different recordings.

Fifth, there is no personal music library management. I've spent hours and hours labeling my CD collection (over 800 discs), ripping them, fixing the cddb track metadata, transferring stuff to portable devices, re-transfering it when it gets corrupted, etc. Then there's the idea that I have to keep this all backed up. I have so far ripped about 30 GB of music and don't really want to deal with backing that up. With a subscription, all the music is just instantly there. It's all indexed and searchable. The track metadata is correct. I don't have to personally back it all up.

Sixth, it works with portable players in a reasonable way. I think for the next Christmas I asked for the SanDisk Sansa e280R portable MP3 player that is integrated with Rhapsody. You can download tracks to the device and as long as you connect it once a month to verify your subscription is active, you are good to go. It works pretty well and doesn't really add any hassle. I'll be posting another entry soon about the various devices (basically all bad) I have used with Rhapsody and how they work.

So I'm totally hooked on this model of flat fee all you can eat subscription music. I was initially concerned that streaming this in real time would not work, but honestly there have been almost no glitches. Either the service is working or it isn't, but it doesn't do any buffering interrupting the song or anything like that, which would be a complete deal-breaker. To try to listen to this much music on iTunes would cost me hundreds of dollars a month.

So, let's look at some of the cons. There are no linear notes. I do miss that. I also miss detailed personnel listings per track. However, when I really am interested in that, the info is usually available online if I can remember to go look it up. As of now, in order for this to work, it relies on Plays For Sure Digital Right Management (DRM) scheme. Generally I am against DRM, but if it is required in order for the music industry to be willing to make a subscription service available, so be it.

OK, so that is mostly focussing on the subscription model in the abstract. Let's talk about the Rhapsody service in particular. After a few years of using it, overall I'd probably give it about 7 out of 10. It's good, but it has some annoyances. On the plus side, the web based Rhapsody online product, which was formerly a proprietary plug-in that gave me a few hassles on Linux, is now entirely standard flash based app. In general it works great on linux however my new laptop I installed 64 bit Ubuntu and the rhapsody flash app won't log in currently. I'll be contacting support (sigh) to yell at them to make it work.

So some of the annoyances include inability to re-order tracks in your queue/playlist. You can append to the end of it and delete items, but you can't reorder. Again, since I generally listen to whole albums it doesn't bother me much, but sometimes it can be a real pain. Also, their web site used to have a frigging NORMAL LOGIN HTML FORM, thus I could save my credentials in my browser and not be bothered with it. Now the flash app itself prompts for credentials which means I have to re-type my password a few times a day. I asked support to make it go back to the old way but you can guess how that went.

Reliability and bill payment have been good. The Windows application that I need to use to actually transfer music to a portable player is decent. It's better than the flash app, but still a bit cumbersome. It's got a web browser pane embedded in it, which has all the annoyances of a web browser, but not all the screen components and tools to properly manage it. Here they have a proper playlist editor window. Ideally I would be able to transfer to my portable from a linux application, but I have realistic expectations here. It ain't going to happen.

Rhapsody has user and celebrity playlists, both of which are a great way to explore and check out new stuff.

So if you are a big music fan, and still haven't tried a subscription service, give it a shot. I can never go back. Look for more posts soon about my experierces with music player devices over the years.