On the Copyright 2.0 Show, I’ve talked several times about how technology is making it so that all-you-can-eat music plans that allow unlimited streaming of music to whatever device you own may, someday, replace having large libraries of files on all of your devices.
On the surface the system seems to be a good idea. Most users pay less money, artists get paid for every play rather than just once for the purchase, piracy would be less of an issue as anyone could listen to any track at any time and we would have access to our music whenever, wherever.
Yet, it’s pretty clear that services such as Rhapsody, which is now nearly a decade old, aren’t exactly setting the world on fire despite being well-established and largely well-respected. So I decided to give Rhapsody a trial, signing up for a 14-day free trial, I wanted to see how life was without “owning” any music and why more people weren’t doing it.
The answer made it clear to me why these services haven’t caught on with the mainstream and why it may be some time before they do.
After signing up for an account and getting my confirmation I decided to jump right in and start listening to some music.
My first disappointment came when I found that Rhapsody was not available as an app for Mac. In fact, in their FAQ, they seem to blow off Mac users by saying:
Our Mac users are important to us, and that’s why we developed Rhapsody Online, a website that lets you listen to millions of songs on your Mac with just a lightweight plug-in.
In short, Mac users are so valuable to Rhapsody that they are going to eschew giving them the choice of an app, like they do Windows users, and force them to use the site. Still, I brushed it aside and moved.
An avid iTunes user, I thought I was pretty well prepared for what Rhapsody might throw at me but it seems I was mostly wrong. There was definitely a learning curve with Rhapsody. The process of searching for music, adding it toi playlists and listening to it didn’t feel very intuitive. It’s only today, after almost a week with the service, I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of it.
Some of the issues come from the fact it’s browser-based. Google Chrome, my browser of choice, blocks popups and I struggled for a while to figure out why I wasn’t seeing the player. I eventually had to whitelist Rhapsody to prevent Chrome from just closing out the new window.
Also, the process of building a playlist seems odd to me. Rather than, as with iTunes, creating a playlist and dragging songs into it (often while listening to other music), the only way to do it in Rhapsody is to just queue the songs up in your actual player and save it. To make matters worse, The “Playlists” feature in Rhapsody instead focuses on playlists others have created for your listening, not ones you make for yourself.
The problem is not that making a playlist is difficult, just that it seems to be a buried feature and not intuitive the first few times through.
I then set about my first task, creating a workout playlist for later that evening at the gym, it was then I began to make my way through Rhapsody’s library and putting rubber on the road.
I punched in a few relevant bands into my search and was pretty impressed by the depth of Rhapsody’s library. It seemed every band I typed in, no matter how obscure, turned up some solid results. But, as I began to add tracks, cracks began to emerge.
First I noticed that Rhapsody didn’t have anything not already in iTunes. For example, my search for the band Rorschach Test turned up their first album but not their second. I had a similar problem on iTunes recently and had to repurchase the second album secondhand from Amazon. The Beatles were not on Rhapsody, but they aren’t available digitally anywhere, and every other iTunes omission was also missing here.
But then some larger cracks began to form. I did a search for Metallica and, though Rhapsody said it had over 700 tracks available (700!?) there were no Metallica songs in their library for streaming. All of the songs they had were covers, mislabeled or just Metallica somewhere in the name.
This was a major problem with Rhapsody. The music library felt like it was in disarray. Every artist had hundreds of tracks listed, even when they only had a few albums. The reason is that, even if you select to search by artist it puts covers of the artist in the results. Compared it iTunes, it felt disorganized and confusing.
This led to another problem, sometimes there were literally too many choices. A search for Joan Jett found 7 versions of “Bad Reputation” with no clear distinction between them. Some were live versions, but others were just rereleases with no clear indication as to which was the most popular or the “real” version. If you don’t know the correct album, you could be hunting for a while on some tracks.
But then there were other cases where key versions were missing, such as with Local H and the tracks off of their “No Fun” EP.
Where iTunes makes it clear which versions you probably want with clear popularity indicators, Rhapsody makes it a guessing game and at least a few times I guessed wrong. Though there is a “Key Tracks” feature on some artist’s pages, it, as with the Playlist creator, is something you have to be actively hunting for and know where to look to really see. Even then, it isn’t always right, for example Joan Jett’s “Key Tracks” didn’t include “I Love Rock N Roll”. To make matters worse, on the “Popular Tracks” list, which seems to be a duplicate feature, the title was misspelled.
All in all, I was glad I was streaming these tracks and not buying them, otherwise, I would have been out at least a few bucks downloading tracks I didn’t want.
The iPhone App
As clunky as the Web experience was for me, I have to admit that the iPhone app was actually pretty slick. It integrated most of the features of the website but in a way that was clear and easily understood. Even on my old 3G the app seemed to move quickly and worked well.
The streaming was only once or twice problem. 3G access in the New Orleans are is pretty good so I had no real difficult keeping the stream going through Rhapsody does permit users to download tracks to their phone for situations they don’t have access. However, since that seemed to defeat much of the purpose of the experiment I haven’t tested it yet.
It is worth noting that the downloads you save using the app are no longer available after you cancel your account, unless you purchase the MP3 separately.
Working out with Rhapsody I noticed no difference than if I had been just using the iPod app on my iPhone. The only major change was that some of the music I wanted to listen to was not available and finding new music to listen to was slightly more tedious due to the larger library of music to go through.
Still, the experience was overall pretty good, especially if I set things up before going in, something I would do with iTunes regardless.
The debate that arises from all of this is whether I’ll continue with Rhapsody after the free trial. The answer, right now, is probably not.
I own such a large library of music and have a large amount of it on my phone that Rhapsody seems superfluous. Virtually any song I want to listen to I can just play. This makes the gaps in Rhapsody’s library, no matter how small, very annoying. If I want to listen to Metallica’s “Cyanide” or Local H’s “President Forever” (not the live version) I can’t do that with Rhapsody but I can with my iTunes.
I probably spend less than $10 per month on new music and wouldn’t be saving anything using Rhapsody. But, if I were just starting out and working to build a new music collection, it would be an option to consider. However, it would have to be able to fill in some of the gaps for it to be seriously considered for that purpose.
Right now, there is just too much out there Rhapsody doesn’t have. Combine that with a clunky interface clearly designed more for power users than to be intuitive for newbies and I don’t have any more reason to stay onboard. Not when I have a solution that already works reasonably well for me.
Despite this, I haven’t given up hope on such a system working in the future. It just clearly is not there now. Though some of the wounds are self-inflicted, namely the interface and lack of a Mac app, most of the wounds are from the music industry in the form of music that can’t be licensed for the service.
What’s clearly needed is a hybrid service that integrates both the “rented” music and the “owned” music. Google Music seems to be exactly that, integrating legally-owned MP3s with a at least some streaming and purchasing.
However, most of what is known about Google Music is really just rumors and even if they are Google’s intentions there’s always a chance they won’t come to fruition.
In the end, Rhapsody paints part of a good direction for the music industry, however, much more needs to be done before it clearly becomes the wave of the future. Meanwhile, overseas, services such as Spotify are moving well past what Rhapsody has done, perhaps showing that the future for music isn’t being carved out in the U.S. at all, but rather, is being forged in the EU and elsewhere.