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.
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.
computer + 1 mobile
computer + 3 mobile
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
I have found several good articles comparing these various services.
- Four Music Subscription Services (Macworld, 10/12/10)
- More iTunes Alternatives (Ed Bott at Zdnet, 12/10/10)
- Sound quality discussion at Sonos forum (3/15/11)
- The Best Mobile Music (4/27/11)
- CloudMusic – blog devoted to music streaming
JWH – 6/16/11