Hey, Rdio, Rhapsody, Google, Spotify–Add These New Features, Please

I’ve been a streaming music subscriber for years.  First with Rhapsody, now with Rdio, but I’ve also subscribed to Lala, MOG and Spotify.  Each service takes a different approach to the best way of listening to music from a gigantic online library.  All provide the basics, search on artist, album and song, play album in order, random, repeat and repeat one, and create playlists.

New reports claim that music publishers now feel they are making more money per user from subscription services than by selling songs.  This implies that subscription services are succeeding – let’s hope.  I think there are many features that subscription services could add to their product that would make them stand out from each other, and maybe completely kill off the idea of owning music.

However, there’s far more potential benefits from subscription music than just playing music from a rented library.  One recent article claims that most artists will make more money in the long run from subscription music than from selling hit records, but it involves a new paradigm of promoting songs.  The old paradigm was to promote a hit, get as many people to buy it as possible, and then move on to creating the next hit.  The new paradigm is to create a portfolio of songs that are played forever by lifelong fans.  The old paradigm is based on selling the song once, and the new one is based on getting it played the most over time, year after year, decade after decade.

This makes techniques used to find songs and albums from almost a century of music, and adding tunes to personal playlists, the most important marketing tool for bands.  Theoretically, songs from the 1940s could becoming bigger hits than songs from the 2010s, if the right discovery tools were created.

It would be great if Rdio/Spotify/Rhapsody had an AI (artificial intelligent) program that could look at a person’s playlist and then guarantee them a list of songs from the past will be much loved.  Unfortunately, such computer magic doesn’t exist yet.  If there’s a Miles Davis track out there that you’ll play for hours on end in Repeat 1 mode, you’re going to have to find it yourself.

Some recording artists might be protesting streaming music for low royalty rates, and that might be true too, but streaming music is probably the best long term solution for helping new artists be discovered.  Digital Music News reported that 90.7 percent of all artists are essentially undiscovered.

With both Spotify and Rdio now offering completely free ad-supported subscriptions there is no reason not to try them.

So what features could the subscription music services offer to help fans find more songs to love?  Here what I want.

Top 100 Songs/Album/Artists By Year

Streaming music services need to quickly add Year to their search feature.  Having the New Releases, Current Hit Album/Song pages is just too damn limiting.  I need to be able to saying, “Show me what you got 1957!”  What would be even more fun would be to ask Rdio to play me the hit songs from the week I was born.  Or if I felt like returning to the summer when I was 14, tell Spotify to play music from the summer of 1965.

Who were the hit artists for 1938?  What labels were big in 1947?

I would also like to be able to play songs by release dates, and all songs from specific hit charts from a particularly week.

We might also need a composed year field, so I can ask for the music of the 1850s.

Far More Record Charts

Right now it’s possible to know which songs and albums are popular by everyone using the service, but that’s so limiting.  What I like to see is a chart of top songs being played by 62 year old guys who were computer programmers and who love science fiction.  Or if I wanted to sample another demographic, what songs are being played by college freshmen at the moment, what classical music symphonies are being made hits at the moment from Julliard graduates playing them, or what country tunes are being played the most in Nashville versus Austin or Denver, or what songs are loved by retired DJs who worked in the 1960s, or what songs are played the most by people over 90.  See what I mean?

Search by Catalog Number and Label

Now that subscription music services are vast libraries of songs that span decades, and record collectors have probably squirreled away all the great platters, it would be fun to play music historian on the cheap, and listen to music by label, especially all those rare labels put out by extreme music aficionados.

Years ago when I bought LPs, record companies would advertise other LPs on the inner sleeves of albums.  I especially loved the ones by ATCO and Warner Music.  For example, I’d love to be able to call up ATCO albums from 1970s, and just see what Rdio has.

Here’s a screenshot from MusicMatch for a search of Verve, showing a portion of the results near Janis Ian.  As subscription services grow, they will become closer to complete libraries of music history, and searching by label and catalog number will be more important.  Instead of collecting music from the past, it will be all about playing the music of the past.

verve

Browse by Genres and Subgenres

Sometimes I want to play music by genre, especially genres I’m not familiar with, but most streaming services have very limited ways of doing this.  Rdio is pretty nice for genre browsing.  I can browse by “Stations” and pick Jazz, and then have the choice of 10 sub-genre stations, and then a 5 position control that ranges from Popular to Adventurous.  But what if I wanted smooth piano jazz from the late 1950s?  Or to hear the musical heirs of Charlie Parker?  Right now this kind of feature is one of the best ways to discover new old music on Rdio, but it could be infinitely refined.

jazz

Better Playlists and Collections

Right now I can have playlists and a collection to organize my musical favorites on Rdio.  Playlists are just lists of songs.  I’d love to have Album Playlists, to group albums I’d like to play together.  I’d also like to have multiple collections, so I can keep my jazz albums separate from my rock albums.  I was keeping my Collection on Rdio limited to albums I liked a lot, but when I downloaded the local client, it looked at the albums I owned on my computer, and added all of them to my collection, which is now one big mess.

Playlists and the Collection is how I get to remember what I liked on Rdio.  Without them I’d forget tons of music.  When using a subscription music library it’s very hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of music I can play.  20 million songs, which is probably a million albums.  I’m lucky if I could sit down and write a list of my 100 favorite albums from memory.

When playing subscription music I mainly listen to what I already love.  But I, and new artists, want me to try new stuff.  Often I go through the weekly releases of new albums and try as many of them as I can.  There’s always more than I can try.  And if I find a song I like I can at it to a playlist, or add the album to a collection.  What I’d like to have is a personal library, which has unlimited collections.  Now some collections I want to name myself, but others I want Rdio to auto-generate.  So if I add Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen to my Rock Collection, it would automatically add it to a 1975 Collection, and a Columbia Record Collection, because there will be times when I’d love just to play my favorite albums from 1975, or even December, 1975.

Collections and Playlists are the way I distinguish my music from the background library of everything.  I want more tools for organizing my music, and even browsing it visually.

Higher Fidelity

Over time, as technology changes, I want streaming music to offer better fidelity.  It’s wonderful now, but I don’t want to be tempted by any new technology to come along that would make me want to start buying individual songs and albums again, either as digital files or on physical medium.  I’m over owning music.  Renting is so much more convenient.  I’m happy to let Rdio do all the library scut work.  Nor do I want to hop from one service to the next, as new companies promise features old ones don’t.  I’m currently thinking of subscribing to another service, adding Rhapsody or Spotify, for a while, just to see if they offer more.  But I’d rather they didn’t.  I invested a lot of love into Lala, only to have Apple ruin it.  Now that I’ve spent so much time with Rdio I want it to both succeed and keep competitive.

Export and List Features

A lot of work goes into discovering new music and creating playlists and collections, so if Rdio went out of business I’d loose a lot of knowledge I’ve put into their system.  I want to be able to export that knowledge to another streaming service.  Or if I subscribed to two streaming services, I’d like to sync that knowledge.  I’d also love some database tools to just study big data views of my music, or make printouts, like for putting on this blog.

Conclusion

The phrase “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” is an apt one for music streaming technology.  I’ve lived through so much technological change in my life, even just in the music industry, that I know nothing stays the same.  If I live another ten or twenty years I expect amazing things, and since I’m running out of time, I’d rather have them now.

Music Technology News

If you’re interested in reading more about subscription music, try these sites.

JWH – 1/19/14     

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