MOG v. Napster v. Rdio v. Rhapsody

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.

Price

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.

$4.99/mo
computer
$9.99/mo
computer + 1 mobile
$14.99/mo
computer + 3 mobile
  • MOG
  • Rdio
  • Napster
  • MOG
  • Rdio
  • Napster
  • Rhapsody
  • Rhapsody

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.

Playlists

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.

Virtual Collection

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.

Sound Quality

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.]

Web Interface

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.

Time Travel

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.

Original Reviews

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.

Other Reading

I have found several good articles comparing these various services.

JWH – 6/16/11

Google Music Beta v. Amazon Cloud Drive

Problem #1 – Should I Spend $659 for a Proper Storage Rack for My CDs

Currently, my wife Susan and I have 1,500 music CDs we store on a built-in shelf behind the door of our spare room.  This isn’t a good place for them because it’s not easy to get to, and it only has 9 shelves, and I need 15, so we have to go double high on some shelves, and even double deep on others, so finding and shelving a CD is very annoying.  This whole system is so annoying that I don’t like playing my CDs.  The solution would be to buy a nice CD rack from Boltz.com and put the CDs near where we play them.

CDs-behind-door

Convert that to this

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Problem #2 – We Hardly Ever Play CDs Anymore

Susan plays her music on her iPhone, and I play my music through my work computer, my home computer and my HTPC in the den that’s connected to the big stereo system.  The only time I like playing the CDs is when I want to sit in the den and play them loud so I can enjoy the music’s full fidelity.  That’s happening less and less often.  And for 97% of the time I play music from my Rhapsody subscription.  So why spend hundreds of dollars and hours of efforts to organize my CDs?  Could we get rid of the CDs altogether?  They are our proof that our digital copies are legal, so I suppose we could box them up and put them in the attic.  But when I retire I’d like to move around and dragging 20 storage boxes of CDs will be like carrying a boat anchor everywhere I go.

Problem #3 – Making and Maintaining a Perfect Digital Copy of Our CD Collection

A couple years ago I spent weeks ripping our collection, but since then we’ve discovered the results had been imperfect.  Here and there a cut will be missing, and on rare occasions a cut will be bad.  And since then we’ve bought many CDs that we haven’t ripped, but we’re not sure which ones.  And we have the worry of maintaining a backup.  I have the whole library copied on external drives, some of which we keep off-site, but each copy has gotten out of sync and we’re not sure which one is the master anymore, and all of them are now incomplete.  What a pain.  I love Rhapsody, but I’m being forced to maintain my own digital collection of music because Rhapsody doesn’t have everything.  For example, no Beatles.  Or if the CD goes out of print, it’s removed from their collection.  Basically Rhapsody provides most of what music is being sold at any given moment, with the exception of a few butthead bands that won’t sign with them.

Problem #4 – I Don’t Like Most of the Music in My Collection

Of our 1,500 CDs, or 18,000+ songs, I’d guess I really only like less than 6,000 songs.  And that’s only a guess, it might be much less.  Most albums have only 1-2 songs I really like, some CDs I never liked any of the songs, or have since turned against them.  And Susan and I like different songs.  What we’d really love is two digital collections:  His and Hers.  And we want each collection slimmed down to just the songs we love.  But going through 18,000+ songs to find those gems would be months, if not years of work.

Solution #1 – Forget CDs Completely

I could probably live without my CDs because I have Rhapsody.  Susan has most of everything she already wants in her iTunes library, and whenever she wants something new she buys a CD and rips it to iTunes.  If we weren’t worried about proving our digital songs were legal, we could just get rid of the CDs completely.  We could start buying MP3 songs instead of CDs.  This is a very appealing solution because it would be the most hassle free.  The downside is we’ve paid a lot of money for our CDs, and I don’t want to buy those songs again.  Many of those albums we bought as LPs, and then bought again as CDs, and some of them I bought a third time as SACDs, and many CDs we bought a second time as a CD when the remastered version came out.  I hate the idea of buying MP3 songs that we’ve already bought one more more times, and then getting a lower fidelity copy.  Will MP3 be the last format?  Is this the last time we have to buy our favorite songs?

Solution #2 – Move Our Collections to the Cloud

Google Music Beta is promising some lucky people storage for up to 20,000 songs for free.  Right now if we moved our collection to Amazon Cloud Drive it would cost us $125 a year to maintain.  And since Susan and I would like to have our own separate collections, if we both uploaded our collection to our Amazon accounts, it would be $250 a year.  Of course, we’d both like to thin out our collections, so eventually that cost would be smaller, but it would take us months to get to that ideal music library.  Google is promising free for awhile, and that might be enough time to reduce our collection to just the songs we love, but we don’t know what Google’s final cost will be.  More than likely, we’d want our collections in both clouds as backups, or case one service is down, or one goes out of business.  Is it possible that Google Music or Amazon Cloud Drive will survive for the rest of our lives?

The down side of this is I’d still be managing four collections:  CDs, Rhapsody, Amazon and Google.

Solution #3 – Give Up Music Ownership

I could go with Rhapsody, Pandora and other streaming music sites and just forget about owning songs at all.  This has a tremendous appeal to me, but it also has a scary downside.  If I get in the mood to hear a certain song and it’s not on Rhapsody I’m shit out of luck.  For $120 a year I get access to 11,000,000+ songs through Rhapsody.  That’s almost perfect, except that once in awhile I want to hear a song that Rhapsody doesn’t have.  Can I live with that?  It’s not like I don’t have more music than would ever have time to hear.

Solution #4 – The Compromise Solution

The compromise solution for now is to put our all-time favorite music into our personal cloud storage sites, save out my all-time favorite CDs to play loud, continue to listen to Rhapsody, and put the rest of the CDs in the attic.  This is still a big mess though.

Hope for the Future

If Rhapsody and other streaming music services could serve every song ever recorded then I’d give away my CDs and forget about owning music forever.  I wouldn’t even mess with cloud drives.

Amazon Cloud Drive is very appealing because I can buy music from Amazon which they promise to store for free and hopefully they could manage my music collection for the rest of my life.  If my music collection could be slimmed down, and their prices came down some, Amazon Cloud Drive might be a great long term solution for owning music.  I buy all my books, CDs, and DVDs from them now anyway.  The downside for Amazon is their lack of an app for iOS for Susan to use, and their player is rather primitive, but I’m sure that will improve.  They should offer some kind of incentive like for every $10 spent on music they will add 1gb of lifetime storage to your cloud drive.

Google Music Beta is even more appealing because it’s free right now.  I could put my whole collection online at no cost.  Another big plus that Google Music has over Amazon Cloud Drive is its player, which I’ve only seen in demo videos.  It looks far more sophisticated than Amazon’s player.  The downside is Google doesn’t sell music.  It would be weird to have to buy songs from Amazon and then copy them to Google.

Apple still hasn’t come out with their cloud drive yet.  Susan is very tied to iTunes because of her iPhone, and depending on what Apple charges, it could be a great solution for her.  I have an iPod touch, but portable music isn’t that important to me.  I’ll probably get an Android pay-as-you-go phone, so it will work with Amazon or Google.  If Apple came out with free unlimited for life music storage and offered a streaming service, I might be tempted to go with them, and then start buying my songs from iTunes.  Their downside is iTunes isn’t very good for managing large music collections, but that could be improved too.

I have yet to see any rumors that Rhapsody will offer a cloud music drive for its users, but it could be the best of both worlds.  Especially if Rhapsody could develop an app that looked at my collection and then upload only the albums they didn’t provide that were out of print.  And they could warn users when an album was going out of print and offer their users a chance to buy songs before they disappeared from the streaming collection.  In other words, Rhapsody could manage both of my collections.

Who knows what will happen, but these new cloud music services could be solutions to some of my problems.

And I can imagine another solution.  Why have millions of copies of “Hey Jude” stored on drives all over the world?  Why not have an international music registry, and when people buy a song they get a license to play it for life, and then music services would only have to cache one copy of a song wherever they stream music.  There would be no need to have massive server farms storing everyone’s songs.  That would save a lot of energy.  You could buy and play songs from any service you like and they would register the license for you.  All music services would be given rights to check the license registry.

Why make Amazon keep a million copies of “Hey Jude” on their servers for a million users when they could link to just one copy?

JWH – 5/15/11

Rhapsody v. Zune v. Lala

I recently discovered Lala from reading Ed Bott’s “6 Music Services Compared:  Who Can Beat the iTunes Monopoly?”  Lala is the slickest way to listen to music on the web yet.  And since it’s free, anyone who loves music would be crazy not to try it out.  Joining Lala gets you 50 free web songs.  Lala offer four ways to listen to music.   First, the free one time only listen.  Second, the ten cents per song to listen via the web for as many plays as you want.   Third, Lala lets you buy a MP3 version of the song, at prices a bit cheaper than other sites, and finally, they help you play songs you already own through the web.

I’m already a subscriber to Rhapsody and Zune and I’ve bought music from iTunes and Amazon.  Digital music continues to blossom while traditional music sales continue to tank.  I never liked buying music from iTunes because I was locked in to its DRM.  In fact I’ve bought so few albums from iTunes that when it came time to upgrade my computer I didn’t bother moving them, it was just more trouble than I wanted to mess with, but I have access to those albums on Rhapsody and Zune.  And although I like Amazon and its unlocked songs, buying songs one at a time and trying to keep up with them is a pain.  I much rather have an unlimited subscription music.

Subscription music is the least amount of hassle.  From thinking of a song to playing it, takes the least amount of time.

I do have 18,000 ripped songs from my CD collection, but even it’s a pain to deal with.  For instance I’m thinking about putting Linux on my second machine but that’s where I keep my music library backup.  Worrying about a 192gb music collection is a real ball and chain.  Also, 18,000 songs is just too limited.  This past couple weeks I’ve been playing all the versions of “All Along the Watchtower” that I can find.  My collection has 5 versions.  Rhapsody has 153 versions, and Lala claims to have over 300, although both Lala and Rhapsody list a lot of repeats.  But I have heard maybe 60+ distinct versions so far.  Damn, I love that song.

Playing musical games like this just isn’t practical with iTunes or Amazon, unless I wanted to buy the songs, say $60.  Lala is free to listen to any song for free once, or 10 cents for unlimited web streaming, and Rhapsody provides all I can listen for $10 a month (I pay by the year, it’s $13 a month if you pay by the month).  Zune is $15 a month.  Spending $28 a month for two subscription services is wasteful because of the overlap, but I used to spend at least that much a week before digital music.

Lala is great to share with friends.  It’s easy to sign up and use, and it’s free to use for playing any song or album once.  I’ve never gotten my friends to join Rhapsody so we can share playlists, and I don’t know any Zune users either.  So Lala is great for sharing.  Lala might even be good for all my listening.  $10 a month means 100 web songs.  On Rhapsody and Zune I never find 100 songs a month I want to replay, so if I wanted to live on $10 a month or less for my music budget, Lala would be the way to go.

Zune is great for throwing albums onto the player and carrying them around.  The trouble is I don’t like playing music on the go, so I will probably cancel my Zune membership in the future.  If you do love playing music on a digital player, Zune is the easiest and cheapest way to go.  Dragging and dropping albums onto the player can’t be simpler.

I’m going to play with Zune for awhile longer.  Like Lala and Rhapsody, it allows me to play music anywhere I have a computer and network access, but so far it’s web interface is my least favorite for playing music online.  Rhapsody and Lala are much faster at queuing up a list of songs to play.  And Rhapsody beats Lala in that I can queue up songs to play on my big stereo through my SoundBridge, although I play 95% of my music while working at the computer at home and work.  But if I do sit down and listen to music on the big stereo, Rhapsody wins against the others, but not against CDs.

I don’t buy many CDs, only ones where I think I want to own them for life and love playing them on the big stereo.  And now that I’ve discovered that Tower.com is a dirt cheap way to get CDs, I’m buying CDs again.  $6.99 and $7.99 CDs are not uncommon, and at those prices I’m much rather buy the physical CD than the download.

If CD prices are low enough to beat the prices of digital music, digital subscription music then becomes the way to discover great music, and you buy the best of the best on CD to keep.  I’m partial to Rhapsody, but if I was uncommitted, I’d go with Lala for discovering music and web playing.  If you have a SoundBridge or Sonos system, or one of the other digital media hubs, you’ll probably want Rhapsody, but that might change.  I bet Lala comes to Sonos soon.

Like I said, you’d be foolish to ignore Lala if you love music.  And if you like to share songs with friends, Lala is great.  I hope Lala succeeds.  It has fantastic potential as a social network.  Lala doesn’t have as many songs as Rhapsody but it’s growing.  If there was a Lala iPhone/touch app, it would be killer.

Give Lala a try, go listen to a dozen versions of “All Along the Watchtower.”

Here is a test to see if I can share Lala.com songs via WordPress. Let me know if you could play the song okay. Lala actually provides Flash code to embed a cute little player, but WordPress strips out that code.

Jefferson Goncalves plays solo harmonica in this version of “All Along The Watchtower.”

JWH – 5/2/9

Music Lovers Nirvana

I don’t know why all my music loving friends aren’t subscribers to Rhapsody Music.  This morning I picked up the 8/8/8 edition of Entertainment Weekly and read the five reviews of new albums in their Music Review section.  I then logged into Rhapsody and played each of those albums.  Rhapsody had five for five.  I can listen to these albums anytime I want and it’s completely legal and all I pay is $119 a year for the service.  The albums were:

  • Conor Oberst by Conor Oberst
  • Fragile Future by Hawthorne Heights
  • Lessons in Love by Lloyd
  • Harps and Angels by Randy Newman
  • Scars on Broadway by Scars on Broadway

Just to see how good Rhapsody is I grabbed the latest issue, and found six more reviews.  Rhapsody had five of the six – missing out on Ra Ra Riot’s The Rhumb Line, but they had their EP, so that one might show up soon.

If I was paying by the song like most people, I would have already racked up $40 worth of songs this morning.  And these are five albums I never would have bought if I had been flipping through CDs at a record store.  And there have been tons of albums I’ve bought that I’ve liked much less than these albums.  So far I like Hawthorne Heights and Conor Oberst best.  I’m going through these online albums looking for standout songs – songs I will want to come back and listen to again.

That’s one of Rhapsody’s weaknesses – you have access to so much music that it’s overwhelming.  I wished they had some kind of system to help me remember all these new artists.  If they had a little scale that showed up while each song was playing I could rate them:  _Forgettable _Good _Great _Fantastic, it would be easy to track them down later.

Rhapsody is better at providing new music than it is old music.  I just got Rolling Stone: Cover to Cover 1967-2007 on DVD, complete digital editions of the magazines, over a thousand issues.  I started with the first issue looking for albums that I’ve never heard of and never remembered at all.  Rhapsody is not the place to find them.  Back then albums came out on LPs, and most of them never got reprinted as CDs, much less brought forward to the digital age.  However, if an old album is re-mastered on CD and sold today there’s a good chance it will show up on Rhapsody.

I show Rhapsody to my friends, and I write about it every so often, but I know damn few people who use the service.  It’s amazing that such a great deal is ignored.  I know young people prefer to steal their music, but Rhapsody is so cheap I can’t believe more kids don’t want to be legal.

The real drawback of Rhapsody is it doesn’t play on iPods.  And for some reason Steve Jobs doesn’t want Apple to get into the subscription music business.  I don’t put music on my iPod, but I do play music on my iPod touch through the Pandora app.  Pandora is free, but random.  I imagine that if I played Pandora long enough I’d eventually hear everything I can get on Rhapsody.  I can’t believe Pandora isn’t more famous too.  It’s a marvelous invention allowing Internet listeners build their own radio stations by starting each with a seed song and rating subsequent songs selected by Pandora.

Pandora’s Music Genome Project is technology designed to analyze what you like and give you more of it.  I have a jazz station started with “Blue Rondo A Lo Turk” and a Dylanesque station seeded with “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and a 60s San Francisco sound station seeded with Quicksilver Messenger Service and a new alternative station started with Broken Social Scene.  Pandora is a FANTASTIC system for discovering new tunes to love.  Right now it’s playing David Bromberg’s live “Mr. Bojangles” on my Bryds station – now that’s a wonderful blast from the past.

And then there’s Deezer.com – free on demand music.  I checked, and the David Bromberg song is there to play for free.  Also, I check and three of the five albums from Entertainment Weekly mentioned above are available to play for free (Fragile Future, Scars on Broadway and Harps and Angels).

How can the music industry offer all this free music?  Why does anyone buy songs?  I don’t know.  Over at Fantasy & Science Fiction, Gordon Van Gelder is asking the same questions about free short stories on the web.  Maybe I’m out of touch because I actually pay for Rhapsody music and buy magazines with short stories.  Will I be buying next year or the year after that?

There is no reason to buy music or short stories any more, not if you don’t want to, because there’s a wealth of great free material on the web.  How is that going to change things?  My wife and I paid $39 each to sit in the cheap seats at an outdoor Crosby, Stills and Nash concert a couple weeks ago.  That’s more money than I ever spent on their LPs.  We saw Jewel at the same place and prices, but that’s the two concerts I’ll go to this year.  Susie also went to Dave Matthews and plans to see a couple more concerts.  Can the music industry survive off of such sporadic support?

This is a great age for music lovers, but what kind of age is it for music creators?

Jim

17,081 Songs

I finally finished ripping my CD collection, a task I’ve been meaning to do for years.  I put it off, time and again, but I finally made up my mind that it had to be done, and when I did, it only took a few weeks.  What I did was set up two old computers to be a ripping factory.  The results were 17,081 songs contained in 125 gigabytes.  I immediately copied them to a USB hard drive and took it to work and backed up the library to my office computer.  I figured after that effort I didn’t want to loose my new digital music library to a crashed or stolen computer.  The question now:  How do I maximize the use of my song collection.

As I write this I keep an iTunes window open with a single long listing of my songs sorted by artist.  My collection represents decades of collecting covering centuries of music history.  One lesson from holding every CD I’ve bought while putting them into the burner is learning how many I’ve forgotten I owned.  On CBS Sunday Morning today they profiled Shelby Lynne, and I checked and found I had six of her CDs, but not the one they talked about that I wanted to hear the most – damn!  Just now I noticed I have four CDs of John Lee Hooker and clicked on Chill Out to play as I type.

Other than just random gazing at my list I have no real idea of what’s in my collection.  I can remember my favorites to a degree, but I’ve discovered its easy to find forgotten favorites, albums I played regularly years ago that I’ve since forgotten I even loved, much less owned.  Can you name all the movies you got excited about during the 1980s?  Susan, my wife, told me to go through all 17,081 and rate them.  Sure thing, Susie.  iTunes tells me I have 48.3 days of 24×7 listening.  I wished iTunes, Windows Media Player, or Firefly Media Server would tell me how many albums I owned.

Since I started this project I’ve been playing music a lot more and loving the rediscovery of old friends, but I’ve also been bummed by how many songs I own that I just don’t dig – not in the least.  Some songs were filler to begin with, but in other cases I guess I’ve just changed.

How To Be My Own Disc Jockey

What I need to do is organize the playing of the best songs and musical genres in a way that educates me about my own collection.  The traditional way to organize playing digital music is playlists, but that assumes you know what you want on your list before you build them.

Another option is shuffle play.  The random jumping between 17,081 songs can lead to some weird song combinations, but it does get me to hear songs I would never try from just memory.  And it can be surprisingly surprising.  “Sleeping in the Devil’s Bed” by Daniel Lanois just started playing.  Hell, I didn’t even know I had a Daniel Lanois CD, but it’s from a soundtrack to movie called Until the End of the World, a film I only vaguely remember.  The next song is “Sunflakes Fall, Snowrays Call” by Janis Ian, which is just as good.  I knew I had several Janis Ian CDs, but never remember even hearing this song, but I’ve played the album several times I know.  The next song is “No Surrender” by Bruce Springsteen, from the Live 1975-85 album.  Again, another song I like but didn’t remember.  Either I have a terrible memory or most music is not very memorable.

So far, I can say that random play succeeds the best to teach me about my own record collection.  However, I just discovered I can’t rate the songs as I hear them because I’m using the Firefly Media Server on a separate computer server to feed them through iTunes, and to rate the songs would require my library being in iTunes on my Vista machine.  This brings up another huge problem for having a digital music library.

Where Do I Keep the Master Library?

Right now my collection is on an old Dell server, ripped and stored under Windows Media Player, but distributed throughout the house by the Firefly Media Server.  I can play songs through iTunes on any machine, or I can play songs through my stereo using a Roku SoundBridge M1001.  I can remotely manage the SoundBridge with VisualMR, so I can use my laptop to select which songs to play on my stereo.  Supposedly, I can use Windows Media Connect to share songs between any Windows Media Player on any of my machines, or use Windows Media Center to distribute songs throughout my house with Windows Media extender devices like the Xbox, but I haven’t figured out how to use them yet, and I don’t own an Xbox.  The Roku maybe an extender, but I haven’t explored that angle either.

I could put a copy of the library on each computer I own, and on my iPods, but what if I decide to delete a song, I’d have to go to each machine and delete the file to keep all the libraries in sync.  That would be messy.  Ditto for adding new songs.  I could buy a 160gb iPod and make it my master library, but that means being tied to iTunes.

I’m thinking about buying a larger hard drive for my main Vista machine and putting the library there and installing Firefly Music Server on the same machine and taking down my extra machine.  Why burn watts on two machines with work that could be done by one?  This would also allow me to backup my library with Mozy.com, which I can restore to my work machine occasionally – so work and home will stay in sync.

Now that I have a master library, I want to clean it up and delete all the songs and albums I don’t like.  And with the master library on one machine I can catalog it in both Windows Media Player and iTunes because I have yet to decide which I like best for browsing songs and making playlists.  And if I ever get a Windows Media Center extender I could browse album covers from my HDTV and play songs on my living room stereo.  Both Windows Media Center and iTunes have the nice cover flow browsing feature.  Let’s hope in the future that cover flow can be expanded to include all the CD jacket data and editorial content.

Another advantage of having a single master library is collecting ratings.  If the files are on the same machine I can rate songs in both iTunes and Windows Media Player.  I have no idea how this information is stored, or whether it migrates well to new computers and new operating system upgrades.

Yet, another advantage to saving my music library on my main home computer is when I buy new songs.  They will be added immediately to the master library.

Where To Play Music?

Most people think the iPod is the sole venue for playing digital music but I don’t.  I maybe an old fuddy-duddy because I don’t like separating myself from the world by plugging the white buds into my ears.  I have nice speakers on my computers at work and home, and I also have a nice stereo system in the den with comfy La-Z-Boys for truly devoted music meditation.  Sure I have iPods to carry around, but strangely, I prefer to listen to audio books on the go.  My wife does like playing music in the car on her commutes, but it’s easy to sync songs to her iPod and play them through the car’s stereo.

I share my music collection with my wife.  We can play music in the den that’s heard well in the kitchen and breakfast room, meaning we can do dishes and groove at the same time.  Eventually I think I might like to pipe my music library into my bedroom too.

Ripping music to MP3 has made it easy to play songs anywhere without the hassle of finding CDs and filing them back afterwards.  The key will be maintaining the master library.  It will be annoying if I delete a hated song one day and then be listening to music the next and that deleted song pop up again somewhere else.  Or conversely, if I buy a song at home but can’t find it on my work computer later.

Buying New Music

Now that I have my nice digital music library and my CDs are all filed alphabetically away, how do I add new music?  Over the past few years I have occasionally bought digital songs that are now trapped in ancient DRMs and stuck on the computers on which they were purchased, and in some cases lost on dead computers.  So no more buying DRM shackled music.

If CDs are about the same price as digital downloads, should I get CDs or files?  I’m tempted to get CDs, but digital downloads are a better deal for the environment.  As long as I keep my master library backed up and migrate it from new computer to new computer digital files should be safe.  If my house burns down I have my backup on Mozy and my work computer.

Yet, it depresses me to think that I’m limited to the sonic quality of 256kbps rips.  With CDs I could re-rip my collection to a new standard in the future, or even rip them to a loss-less format when I have enough main storage.  The Shelby Lynne CD I referred to above is $9.49 as a download and $9.97 as a CD at Amazon.  Which would you buy?  Of course I can listen to it for free on Rhapsody.

I am a subscriber to Rhapsody Subscription Music and I don’t have to buy new music for the most part since I rent.  However, if a CD goes out of print it disappears from Rhapsody.  I have Shelby Lynne CDs that Rhapsody doesn’t offer.  Strangely it seems for a service that offers unlimited plays from an almost unlimited library that you’d think once they offer a song it would never be deleted.  But it appears if it isn’t for sale somewhere it gets dropped by Rhapsody.  That’s why I ripped my large CD collection.  I have many out-of-print CDs that aren’t always on Rhapsody.

If Rhapsody offered everything, and promised to be a business that would last forever, I would have just packed away my CDs without ripping them and lived by Rhapsody alone.  It’s easy to play Rhapsody music from any machine attached to the Internet, and I can send Rhapsody music to my stereo via the SoundBridge, and if I owned a certified player, I could carry it around too.  But right now, Rhapsody is only good for new music – the kind you can buy from Amazon.

I’ve been playing 17,081 songs on shuffle play all afternoon and through the evening and I’m delighted by what it brings me.  Taking the time to rip my music is paying off fast, I should have done it long ago.  It’s like having the most eclectic radio station ever.

Jim