Recently, Yahoo unveiled the beta version of its answer to iTunes, Yahoo Music Unlimited. The business model is similar to Netflix‘s: for a flat fee, currently set at $4.99 a month if you sign on for a year, you can download as many Windows Media Audio files (WMA’s) as you want to from their selection.
There are three major caveats:
1) You do not gain a property right to the WMA files – so as of midnight on the day your subscription runs out, you can’t play the songs any longer.
2) You cannot transfer the WMA’s to an mp3 player unless it is one of a dozen or so new models by the likes of Creative, Dell, and iRiver – so iPods and old Creative Jukeboxes need not apply.
3) You cannot burn WMAs you have downloaded onto a cd, unless you pay another 79 cents per song for the right to burn it.
I’ve been using Yahoo Music Unlimited for about a week or so, and I think it’s pretty awesome. The songs download pretty quickly – under 10 seconds for most tracks.
The fact that you don’t actually get a property right to the files bothered me at first, for the same reasons I hate paying rent and would never lease a car. And I guess part of that was because I wondered if the tracks would play unpredictably, starting and stopping the way that streaming media does. But because the files are downloaded onto your hard drive, they play and sound just like an mp3, and not a preview or streaming file. I have an old Gateway 2000 hooked up to my stereo with a standard $7 cord from Radio Shack, and it sounds great.
Like iTunes, Yahoo Music Unlimited’s selection is extremely unpredictable. This is obviously mostly a consequence of the developing state of the services’ contractual arrangements with labels. The most frustrating example of this has to be the Rolling Stones’ catalogue: the earliest album of theirs offered is 1971′s Sticky Fingers. The Stones had already released 4 or 5 masterpieces by 1971, and although 40 Licks is there to take care of a lot of the hits, I want “Monkey Man,” “Please Go Home,” and all the other great Stones album tracks from the 60′s (a friend of mine once got into a heated argument with a stranger about whether Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street is a better album – but I’ll take 1969′s Let it Bleed over either one).
The inverse of this problem happens with Led Zeppelin – while you can download some really cool Yardbirds stuff, like The Little Games Sessions (which features “White Summer,” an early version of Zeppelin’s “Black Mountain Side”) you can’t get anything from the band Jimmy Page formed just a year or two later. No “Stairway,” no “Kashmir,” no “The Rover.”
Another band that would be good to have is the Beatles. But you can’t really blame this one on Yahoo – Beatles stuff always has a premium on it. And considering Jacko owns the Beatles’ catalogue now, maybe it’s a good thing that they don’t have the Beatles. Do you really want part of your subscription fee going to this?
The gaps in Yahoo’s classic rock selection are made up for by impressive offerings from other heavyweights. So far, I’ve downloaded the Jimi Hendrix box set, the Who box set, the Cream box set, the James Brown box set, the Velvet Underground box set and the recently-released VU Quine demos, all of David Bowie’s 70s albums, most of Bob Dylan’s 60s albums, his three-volume Bootleg set, and that 1966 live show where the guy calls him “Judas” for playing electric guitar.
I can’t believe how much good music that is for five dollars a month! Each of those box sets costs about $60 – the full-year cost of Yahoo Music Unlimited – individually.
Here’s a quick run-down of various other things I’ve searched for, to provide a very inconclusive glimpse of what is and isn’t included in Yahoo Music Unlimited’s offerings:
Southern Rock from the South: Yahoo has a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd, including a number of live versions of classics like “Sweet Home Alabama.” And they have the excellent Southern Rock Opera by Alabama’s Drive-By-Truckers. But they don’t have anything by the garage rock duo the Immortal Lee County Killers, Alabama’s wild-eyed answer to the White Stripes.
Southern Rock from Canada: Yahoo has a bunch of stuff by The Band, and most of Neil Young’s catalogue, including classics like Everyone Knows This is Nowhere, Tonight’s the Night, and On the Beach. Ironically, Trans, the bizarre, futuristic electronic experiment that made Neil the first artist sued by his record company for making “intentionally uncommercial music,” is not available by download.
Bands involved in P2P legal battles – Wilco’s decision to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by P2P, after their label said they didn’t hear a single, has become a legendary example of how an artist can profit off of P2P, so it isn’t surprising that most of their stuff is available on Yahoo’s service. Terrence Trent D’Arby and Chuck D, who were parties in one of the amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court for Grokster are also represented in Yahoo’s selection. In contrast, nothing from Metallica’s catalogue is available for download, which is not surprising.
Alternative/Indie Rock – Queens of the Stone Age is the only band that rocks hard enough to make lyrics like “I can go with the flow” seem badass. Yahoo has their last three albums, but not their eponymous debut, which is uneven, but has some great songs on it. Also, Yahoo has several albums from pre-Queens band Kyuss, but does not have any of the Desert Sessions side projects, which spawned demo versions of many Queens songs. Yahoo’s selection in this area is very unpredictable – the service does not have anything by Radiohead, Pavement, or Fugazi, but does have Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, and Unwound.
Jazz – Yahoo has very impressive offerings from the likes of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, including some of the really nice box sets, like Davis’ Complete Columbia Recordings and Bitches Brew Sessions. It takes several minutes just to sort through the selection of recordings Yahoo has for Davis and Coltrane.
Radar Love – Was Golden Earring French or Dutch? I was debating this topic with someone recently. At any rate, its safe to say that they were the closest a European band ever got to sounding like ZZ Top. Yahoo has a lot of great one hit wonders like this classic, and one hit wonders are one of the best things to download, because you don’t really need the whole album anyway. They’re missing some good ones, though, like the Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind” (instead of the British Invasion-era original, Yahoo has covers by David Bowie, Johnathon Richman, and several other people).
Yahoo Music Unlimited’s interface is a downloaded Music Engine, which then connects to the internet when you want to download something, similar to the way iTunes works. While the Music Engine is relatively simple and easy-to-use, there are a couple of problems Yahoo should fix:
1) You can either click to download the entire album, or go to the album’s listing and look at the available tracks. But sometimes, only some of the songs on a given album are available for download. This may be due to contractual issues in some cases, such as a compilation album or best-of, where multiple labels are involved. But the main cause of this seems to be when there are multiple copies of an album listed, where there has been a reissue or alternate version of the album released.
The problem with this is that the individual songs seem to be included in Yahoo’s library only once, so that clicking on the “download album” button on the “2004″ version of an early 70′s rock album might get you just the new bonus tracks that were added in the reissue version, but not the main album tracks themselves. To get the full album, you have to go download the other pre-reissue listing of the album, too. With some albums, there’s no explanation for this double-listing. For example, when I searched for the Jurassic 5 album Power in Numbers, there were four versions of the same album listed – two with explicit lyrics, and two edited versions. Then, within both of the “explicit” or “edited” categories, there were different versions from consecutive years, with some of the tracks on one, and some of the tracks on the other.
2) The other problem is that the Music Engine’s connection to the online component seems to get messed up easily. For example, sometimes when you switch back and forth from “Yahoo Music Unlimited” to “My Music” on the interface (which you’re going to be doing a lot if you want to play music while you’re searching for more), it disconnects. And weird things happen if you accidentally log out or close the program while it is downloading. This happened while I was downloading, and the songs came out sounding distorted, and jerky like a skipping cd. That’s only happened once, though, with a tiny percentage of the (seemingly millions of) songs I’ve downloaded.