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Rhapsody better online music model than iTunes?

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Do you listen to music while you work on your websites or surf online? I am not able to work in silence very well. And since our office and home are fairly rural, traditional radio reception is spotty at best.

I (think) I’ve tried all the legal online music services out there so far including the new iTunes for Windows, and my personal favorite to date is easily Rhapsody

Rhapsody has a selection of 393,297+ tracks. You can pick out your tunes, organize into custom playlists, and listen to them as much as you want on their server (no downloading necessary) for a monthly fee of $9.95 a month or $24.95 per quarter.

If you want to take the tunes with you (download & burn to CD) then you can download for 79 cents per track. The selection, from what I’ve seen so far is very good with some older, out of print albums up to and including newer release CDs. They offer a 14 day free trial of their service so folks can check them out. Users download the interface through one of many different possible partners.

I’ve mentioned at my blog before listening to Radio @ AOL a lot, but Rhapsody is better, IMO, because of the custom playlists, good selection and the ability to play songs over and over again. Other services like EMusic lack the selection and the quality of buymusic.com is inferior (128k).

Rhapsody has some radio stations too, but I haven’t gotten to there yet. It’s like being let loose in a music warehouse to pick out all your favorite tunes!

Now, for those who love Apple’s iTunes service, let me add why I think Rhapsody is better than iTunes for Windows users.

I think iTunes is a very capable forerunner in legal online music services (they all are services, BTW, because they provide a conduit to accessing music from the labels), but IMO Rhapsody is better for me — for you or maybe others it might be different. Stay with me as I elaborate below..

One complaint about Rhapsody is that many of the tracks aren’t burnable. I don’t know how long ago folks who make this complaint tried Rhapsody out, but these days I’d say it’s something like 90% of the tracks are burnable. I didn’t run a precise test or look around for other independent verification so that number is simply my best guess by navigating around and examining the burn icons next to tracks. So, if we can use this best guess, that part of the service seems to have improved greatly since those with this complaint last perused their service. If we knock off 10% of the songs they still have a larger library of burnable songs than iTunes. Heck, knock off 25% and they still have a larger music selection.

Another complaint: the cost of one track is nearly $10. The cost of a single track over the period of one month can be misleading. Ok, if someone is only going to burn *ONE* track (see comment #7) and no more for that particular month (who is going to do that?) then the cost, rounded up, would be this, yes. That could become expensive to buy music that way, so I’d say if one is that type of online music listener/purchaser than iTunes would be better for them.

And what about Rhapsody’s subscription fee? A monthly subscription fee to be able to legally listen to any and/or all of 375,000+ songs in high quality streams (they don’t have cut out problems on my broadband connection) without any additional fees?

If I want to get the best deal on audiobooks, as posted by a blogcritic in another article, I should sign up for audible.com and get the best deal, that is something Rhapsody does not have, that iTunes has working for them — access to audiobooks at higher prices than available on the source site with separate subscription.

Another objection: comparing Rhapsody to satellite radio. The satellite radio comparison is totally flawed.

I cannot listen to the songs I want on satellite radio. I can’t listen to the same album or even the same song 10 or more times in a row if I want. I can’t blog the songs directly from any satellite radio station. I can’t build my own playlists (my own radio station) on satellite radio. Radio is very much about the track programmer, not the listener. They take you where they want to go with radio, which can be a great way to listen and explore new artists and tracks one wouldn’t have explored otherwise but IMO that is the only upside to radio, any radio.

I’ve been a DirecTV subscriber for years and haven’t listened to more than 30 minutes of their preprogrammed stations. I’ve considered satellite radio service from providers like XMradio but I’d rather be able to access something like Rhapsody via my car stereo than satellite. I think that is coming, and I think I’m going to hold out for that. The days of internet access in cars have already begun.

For those who mostly do not want to burn tracks and take them with them, and especially those like me who use many different computers then Rhapsody is a great service. Is it without flaws or perfect? No. Sure, I could spend hundreds of dollars downloading and burning the tracks we don’t already own (we own some 250 or so CDs), but I already have setup playlists through Rhapsody and the songs or albums that I really, really listen to I will buy individually (I might pay to download a few of them instead of buying the CDs if the quality turns out to be comparable, if not then I’ll pay the extra few bucks and get the CD and burn it). The Rhapsody service saves me money by allowing me to preview — not just 30 seconds — but the entire song. And who chooses the 30 seconds to listen to anyway? Not me, they do. There are 30 second snippets of songs I like that I don’t like so that’s a lousy way to preview music. As I talked with another blogcritic, music tends to need seasoning and listening over and over to a 30 second clip that I didn’t choose isn’t going to season anything but that 30 second portion of the song.

For example: I wouldn’t have dropped $13 on the new Iron Maiden CD (it’s available in its entirety on Rhapsody) if I had been subscribed to Rhapsody. I would have still had to buy Bush Machinehead though because that isn’t available — at least from my searching as of this writing — at either iTunes or Rhapsody or buymusic.com (the three legal music download services I’m using).

So how many tracks have I purchased from Rhapsody to date? The answer is zero. So my cost thus far has been the 10 bones (rounded, if you want to be precise). Burn one album a month from iTunes or any other download service and you’ve eaten up the Rhapsody monthly subscription fee and haven’t had the ability to listen to even a tiny fraction of the music Rhapsody subscribers can listen to. Now, if the internet access isn’t there, neither is the library, so that is a possible downside, but we also have 3 different ISP providers with multiple ways to connect to the internet (before asking why, remember that I work online), so the chance of being cutoff from the web for an extended period of time is small.

Objection: Rhapsody isn’t portable because you don’t physically own the music. You can still burn the songs you want, assuming they are available of course, and at a lower cost (after the monthly fee) than any other current music service and they are pushing to get that cost reduced to 50 cents or so a track. Rhapsody is also currently working on a way to add the ability to listen to playlists from wireless devices, so that will take care of the portable issue. If they can get something into a wireless device I am sure folks can figure out (Radio Shack, the ultimate McGuiver outlet) to get the sound to pipe through their car stereo CD-in jacks.

If — or maybe I should say when — car stereos come internet enabled, I’ll probably get nearly all my music this way. No need to carry around a bunch of CDs (or spend time burning playlists to a few CDs) just to say I “own” the music. Again, this is me, and there is no debating what online music service works best for moi.

iTunes seems better than Winamp and Musicmatch as far as GUI goes although I don’t know why they make the power search a two click process to get to (and not make it available for default option), but it doesn’t have nearly the skins and plugins available that Winamp does.

I think for organizing and collecting MP3 one has already burned iTunes could be worthwhile, I didn’t uninstall it as some have blogged about, so that says I think it’s worth keeping, but if one doesn’t have a lot of MP3 then it isn’t that big of a deal. It’s not like Apple has done anything revolutionary in their Windows version of this product. Why are they are boasting that this is the best application for Windows?

With all that said, I still don’t think iTunes is all that spectacular. They have a couple cool features like the allowance option to keep kids from burning up your credit card bill and the alliance with audible.com for audiobooks. Other than that, I’m failing to see what the big deal is with iTunes. Kudos to Apple for bringing a model that encourages consumers to pay for music, but if I were them, I’d get some sort of comparable subscription fee deal that allows for access to any song in their database like Rhapsody does.

Because of the choice it gives it’s customers, and extra features and flexibility, I think Rhapsody is the overall music distribution model to watch in the coming years. Apple, yet once again, brings a quality product, but as fellow Blogcritic Ken Edwards also writes: it’s too little, too late. Rhapsody grade: A

This review originally appeared at makeyougohmm.com You can find TDavid there writing about a wide variety of topics, mostly dealing with new and existing technology on the web.

More about iTunes for Windows from Blogcritics:
iTunes for Windows First Impressions and Problems
iTunes Music Store too late?
Get iTunes for Windows

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About TDavid

  • Ted Serrill

    In my retirement, while reading and parked in front of the PC, I have heard`countless albums on Rhapsody over the past year or so. Not all complete, unfortunately, as individual tracks as well as many CDs are not made available. Yet, there is an incredible amount that is available. Each day is an adventure in exploration, listening to a range and depth of music I could never have thought possible, such as 70 Miles Davis albums (with 2 to go). I suppose the new AOL service and Rhapsody have 99.9 percent identical music, so I have no reason to change, at present. And the tens of thousands of Rhapsody radio stations, one for each artist, often have tracks from prohibited albums – CDs that the record companies will not permit to be played, but some of the music can be found, anyway. There are other sources, such as a site featuring rare pop songs of the ’20s and ’30s, but Rhapsody alone could keep me tied up for years. And it keeps adding new albums.

  • Doc

    And how great is it to have *multiple* strong services available to choose from? When there’s no competition, companies get lazy so this way they have to stay competitive (in regards to both price and innovation). So let’s hope there *doesn’t* end up one best service that everyone uses!

  • Ted – thanks for sharing that. 70 albums, wow, that’s cool.

    Good point, Doc. With Apple admitting that there isn’t much profit to be had from this online music stuff, that concerns me a little that many will get into this but not be able to stay in it long term. A company can only lose money for so long if it doesn’t have an iPod or other hardware to push. I don’t know if Rhapsody is making money with their model and maybe I should have addressed this in the review, but that will certainly have something to do with their future.

  • And speaking of competition, Doc, did you see that Creative has come up with a device to compete against the iPod?

  • TDavid, you suggested on a previous post that I obviously love iTunes and suggested that I need to be more objective. And then you write this love letter to Listen.com? Something about a pot and kettle comes to mind. <grin>

    Anyway, you also suggested over there that Windows users are saying, “I’ve seen this before,” and I’m curious about where that might be, because I’ve tried all of the services, and I haven’t seen anything like it before. Which one did I miss, or did you just not look very closely?

    Anyway, as you say, some people prefer to listen to customized radio, while others prefer to own the music. Put me down in the latter camp, and you down in the former. I get that. I never suggested that nobody could possibly prefer Rhapsody to iTMS. I was merely listing bullet points that had come up in previous conversations about Rhapsody, and that many people — the majority, it seems — find to be a problem.

    So to rehash yet again, you’ve listed the upside of Rhapsody, I’ll remind readers of possible downsides. Some of these may bother you, some not. I’ll number them so you can provide counter-evidence. I haven’t used Rhapsody in something like six months or more, so some of my info might be outdated, after all.

    1. Connectivity
    1a. To use Rhapsody, you must be on a PC running Microsoft Windows with a broadband connection.

    1b. If your internet connection goes down, you get silence, since none of the music is ever stored on your local PC.

    1c. If you are at work and your company monitors internet traffic or has a policy against streaming music (as many do), you cannot use Rhapsody.

    2. Availability
    2a. Selection — You can burn music to CD (and theoretically rip it back to your hard drive afterward if you wish), but not every track you can hear is available for burning. The percentage is unknown, but if we go with your initial reaction of 90%, that’s roughly 350,000 tracks. iTMS is promising 400,000 within two weeks, if they’re not there already.

    2b. Availability — More importantly, it might bother some people to see and hear a song but not be able to burn it. This is one of things that is hard to quantify, but when you’re in an environment in which things just work, it’s nice.

    3. Economics.
    3a. This is an interesting issue. Most of the problems with Rhapsody’s economic model come from the idea that you won’t always subscribe to Rhapsody. And you may, but experience tells me probably not. I just canceled eMusic after being a satisfied customer for a long time. Do you really want to put all of your economic eggs in the RIAA’s basket? Rhapsody exists at their whim, as do all of the online music services. If they shut them all down tomorrow, I still have all of my music. All a Rhapsody customer has is memories.

    3b. At the end of a given month, a Rhapsody user has paid $9.95 and has nothing to show for it but memories. TDavid, for one, places a pretty high value on those memories, as do XM Radio subscribers. For the purpose of these points, I’ll assign a value of zero to the memories themselves, simply because I don’t know how to value them. Consider the value as it is three years later, when you’ve long forgotten what you listened to that month. By comparison, an iTunes user that has spent $9.95 that month has either ten songs or an entire album that is theirs to keep forever.

    3c. Let us assume that both users like to burn CDs since they don’t live at their computers and want to be able to play music in their car or the backyard or the beach or wherever. I’ll keep it easy and say that the iTunes user pays $9.90 for ten songs. It is common for an iTMS user to pay that amount for 12 or 14 songs in “entire album” form, but I recognize that I am in the minority in always preferring full albums to individual songs. The Rhapsody user pays $17.85 for ten songs, or $7.95 more. Let’s go up to 20 songs each, that’s $19.80 for the iTMS user and $25.75 for the Rhapsody user. I’ll cut the suspense and tell you that the break-even point is 50 songs. The iTMS will pay $49.50 for 50 songs, while the Rhapsody user will pay $49.45, a nickel less. For each songs over 50 in a given month, the Rhapsody user saves another 20 cents. Personally, I haven’t bought 50 songs or five albums in a single month online, but some people do, and Rhapsody is a better deal for them, so long as they do it every month.

    3d. TDavid suggested that few people would ever burn only a single track to disc in a given month, but later states that he has never burned a track to CD from Rhapsody – that’s even worse. Instead of paying $10.74 for one track, he is paying $9.95 for zero tracks. In any case, I based my argument on something I’ve observed about Netflix memberships. I’ve been a member of Netflix for four years now, and I know several other people who also are members. And any one of us can tell you that there are some months, here or there, where we are paying out monthly membership fee to just keep the same darn movies sitting in a drawer. In fact, I keep track of these things, so I can tell you that in January 2003 I had exactly zero new DVDs shipped to me from Netflix and in March of 2001 I had only two shipped to me. My cost per DVD for March of 2001 was $10.80. Ouch! I could have rented those far more cheaply at Blockbuster! Still, my average cost over time is barely over two dollars, so I’m okay with it. So I’ll stand by my assertion that people who burn zero or one tracks (or less than 50, for that matter) aren’t getting their CD-burning value from Rhapsody.

    3e. Which brings up another point. If you have computer problems or internet problems or are out of town on holidays or have family in town or whatever, you might actually pay your monthly fee and not even get the soft benefit of listening to music online at all. You still pay every month, whether you use the service or not.

    4. TDavid is suggesting that he uses Rhapsody for online music and iTunes to manage existing MP3 collections. (Three services and still he can’t listen to music in his car?) In my case, I’ve got an extensive MP3 collection, all ripped from my extensive CD collection which now sits boxed up on my closet shelves. Perhaps this is why I don’t care so much about Rhapsody’s customized streaming services – I’ve got a 120GB hard disk full of MP3s which give me as much listening as I need. And I user one application – one – for all of my music needs. If I want to listen to streaming music, I listen to admittedly-inferior and non-customizable radio Shoutcast stations in iTunes. If I want to listen to songs I’ve ripped from CD, I use iTunes. If I want to rip more songs from new CDs, I use iTunes. To edit meta-information for songs, I use iTunes. Album artwork? iTunes. Purchasing new music? iTunes. Sharing music with the other computer in my house? iTunes. And so on. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather not use two or three different programs when one works so well.

    So there you go, TDavid. I know from past experience with other rapid Rhapsody fans that I will have changed your mind not a whit. And I don’t have any beef with Rhapsody or the people that subscribe to it.

    I happen to prefer pay-as-you-go over flat-rate for things I don’t purchase regularly (unlike DVDs, which I watch constantly), but some people like the predictability of flat-rate.

    I don’t like paying for things I can’t keep when I can help it. I own my home instead of renting, own my car instead of leasing, and so on. Still, I leased my last car, and I suppose that I use Netflix to rent DVDs before deciding which ones to purchase – though I don’t purchase them from Netflix.

    I’d probably consider something similar, using Rhapsody to “rent” music before deciding which albums to purchase via iTMS, if radio wasn’t already serving much the same purpose for free.

    P.S. Lots of companies have devices that “compete against the iPod,” and I’ve used a few. So far, they all suck, and I suspect that includes the much-heavier and much-larger Nomad Zen Xtra, just based on the photos of the controls for the device. Personally, I’d be happy if someone came out with something in the same ballpark as the iPod but for much less money – I don’t own an iPod because of the price. But it hasn’t happened yet, and this doesn’t look like it.

  • Phillip – first of all, thank you for the lengthy response. I appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to comment. And I consider it a real bonus that you went to such great detail 🙂

    Secondly, there is no right or wrong answers to the question of personal preference. You have yours, I have mine and we both seem to agree on that. I even said in the article very clearly:

    but IMO Rhapsody is better for me — for you or maybe others it might be different.

    This wasn’t a “love letter”, nor intended to be, it was a review of Rhapsody, which is what I thought that Blogcritics was looking for — yes, no?

    I took time to compile and prepare this review and I was serious about the point of view it was written from. I wrote about half of this before you ever posted back to me in that other thread and as I said (which I linked it in the article if you noticed) I just lumped in my response with the existing review I had because it was relative. It seemed like it would be more interesting than just taking Rhapsody by itself in light of the iTunes for Windows release. A timing thing.

    My point was to present this as a possible alternative to iTunes and the question mark in the article title is not accidental. I was trying to present more of a general response to the issues you raised in addition to the review which I had pretty much already completed.

    And, BTW, I do fully intend to review the iTunes for Windows but since I am still new to this program, I’m giving myself a chance to fully work through its features and to make sure I give it a fair review and don’t make obvious errors.

    I really do think, at least at this moment in time, that I’d like iTunes on a Mac much better than I do on Windows. Why? I have listed many of those reasons in that article but they almost all boil down the convenience and selection available to me instantly. If you asked me to give iTunes a grade right now, then I’d give it a C+ or maybe a B-, but the jury is still out as I haven’t even downloaded one track from them. I am going to go through that process and then I’ll weigh in.

    I have never admitted that I was an iTunes expert or anything remotely close to it, so give me a chance please to get familiar with it and see how it can fit into things. What, where, how, if anywhere. Some of the information you provided has been helpful to this study, thank you.

    And I’m certainly not in bed with Real (who owns listen.com, yes?) In fact I can’t even stand the Real player (the intrusive way it behaves is too much like a virus, IMHO), so suggesting that I am in “love” with them or any of their partners would be quite a stretch. I think you’ll find that if you re-read my review very carefully that I did bring up several negative issues and that I said Rhapsody was not perfect.

    My point remains that iTunes for Windows is clearly, factually NOT the best Windows application ever. They shouldn’t be trying to sell or promote it that way (which they are) and as a long time Windows user I can ascertain you that it is not the best Windows application ever. Far from it!

    Is it better than Rhapsody and other online music services? I think so at the present time, but that doesn’t mean that with some refinements and improvements it could become the best. Maybe it many other people’s minds iTunes is the best option and they don’t like the idea of essentially renting the music. If you read the comments above, Ted points out a very compelling reason that the Rhapsody model makes sense.

    And the iPod isn’t the only game in town for portable devices either, but that doesn’t mean that I might like to have one someday like millions of other folks 🙂 I just have to figure out where this device would fit into my situation, if it could. Dropping the $400 or whatever it costs for something I’m not going to use doesn’t seem very sensible.

    Generally speaking, I like Apple, I like what they are about and the fact that they strive for quality. But they do confuse me with some of their business decisions. They almost behave from a business point of view like they like being a niche OS instead of simply taking Windows head on when they can. If they had released iTunes for both platforms they would own the market. My only guess why they didn’t do that is because they couldn’t — due probably to issues with licensing with the labels. The music labels, and this is just a guess, used Apple’s smaller, niche user base to feel out the viability of the online music scene.

    Competition is good!

    And where did I ever say that I could not listen to music in my car? LOL. I wrote that I have over 250 CDs (do CDs not play in people’s cars in your neck of the woods? LOL) and what I didn’t write was that I do have many of those CDs burned to MP3.

    The point is that in order to organize those songs into playlists and listen to them — in my car — I can’t do that without burning additional CDs or working out some sort of output from a portable player. Sure, I’ve got all the tracks there, but what if I want specific playlists? Can you make various playlists from the same library of music on the iPod and output through a stereo connection (to like the CD-in for a car)? That’s a serious question, I don’t know, and didn’t go looking for the answer on the web, so please anybody with the answer LMK.

    I’m talking playlists and you are talking songs, so our language is not quite the same here. Also, I’m talking about not going through the process of burning the songs versus saving the material externally and pulling down from a server.

    If you say because I haven’t paid for a track to burn yet that means I’ve had no value that’s just silly. I’ve been able to make many playlists of music that is out of print and/or hard to find. I’ve made several lists and have enjoyed listening to the music. Am I renting the music? Sure I am! Do I own any of it, no! But the point was that I didn’t have to pay a buck a track to find out if I liked the music. So to suggest that there is no value in that 10 bones a month is plain silly.

    There is much to be had for the convenience of not having to carry around yet another device (I have a Creative Nomad player but I have rarely used it). I already carry around a Palm, a camera phone, a laptop, a suitcase … too many things to carry around to carry a music device also — so for me, anyway, convenience and less things to carry is great.

    I will look into your specific comments and try and address those when I get some more time. Thank you again for the lengthy response and hope your day is going well 🙂

  • TDavid, my comments about listening in the car had more to do with the fact that Rhapsody had (the last time I checked) exactly zero functionality for managing existing albums and songs or even playlists, all features I use constantly to update the discs I listen to in my car.

    And yes, the iPod can use multiple playlists containing some of the same songs. My brother has one. I believe all of the playlists must be created in iTunes, though – I think that they’re read-only on the iPod itself.

    And you’re welcome!

  • Hi Phillip – Rhapsody has great playlist features as I wrote about in the article. These days you can organize and name your own playlists, send them to friends, even blog about them using Movable Type, blogger, or javascript (bookmarklet) code. It would be neat if iTunes would build in this blogging feature.

    I have been able to explore all kinds of Thin Lizzy music that has been very difficult to find in music stores (stuff from Shades of a Blue Orphanage, Nightlife, Johnny The Fox) for example.

    A Scorpions CD, Moment of Glory, in our collection bit the dust recently and I didn’t have a burn of it — no problem, I just added that CD to my “possible_download” playlist in Rhapsody because they have the complete CD and every track is burnable. iTunes only had 5 of the 10 tracks (the dreaded “partial album” syndrome), unfortunately. buymusic.com has 8 of the 10 tracks, with a couple tracks priced at $1.99!

    So this is more evidence that in order for one to get to the best selection they are probably going to have to visit more than one online music service. I know you are happy with just using the one service iTunes, but there very likely will be songs that iTunes won’t have (either not at all or partial) that another service will have.

    When I go on my next music buying spree, I’ll be able to utilyze the burning features of iTunes and Rhapsody to compare bitrates (quality).

    I think this is a great time, convenience-wise, for music fans right now. There are several different legal avenues to approach to listen to and acquire music with more coming soon (the return of Napster on Oct 29, for example) and it doesn’t bother me to have to use multiple places to buy the songs I’m looking for. It’s that way in the offline world too. Some stores have the CDs I’m looking for and some are out of stock.

    As for your comment about not being able to use Rhapsody if one doesn’t have a dialup connection?

    Technically this is incorrect. It will work, albeit with a 20k stream, which isn’t nearly the quality. I guess one might still work to be able to prescreen the music on a dialup connection and choose which music to burn. Details from Rhapsody

    One thing I am going to be curious about is what bitrate the downloads for both iTunes and Rhapsody will be when I get to burning. If they are 128k like buymusic.com, I’m going to be disappointed.

    Minimum bitrate should be 160/44 for burned music. Anybody know the bitrates yet of either of these two? If so, please weigh in.

  • But the fact that it isn’t available for the Macintosh automatically damns rhapsody to musical hell.

  • Dew

    I am a monthly Rhapsody subscriber with All Access. I love the service needless to say. Mainly I use Rhapsody to explore new music and check out ‘questionables’ I can not download before I buy them. I believe the service works well for me because I only use it as a resource. For my playlisting and so forth I still use what I assume is now antiquated Windows Media Player 9.0.

    TDavid, the radio channels are excellent. They give you plenty to choose from (genre wise) and the play quite a nice mix. If you are an all access customer you have access to skips and I love the ‘more info’ button which allows me instant access to that album, if available.

    Nice Post!

  • Mary

    can I get a virus from Rhapsody like you can from I tunes ?