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Rhapsody: They Still Don’t Get It

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Last month, I tried a trial subscription for AudioGalaxy’s Rhapsody service when I got a promo email. I used to like AudioGalaxy, so why not?

With this service — apparently Listen.com‘s Rhapsody with different branding — subscribers pay $9.95 per month for access to about 18,000 albums by something like 8,000 artists. Musicians and songwriters get paid for each listen.

I will not be continuing the subscription. Here’s why.

When I first signed on, I quickly found a CD I wanted to hear. It took me a few moments of searching for the “download” button before I realized there is none. This is a streaming audio service only. So … there is no way for me to listen to the music on my stereo, in my car, or on a portable player. In short, it’s a $10 per month jukebox … chained to my computer. And I’m just not going to pay for a jukebox unless it comes with the saloon.

The experiment almost ended there, but I quickly found myself wondering, late at night and in the shower, whether Rhapsody had other CDs I’ve been meaning to try. I started looking forward to getting to work to find out. Thinking maybe I’d been too dismissive, I decided to continue the experiment. (Footnote: when I went back to write this review, I learned that it is possible to buy a subscription that allows you to download 10 tracks a month, at least on the Listen.com version. That’s an insult.)

I soon ran into two other problems. First, the software has glitches. Specifically, the buffering system sucks, so songs were continually interrupted while the network caught up. This glitch ruins the experience, and would be reason enough not to subscribe. But presumably it can be fixed.

The second problem is more fundamental. Like all online services I’ve tried, Rhapsody has some glaring gaps in selection. Most critically, it does not have most of the new releases I looked for. Especially for a service that is listen-only, that’s a real downer. If I could be persuaded to pay $10 a month to dial up CD’s on demand, it would have to be for new releases.

On September 11, I decided I wanted to start the day with The Rising. It wasn’t there, so I listened to Darkness on the Edge of Town instead. (Footnote: that record is every bit as good as I remember it, but it seems younger than it used to.) Rhapsody had back catalog, but not new releases, for many other artists I tried — Spoon, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, David Bowie.

Other artists were either missing entirely (Aimee Mann), or were represented by only a tiny slice of their music (Brian Eno). Some of the acts missing completely, like Captain Beefheart, probably won’t bother much of their audience. But they’re also lacking anything by the Beatles.

Annoyingly, a number of the CD’s that were available were missing two or three songs. For example, DJ Shadow’s latest was available, but with only 3 songs. I dialed up Charles Mingus’ record Epitaph, a “unified, 18-movement work” scored for 30-piece jazz orchestra. But it was missing a few key songs — an omission that in context pretty much ruins the point of putting it online at all.

Still, the music Rhapsody did have turned out to be good promotion for the record industry. After listening to a long list of records on my wishlist, I’m going to buy all but one of them. (Here’s a sample: Epitaph, You Are #6, Stereo, and Black Brown and Beige.) Of the records I heard, only one got demoted to “buy later, if at all.” That’s why it is so frustrating that the industry seems unwilling to let me hear things online before buying them — it’s great promotion.

After all that, what online music service would I pay for?

Let the record show that I am willing to pay for music online. Sure, I can get a free version of most songs on a file sharing network. But the quality is inconsistent, and putting together an entire album is a huge pain in the ass.

For my money, the record business can compete with free. They can give me consistent and easy.

There are two models that seem to make sense. First, they could charge a monthly fee and allow downloads. That’s the emusic.com model. (I’ll review that next; I’m a fan, despite its flaws.)

Second, they could have a free or nominal monthly charge for a jukebox service like Rhapsody, plus an option to pay for each download. Given that the label wouldn’t have to pay for distribution or producing the disk, they could probably charge far less than retail and still make money. (Footnote: for either model, I’m assuming that file compression will continue to get better, so a download really is “CD quality.” Right now, mp3’s and the like really aren’t.)

Finally, once I get a song, I need to be able to move it to CD or an mp3 player. That’s only fair. And if I make a mix for a friend, consider it promotion.

Here’s my deal: if the industry offers me a good online product at a fair price, I promise not to put the files online for the world to copy. Sure, a second group will always seek out free, but given the hassle involved and a genuine desire on the part of most fans to see bands get paid, I’ll bet more people would join me.

In their quixotic quest to eliminate the second group, the industry is throwing away an opportunity to make money off the first, and in the end, all of us are poorer for it.

For more information see the Blogcritics posts here and here.

A version of this entry first appeared on Robbed by a Fountain Pen.

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About BJ Johnson

  • Paul

    Good article.
    And it raises the question: How can the labels continue to get away with calling streamed and downloaded music “CD Quality” when by all measures (subjective and objective) it isn’t? Is anyone lobbying to kill this lie?

    Bad quality is one of the main issues that keeps me from enjoying downloaded music (legal or otherwise). To my ears 320k mp3s sound very good, but you never see them.