Turning Over a New Lease: The Problems With Rental Music

I've always wondered how the other half lives. You know, the XM/HD Full-Spread Cable set. So I checked out three popular subscription music plans, each promising the world for less than the cost

Sep 19, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Oliver Meinerding

I've always wondered how the other half lives. You know, the XM/HD Full-Spread Cable set. So I checked out three popular subscription music plans, each promising the world for less than the cost of a single CD!

But forget Rick Rubin (see the Spill It blog at blogs.citybeat.com/spill_it for my response to a recent New York Times article on his new job at Sony). Renting music remains a drag. Sure, they correctly hook our innate craving for variety and abundance in music. They guess we might choose 24/7/365 access to everything over ownership of anything.

Proponents believe price is key to this proposition: Is there some small monthly fee (less than the price of a CD) we'd be willingly pay forever? It's a no-brainer for labels, an endless river of money, growing in lockstep with population. For consumers, it differs little from the cell and cable plans we know and despise.

Still, it seemed like a deal for people like me who already spend a lot on music. Why not move upscale?

I started with Real Network's Rhapsody. It's similar to Lala.com, adding rented access to more familiar streamed and purchased tracks, linked to a big library. Both have a proprietary player, but Rhapsody's player (like iTunes) converts your existing music, eating up disk space. Unlike iTunes, it doesn't work with Macs and lacks cool features like album art and integration of other content (like movies and pdfs).

The Rhapsody-To-Go service un-tethers the music — sort of. Songs have an expiration date, in case you stop paying Real. Those with Macs or an iPod (the most popular portable MP3 player made today) get a cheesy Web-based service called Rhapsody Unlimited. Rhapsody's free service limits your sampling to 25 streamed listens per month, while you can listen to Lala tracks all day long.

Forget good sound quality, a problem with all services (current 99-cent tracks are not CD quality), but the streams are a worse. I'm not a fan of Real's codecs and virus-like applications, so the required software installation doesn't thrill me. Real never misses an opportunity to trick or suck you into their content delivery schemes. Ultimately the music seems like a trojan horse designed to suck you into a RealVideo "SuperPass."

While Rhapsody encourages "sharing" tracks via e-mail, the quality and proprietary players are the catch (basically you become part of Real's pyramid scheme, trading your friend's computer to pump up the player's "installed base").

None of this is surprising given Rhapsody's pedigree, but from a user perspective it's DOA. Adobe's Flash is the defacto standard for the delivery of multimedia content, while Real's been steadily losing market. Poor sound quality and proprietary formats combine with the bad experience that historically defines their players.

Tethering users to a tiny list of compatible portables is the final nail in the Rhapsody coffin. Not only do they cut the iPod out of the mix, they don't bother supporting rival Microsoft's Zune (which, like Apple, has it's own format). Finally, their plans are confusingly named. Why isn't the "Unlimited" plan top of the line? I took the hint and moved on.

Napster To Go has moved from industry pariah to darling. As a Web-based service, they say you can share and embed links to your playlists and music, accessible on any computer. But don't confuse Web access with universality: The tracks and streams are based on the WinMedia format (which Yahoo! also uses), so your iPod won't work easily. And the free streaming service wouldn't work with Safari on my Mac so I bailed (Firefox seems to work, though). On the plus side, Napster and the others, unlike Apple, are happy to let you re-download tracks when your hard-drive fails.

I won't tar Yahoo! with quite the same brush, but there's definitely a common theme. Yahoo!, like Apple's iTunes and Rhapsody, relies on a Yet Another File Format to cripple tracks (Windows Media again). None are any better or worse than the competition, but none are as useful as plain old MP3s. Oddly there's no support whatsoever for Macs, so forget iPods.

Yahoo!Music claims to be in "beta" (read: "it doesn't work quite right yet, regardless of platform"). Click on their FAQs — they lead nowhere. You can browse music, subscribe and spend money, but there's no way to get to information about any of it.

The good news: They repeatedly warn Mac users not to bother at all. Indeed, if you've got a Mac, you can't even buy their locked-down tracks for 99 cents (forget rentals!). And so ended my dream.

While the purchased tracks sound the same as Apple's, all the free or "unlimited" streams sound bad — space-monkeys and grunge. So in the end, it still costs around 99 cents per song if you want something you can play in your iPod or CD player since anything you burn, you can rip into any of the players.

But worst of all, classics like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC remain MIA online. So even if you love the concept, none of the current services really satiate the beast.

When music is just background noise or the content doesn't matter, subscriptions could be a good deal. But it doesn't replace purchased tracks or CDs for the serious digital music fan. For me that's the deal breaker. Sorry Rick Rubin — subscriptions aren't quite ready to unseat CDs or even iTunes, much less BitTorrent. ©