10/16/13: Telefonica acquires stake in Rhapsody

Brad Hill
October 16, 2013 - 10:20am

Telefonica, the Spanish telecom company with operations in four continents, has acquired a stake in Rhapsody International, the non-U.S. division of streaming platform Rhapsody, according to Billboard. Napster, owned by Rhapsody, is the primary European brand of the service.

Global expansion is top-of-mind for all the American music services, as they jockey for position in Canada, Latin America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Telephone carriers are assumed to be valuable drivers for brand exposure and audience growth -- witness Muve Music which distributes exclusively on phones.

Telefonica is a telecom giant which already provides a music service called Sonoros to customers in Latin America. Those users will be offered the choice to transfer to Napster on November 1.

The investment comes soon after Rhapsody was shaken by hefty layoffs and a leadership change. Rhapsody’s subscription-only U.S. music service is one of the oldest, having started in 2000, and competes with Google All Access, Spotify, Rdio, and other cloud jukeboxes that offer random access to large music catalogs. It recently added artist-based creation of listening stations to its feature lineup, years after some competitors implemented similar functions.

Brad Hill
October 16, 2013 - 10:20am

In long-ago days, before the Big Bang of Apple’s entrance into the music-hardware business, portable mp3 players were often equipped with FM receivers. In fact, the RAIN editorial office has one of those vintage devices in its museum, right … over … here. It is a Sandisk Sansa e280, optimized for the Rhapsody music service, and featuring FM reception as a standard listening option.

When Apple introduced the original iPod, the lack of FM reception was one way in which the breakthrough device was inferior to competitors, even as it achieved paramount success in the market. Because of that success, FM radio dropped off the standard spec sheet of mobile music devices. (Sandisk still includes it in recently-built Rhapsody portables. We’ve got one of them, too.)

Today, “mobile” means smartphone, and the smartphone category competes brutally with radio for listening hours. It also accommodates radio neatly by enabling station webcasts, aggregated in countless apps, the highest-profile of which are iHeartRadio and TuneIn. The advantage to webcast radio is the global reach; the disadvantages are data consumption, battery consumption, and compressed audio quality.

Purportedly to solve those disadvantages, but really to encourage local radio tuning and find new pipes for its signal, Emmis-developed NextRadio seeks to put over-the-air listening back into handheld devices. NextRadio is a mobile app that works in specially equipped phones. It launched in two Sprint models this summer (RAIN coverage here).

Last Friday, NextRadio hit the ground running in Sprint’s Galaxy Note 3, the first phone brought to market with the app available from the start. As such, it provides a clean baseline to measure adoption, and the NextRadio blog lauds “exponential” uptake -- which means 40,000 app downloads, and 12,000 listening hours spread across 4,000 FM stations. 

A few weeks ago, David Pogue, the New York Times tech columnist, hosted a panel during Advertising Week during which he called Next Radio “the dumbest idea ever.” In a modern context, with the easy availability of global webcasts and celestial jukeboxes comprising 30-million tracks, it’s easy to understand the sentiment. Massive adoption is difficult to imagine, but we’re glad to see the return of over-the-air FM to the interactive listening menu, if only for old time’s sake.

Brad Hill
October 16, 2013 - 10:20am

One of the landmark indie pureplays, SomaFM (www.somafm.com) has grown into a streaming empire over 14 years. Founded and operated by Rusty Hodge, the Internet outlet is located in a San Francisco warehouse. The current programming lineup includes 28 hand-curated, electronica and alt-genre stations.

SomaFM is perhaps best associated with Groove Salad, a stream of downtempo ambient tracks, and the second station launched in Soma’s early days. Groove Salad is personally tracked by Hodge, who maintains a programming staff of about a dozen people. Other stations include Lush (vocals), Deep Space One (self-descriptive), Mission Control (more space), and Doomed (“for tortured souls”).

Hosted on Shoutcast servers, SomaFM produces a darkly attractive website and streams in several formats and bitrates. There is no built-in player, so desktop listening is best accomplished via a stand-alone mp3 player like Winamp or Windows Media Player. [UPDATE: there is a pop-up player in the browser interface; thanks to @Louth for the correction.] We keep Winamp stocked with SomaFM bookmarks. Groove Salad, the tastiest downtempo mix we've ever known, is our go-to station, but we have lately been diving into Sonic Universe, featuring avant-jazz explorations.

SomaFM is an entirely ad-free, listener supported production, soliciting one-time and recurring monthly donations, and selling merchandise (branded coffee mugs, hoodies, etc.). Mobile listening is provided through a four-dollar Android or iOS app.

Brad Hill
October 16, 2013 - 10:20am

As Windows 8.1 counts down to lift-off, Microsoft is placing multiple bets during one of the most tumultuous and transitional times in its history. One of those bets is a renovated Xbox Music app, which will be available to all users by the end of this week.

From Redmond's perspective, the last year can be viewed as an attempt to develop a consumer market for the Windows 8 experience. The Windows 8.1 update makes a few course corrections derived from user pain points in the 8.0 operating system. While the year might not be termed a success, it is undeniable that Microsoft owns the only OS which is truly unified across desktop, phone, and tablet devices -- a bold and forward-looking business strategy that will take time to play out, for good or bad.

In that unified ecosystem, many moving parts update at different times, lurching the whole thing along. Xbox Music has always been a work in progress, intended as a listening platform planted in the home base of Xbox gamers, Outlook emailers, Windows phone mobile users, and Windows 8 desktop pioneers.

Microsoft claims to have based its Xbox Music improvements on feedback from users, and brags that the service is “completely re-imagined and rebuilt.” The design as a whole is reportedly simplified, smoothing previously clunky performance in certain devices. The player controls now remain visible at all times -- a tweak that many users will doubtless welcome as a “well, duh” improvement. The overall thrust, based on previews and leaks reported in Winbeta and The Verge, is quicker access to personalized music, requiring fewer clicks to get the sound going.

Improvements and all, Xbox Music lacks differentiating spotlight features that separate it from the increasingly homogenized streaming-music pack. Its earliest iteration was frankly rudimentary, and it remains mainly an ecosystem touch-point produced by a many-faceted software company.