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Music services not boarding the early Christmas train, but maybe they should

Monday, November 4, 2013 - 1:10pm

Tom Taylor notes in his morning newsletter that all-Christmas radio is breaking out early on the broadcast side. Taylor’s interpretation: “Most are an attempt to lay claim to the local market’s Christmas image -- even if it irritates regular listeners.”

Local broadcasters walk on a thin November ledge between pushing Christmas upon listeners too soon, and attracting Black Friday ad dollars before it’s too late. Most online music services don’t have a sufficient local sales effort to worry about that conundrum, Pandora being the exception.

But a close look at activity in several music services this morning offers indications that users might be swinging into the holiday mood sooner than their in-house programming departments. Holiday listening stations don’t usually appear in the genre lists of music services this early in November, and that trend is born out. The following services lack a Christmas or Holiday preset in their “stations” lineups: iTunes Radio, Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, Slacker (even as a sub-genre of Christian).

Interestingly, user-generated 8tracks.com shows a Christmas tag fairly high up the genre list (Android app), and digging into the details on the website shows over 300 user-created Christmas playlists, dozens of them created in the last few days. Creator comments reveal an eager early-season jubilance: “The jolliest time of year is back!” Some of these playlists were assembled in mid-October, indicating some degree of appetite for the Christmas spirit even sooner than broadcast radio is willing to bet on.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Clear Channel-owned iHeartRadio is displaying a “Holiday” channel preset this morning in the Live Radio section. Some of the listed stations are pureplays, not live, but the interesting point is user comments -- many listeners are happy to find the early dose of Christmas tunes. “Start super-duper early! Why not?”

Note to Apple, Pandora, Rhapsody et al: The Christmas train might be leaving earlier than you think. When you have an unlimited programming slate, it makes sense to claim the space early.

iHeart Radio updates app features, including concierge-style programming

Sunday, November 3, 2013 - 11:35am

We noticed that iHeartRadio put an updated version of its Android app in the Google Play, and were glad to see it brought the Android experience to parity with the Apple app. Trying it out, we see two notable additions.

Unadvertised in the app stores, but added in both the Android and iOS apps, is the “Perfect for” section, which adopts concierge-style programming currently in vogue. Pioneered by Songza’s “life moments” organization of playlists, and later more-or-less copied by Slacker, concierge-style presentation makes it easy for the listener to lean forward briefly, identify a mood, activity, or time of day, then lean back for the curated music experience.

Clearly, iHeart programmers had the RAIN editorial office in mind when packaging this section, as the first choice is Drinking Coffee. Drilling into that selection amusingly yields layers of musical caffeination: Shot of Caffeine, Extra Sugar, Third Cup Jitters, and Espresso Energy. Each is a package of stations. The selections feature a mix of live stations and curated playlists. (One of the streams is co-branded with Dunkin Donuts.) Other “Perfect for” categories are likewise expanded with a tongue-in-cheek wink (e.g. Downward Dog Days in the Yoga group).

iHeart is bragging about another new usability feature: a big plus sign (+) that offers one-touch addition of any programming element onto your Favorites page. That’s good, but not prevalent enough. In our testing, we saw the plus sign only on the Now Playing screen. We found that limitation frustrating when combing through the service adding stations; many times we wanted to fling a station into Favorites for later, without having to boot it up first. Especially when listening to one of the Espresso Energy stations.

Pureplay(s) of the Day: Nightbreed Radio and Abnormally Dead Air

Thursday, October 31, 2013 - 12:30pm

You can’t have imagined that the Halloween edition of Pureplay of the Day would be cheery. The two stations featured today for your dark listening pleasure reach deep into goth repertoire for their creepy, thrashing, deadening effect.

Abnormally Dead Air is the more merciless of the two, a relentless goth-rock stream of shining darkness from beyond.

Nightbreed Radio isn’t a meadow of tulips either. This morning we got in the Halloween mood early with The Cure, Love Like Blood, and Squishy Squid. But if you can believe in Goth with a lighter heart, Nightbreed Radio is your choice. Tonight at 7pm the Monster Mash program is scheduled until 1am -- that’s GMT, which is several hours ahead of U.S. time zones. Not to worry about your mood music for the evening in the States, though: the Death and Resurrection show starts at 1am GMT to continue the holiday anti-cheer. 

What about Halloween party music, you ask? The feel-good, just-kidding-about-the-blood playlists? Try the in-house and user lists in Spotify. Our unscientific poking around for Halloween sounds that won’t crush your spirit had good results on that platform. Another good bet is Pandora's Spooky Symphonies station for cinematic chills.

REVIEW: New Rhapsody features in Android

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - 12:10pm

It is a busy month for Rhapsody, the godparent of music services. During October the Internet jukebox launched new “radio” features that enabled artist-centric listening (trailing some other services by a few years, but still), closed an important partnership with international telecom giant Telefonica, and started giving free service to CD buyers at Best Buy.

September wasn’t so buoyant. First came rumors of a leadership shakeup, then came the actual shakeup, accompanied by a broad swath of layoffs.

Back to October. Rhapsody continues its strong month by giving its Android app users an updated experience that adds these key features:

  • EQ 
  • A sleep timer 
  • Enhanced programming 
  • WiFi-only downloads
  • Log of recent searches
  • Backskipping in Stations mode 

The on-board equalizer (EQ) is welcome, especially in mobile listening through earphones of varying quality. Most bargain earbuds don’t have the sonic capacity to bring EQ’ing fully to life (we’re looking at you, Apple), but for those very deficits it helps to punch the highs and lows. And with the advent of WiFi speakers in the home, massaging the sound in the app is a forward-looking feature.

As it happens, Rhapsody is looking backward and forward. The computer desktop app (yes, there is one, and while it’s no Spotify in most regards, it is a robust and reliable piece of software) has had a lovely pop-out EQ widget for over two years -- and it’s better than the new Android EQ. The desktop EQ has twice as many frequency bands: ten instead of five for mobile. And wow, does it sound better in side-by-side listening over the same speaker system.

We were hoping that the Android EQ would flip into a ten-band equalizer when in landscape mode, which would have inspired us to inaugurate a Cool Feature of the Month award. We twirled the phone around like a cheerleader’s baton, but sadly, no frequency-band enhancement was forthcoming.

The selection of EQ presets is reduced in the Android version, too, compared to the desktop. This seems like an unnecessary deprivation, especially when our favorite (“Presence Lift”) has been cruelly struck from the menu. We shouldn’t believe that Rhapsody is targeting our sensibilities particularly, but the evidence tempts our paranoid instincts.

A new sleep timer is nicely functional, and a welcome convenience to anyone who drifts off to music. (Provided they think ahead.) It shows up in the menu only when you’re in the Now Playing screen, and offers shut-off times of 15, 30, 56, 60, and 120 minutes.

Rhapsody is stepping into the “360 programming” trend with exclusive articles and videos. they are loaded into the Featured section, where new items are collected as Posts, as in a blog. That’s attractive packaging -- it seems up-to-date and timely. Band spotlights comprise the most interesting items. New house-built playlists are promoted there, too. Lou Reed-inspired tracks were all over the place during our testing, and some historical surveys (e.g. The Velvet Underground’s Legacy, and Hits You Never Heard Of, part 11).

It seems as if Rhapsody is allowing its editors to indulge their idiosyncratic passions. One article compared two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with audio samples -- our Baroque brains loved it, but we’re the first to admit that this particular feature lives way down on the long tail.

Finally, there is the introduction of backskipping in Radio mode. You can go backward to revisit a track that already played. With this feature, Rhapsody dishes out a major piece of interactive candy, and waves goodbye to Spotify in the rear-view mirror. Rdio is back there in the dust, too, along with iTunes Radio. Backskipping is not a unique innovation -- the arduously named Google Play Music All Access has it, too, with a beautiful graphic interface. But competing skip-to-skip with a big-media service is a perfect way for Rhapsody to start overcoming its arthritic image as the streaming grandparent.

All in all, an ambitious, even gleeful update during a tumultuous autumn for Rhapsody. And it appears that Android users are getting the juiciest bits first these days.

Pureplay of the Day: East Village Radio

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - 12:25pm

Operating in a street-level studio on First Avenue in New York, East Village Radio (www.eastvillageradio.com) is an FM-to-Internet conversion story. Kicked off the air by the FCC for broadcasting on an unlicensed frequency, EVR took its act(s) into IP delivery.

Resembling a college station but with even more eclecticism, EVR presents an always-on schedule of two-hour shows hosted by individual and paired DJs. The programming is mostly musical, but includes straight talk and music & interview mixes. (Some shows are repeated during the week, so if you have DJ skills and live in the city, you might find receptivity to your pitch.) We have a weakness for Guilty Pleasure, which features indie pop on Mondays from 8-10pm.

The great beauty of East Village Radio is its library. Each show is archived. Some of these archives go back for years. There is a deep well from which to drink when you find your favorites. (Guilty Pleasure, has over four years of shows on the shelf.) Program playlists are archived also -- another link to the college-radio ethos which seems to infuse the EVR experience.

Here at the RAIN editorial office, we confess to an unabashed love for East Village Radio. It embodies the renegade spirit of grass-roots broadcasting which might get new wind with the FCC expansion of LPFM (Low Power FM). Wide-ranging, personality-driven, local, and adventurous, East Village Radio brings primal values of broadcasting to the pureplay realm.

EVR is distributed via Android and iOS apps, in addition to the desktop website.

Swedish musicians threatening to sue their labels over Spotify distribution

Monday, October 28, 2013 - 11:55am

It might seem ironic that Swedish musicians are unhappy with their participation in Swedish-born Spotify. But it makes sense that if any national group of artists would take action related to Spotify payouts, it would be in Sweden, where streaming music has become rampantly popular. Spotify reportedly accounts for 70 percent of Swedish music sales, with 10 percent of the population subscribing to the paid service.

The musician argument is less with Spotify than with labels, and how Spotify revenue is shared with artists by those labels. When Spotify income is treated like album-sale income (physical or download), artists share the money according to a royalty split, typically 10 percent. Licensing revenue, by contrast, is often set as a 50/50 split in artist contracts, and the Swedish complaints assert that Spotify distribution of music tracks should be a licensing scenario. The musicians union involved in this controversy is threatening action to remove artist repertoire from Spotify.

This Swedish page can be translated for quotes by the union head. The Guardian has an English write-up here

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