D Story

Xbox Music set for re-launch

Wednesday, 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.

Pureplay of the Day: iHeart’s All Beatles & Stones Radio

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 - 9:55am

Some Boomers will tell you that in the 1960s and early 1970s, everyone identified either with The Beatles or The Rolling Stones -- but not both. The two preeminent recording bands of the era anchored opposite poles of a sprawling rock-pop continuum.

The Beatles: crafted, elite, highly produced, well-fed, boyish, experimental, their drug use in the service of musico-spiritual enlightenment.

The Stones: grounded, jamming, low production values, starving, old before their years, traditional, their drug use in the service of getting stoned.

If these two juggernaut bands divided the audience, iHeartRadio has been trying to capture the whole for over a year with All Beatles & Stones Radio. Presented on the iHeart platform, this unique stream is non-interactive -- no skipping. Start it up and lean back. (All Beatles & Stones was first covered in RAIN here, with legal considerations.)

The station is a link to youth for anyone old enough. For others … well in last season’s American Idol episode devoted to The Beatles, it was obvious (and confessed) that several contestants had never heard a Beatles song. So the iHeart station could be a musical education for some. Either way, it is great, vintage listening.

QUICK HITS: Musicians on Spotify; iHeartRadio Theater pics

Friday, October 11, 2013 - 11:45am

Video: NME Magazine took a video camera to young musicians in the U.K. to ask them, bluntly, whether Spotify is evil. (Watch it here.) The answers were (perhaps politely) all variations on the theme of “No.” Musicians (at least, the ones edited in) expressed favor for the exposure and marketing opportunities of being on the Spotify platform.

iHeartRadio Theater pics: Four years after opening its New York City theater, iHeartRadio is expanding its venue business to Los Angeles. Using a remodeled TV studio (formerly the stage for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno), iHeart will host an opening night featuring Katy Perry, as has been well publicized. Billboard got inside the place, still showing signs of construction, and snapped some photos. (See them here.) There’s also some Q&A with Clear Channel exec Tom Poleman. 

QUICK HITS: Google, Rdio, and an excoriation of Slacker

Thursday, October 10, 2013 - 11:00am

South of the border: After a recent expansion of its streaming and cloud-serving music service to a half dozen European countries earlier this month (covered in RAIN here), the irregularly named Google Play Music All Access is now accessible in Mexico. Farther north, Canadians are still waiting for both Google and Apple to bring the warmth of streaming music to their chilly clime.

Student perk: A little late for back-to-school shopping, Rdio is offering half-off its subscription streaming plan to verified college students, lowering the monthly rate to $4.99. Will students dish out to avoid ads? That remains to be known. In the meantime, see Audio4cast’s broader picture of Rdio’s movements in the Internet radio space. 

Burning indictment: Rocco Pendola, a stock analyst at TheStreet.com, left all forbearance behind in his assessment of Slacker’s newly launched “My Vibe” feature. The heading of Pendola’s review sears into the page: “Apple Should Buy Slacker and Burn It to the Ground.” You might recall our interpretation of Slacker’s new product, which we said flagrantly imitated Songza’s “Life Moments” programming style. Apparently the derivative nature of Slacker’s product development gave Pendola some sleepless nights: “Slacker gives Internet radio a bad name,” he raves. 

Turntable.fm enters the concert streaming space

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 10:45am

Turntable.fm is an interactive music service, but could more aptly be described as a social network focused on music. Started in 2011, the site formerly allowed users to upload shareable music on the site. Using the DMCA as a licensing tactic is legitimate, but that strategy that comes with endless legal difficulties. Adroitly, Turntable.fm offloaded the DMCA liability (and file-hosting expense) to SoundCloud, an upload-and-share music warehouse.

Searching around for a new hook to attract and retain users, Turntable.fm has lined up a series of concert events that will provide unique listening content and a new revenue model. Bands in the series control the funding for the live stream; tickets for virtual viewing cost three dollars. The signature Turntable.fm social experience holds for the live concerts -- virtual spaces, avatars, cheers, and jeers.

Here is the concert lineup for October. 

Deezer champions classical with new app

Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - 7:10am

Classical music listening online is an uneven experience, and now has a new champion in Deezer, the 2006-founded, French-based listening platform with 30-million users and 4-million subscribers.

Deezer has launched an app in cooperation with major classical labels Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, Philips, L’Oiseau Lyre, and Accord. Those labels are placing their entire discographies into the Deezer catalog. Deezer reportedly surveyed its users about interest in classical, and 92 percent replied they would listen to classical if there were a better discovery environment. Surveys are all about how you ask the question, but you can’t blame Deezer for taking the bait.

In the larger market, classical is among the nichiest of the niche. Nielsen’s 2012 report of genre album sales shows classical (7.5-million physical albums) lower than every other category except for New Age, down 20 percent from 2011. On the digital side, 2.6-million albums were purchased, a gain of 14 percent. So, more reason for Deezer's optimism -- and the Nielsen numbers do not account for streaming.

The overall point is that classical music serves a marginal audience. A secondary point is that streaming platforms serve it poorly.

It wasn’t always the case. Rhapsody got its start in 2000 as a classical-only online jukebox, presenting exactly one label: Naxos, the adventurous purveyor of unusual repertoire across the centuries. It was an unexpected slice of heaven for classical lovers (those who were aware of it).

Rhapsody and the other services include classical, but typically in ways that are screwy to users who value classical listening the most. Streaming classical is confused by song-based conventions of the other genres, and by metadata that does not convey proper information. Symphonies are good examples. A single symphony is actually multiple pieces, strung together in so-called movements. Universally, classical streams rip apart multi-movement pieces illogically and irreverently, as if the movements were album songs.

Labeling is also a problem, even in Rhapsody, whose legacy should make it the best in this regard. In classical, the composer is as important (or more so, for many fans) than the performer. In song-based genres it's the opposite -- the composer (songwriter) is unimportant as a search term. The frequent result in classical is that you can’t tell exactly what is streaming, or what is included on an album that pops up in a search result.

If Deezer solves these presentation problems, it will perform a cultural service. Whether it will make any money doing so remains to be seen. (Deezer is not distributed in the U.S., and is unavailable to RAIN for review.)

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