Rhapsody’s new Track Match: a good feature with uneven performance

Monday, December 9, 2013 - 12:20pm

Song recognition apps like Shazam and SoundHound tap into a widespread desire to identify music in any environment. Shazam has been downloaded from the Android app store over 100-million times; SoundHound has seen over 50-million downloads. One use for these apps is to identify songs on the radio and integrate them into personal online playlists via music services.

Music service Rhapsody upgraded its Android app with something called Track Match, to solve the music-recognition need within its full-featured subscription platform. It’s a good idea -- you hear something, tell Rhapsody to identify it, save it in your library. The feature makes the celestial jukebox more connected to the real world of sound.

How well does it work?

Ideal Conditions

To test Track Match’s ear, we started easy. Using mid-level computer speakers streaming another music service (not Rhapsody), we held up an Android smartphone running Rhapsody’s Track Match feature. The phone was about three feet away from the speakers.

We started with two electronica tracks: “Interloper” (Carbon Based Lifeforms) and “Merlion” (Emancipator). Rhapsody failed to recognize either one. Rough start -- even more so when we put Shazam and SoundHound on the trail of those two tracks, and both apps identified them without hesitation.

Was the music too obscure for an initial test? Probably not, as both tracks appear in the Rhapsody catalog. We veered a bit toward pop mainstream with “You’ll Find Love” (The Cutes). The result was odd. Rhapsody did not recognize The Cutes, but did seem to know the track title, and displayed a list of other tracks whose titles contained “find love” (e.g. “You’ll Never Find Another Love”). This perplexing result cause some head-scratching in the RAIN office, but onward.

Persevering, we played “Rescue” (Yuna), and “Burn” (Ellie Goulding). Success! Rhapsody Track Match proudly identified both songs. In the heart of the mainstream, we tested “Alien” from Britney Spears’ new album, and Michael Buble’s holiday classic, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” No problem with those.

Classical Success

Classical music provides an interesting laboratory for track-matching. The standard classical repertoire has been recorded dozens of times by different performers -- it is all cover music, when you think about it. So apps like Shazam, SoundHound, and Rhapsody Track are challenged to identify the piece (for example, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”) and the performer (one of the innumerable pianists whose recordings of that piece are in the standard catalog).

We started with the “Moonlight,” and Rhapsody hit both marks. We tried an orchestral work: Tchaikovksy’s “Cappriccio Italien.” Bingo. We did others, and Rhapsody kept pace. (Interestingly, Rhapsody started as an all-classical service in 2001 before quickly expanding to all genres.)

Listening to Itself

It occurred to us that Rhapsody might have trouble recognizing music as played through another service. That wouldn’t be an excuse, of course -- any song-identification program must deal with poor listening conditions of all sorts. Still, we set up a Rhapsody echo chamber, playing the first two (unrecognized) electronica cuts from Rhapsody’s web app, through the same speakers. It got them! Perhaps the encoding process or compression rate differed in the two tests, but again, it’s still a fail if the matching app cannot cut through sonic issues. Speaking of sonic issues... 

We simulated real-world conditions by simultaneously playing music and a sound effect of crowd noise. We laid in the noise pretty heavily. Going back to Britney Spears and Michael Buble, Rhapsody teased out the music through the crowd sound.

The Upshot

We’re glad Rhapsody introduced this differentiating feature. We hope for reliability improvements to come.

Spotify partners with Vodafone Ireland, another telecom-music hookup

Wednesday, November 20, 2013 - 10:50am

Spotify has partnered with Vodafone Ireland, one of many country-specific branches of the international telecom giant. The deal is another instance of a music service joining a telecom carrier in a synergy that benefits both companies. We are certain it is a trend that will accelerate in 2014.

Vodafone’s global customer base surpasses 400-million, and its Irish subscriber base is 2.35-million users. Billboard notes that Vodafone is committing a $2-million marketing campaign to the alliance. Spotify is now built into some of Vodafone Ireland’s high-data plans.

Financial details are not public, but the advantage to Spotify is clear-cut. Vodafone (and any telecom company) owns the billing relationship, usage contract, and device. Putting a music service into that ecosystem is powerful in the same way as Apple bundling iTunes Radio into a platform that contains millions of user credit cards. It moves the music service upstream from the device into the pipe which feeds content to the device -- a more unassailable position for Spotify.

For Vodafone, Spotify becomes a key brand attraction, making their smartphones instantly-enabled mobile music machines. Like any ecosystem, telecom companies strategize around retention. Keeping mobile users musically happy is increasingly crucial.

Users win too, especially existing Spotify subscribers. They can cancel their stand-alone subscriptions, possibly save money with the bundled Vodafone version, and simplify their media payments.

In October, Rhapsody joined forces with Telefonica, another international behemoth, in what could be an antidote to that service’s daunting U.S. competitive problems. Deezer, the Paris-based music subscription platform that operates throughout Europe and other continents, has used telecom partnering (e.g. Deutsche Telekom) as a strategic pillar, and rumors say that Deezer is searching for a cell partner to substantiate a U.S. launch in the next few months.

Rdio’s deep cuts and the troubling future

Wednesday, November 20, 2013 - 10:50am

Rdio, competing for audience in a crowded online-music market, made significant workforce reductions to lower costs. Layoffs are reported to have carved out about a third of the company.

The subscription music service competes directly with Spotify, Rhapsody, Google All Access, and Xbox Music in the U.S., and more generally with Pandora, iTunes Radio, Songza, Slacker, and other radio-style streaming platforms.

In the wake of the layoffs, Rdio made confident noises about its future destiny: “Rdio confirms making workforce reductions yesterday to improve its cost structure and ensure a scalable business model for the long-term.” But the road will get rockier in the short term.

Rdio started in 2008, and opened its platform to the public two years later, about one year before Spotify expanded into the American market. Despite the early-mover advantage in the U.S., and without the significant European listenership Spotify built up since its 2008 launch, Rdio lags in audience metrics. The company did not release updated numbers today, but Digital Music News is quoting 250,000 paid members. Spotify boasts six-million paying subscribers.

At least one departing Rdio worker was a contractor, not an employee -- Ian Gilman, a freelance app developer, who documented his exit on Twitter and called Rdio his largest client. It is common for companies trimming costs to look hard at their contracted labor force. But little is known about the “Who?” and “How many?” of today’s action.

Jukebox service Rhapsody, the grand old uncle of subscription music, underwent a layoff sweep in September, and a management shakeup that ushered its CEO out the door. Coincidentally, Rdio’s chief executive had announced his departure, but is still in place while the headhunters look for a successor.

Rdio operates a sister site, Vdio, which rents movies on a one-by-one basis. There has been speculation that Vdio would eventually move into the subscription model, and would somehow integrate with Rdio. The movie/TV subscription business is dominated by Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu.

Speaking of daunting competition, the already crowded music landscape is about to be glutted with three additional major players in the U.S. YouTube is reliably rumored to be building a music service. Beats Music has announced that its “Daisy” listening venture will launch within months. And Deezer, a popular Paris-based international service is reportedly coming to America early in the new year.

So, by the end of Q1, the streaming music industry will be more top-heavy than it already is. The good news for consumers will be the bounty of choices. The bad news on the business side is that, to many consumers, the listening options are indistinguishable. That is a scenario in which the rich get richer, and the others get bought.

The real threat of Google Music on Apple devices

Monday, November 18, 2013 - 11:55am

Last week’s drop of Google’s All Access music subscription app into Apple’s app store was a milestone moment in both the music-service wars and the larger tech-ecosystem land grab. We had fun with our “Google invades Apple” headline, and every media site covering the convergence of music and Internet hit the same note.

The invasion metaphor is apt, more than just for its imagery of two tech/media giants engaged in business warfare. Google’s Play Music All Access, awkwardly-named thought it might be, offers a more complete music platform than Apple does -- and likewise for Spotify, Rhapsody, Pandora, and Rdio. The competitive thrust is more feature-specific than merely inserting the Google brand into the music choices of iPhone and iPod users. Its features connect with the three major ways that people connect with Internet-delivered music as a 21st-century type of radio.

Three Types of Listening

There are three types of app listening. By “app listening” we mean listening that happens through a desktop program, a web browser, or a mobile app. There are three cornerstones of app listening:

  • Radio: Broadcasters understandably bristle at the re-definition of “radio,” which used to denote a technology, not a behavior. Now, “radio” commonly means lean-back app listening that simulates the traditional passive radio experience. Pandora is the poster child for “Internet radio,” but Pandora is more interactive than thousands of Internet pureplay stations which don’t offer any customization.
  • Jukebox: The “celestial jukebox” is lean-forward listening in which access to music replaces ownership of music. Spotify, Rhapsody, and Radio are leading examples of app services that provide access to huge song catalogs on demand, with suites of features that personalize the jukebox around the user’s taste.
  • Cloud storage: Even with the rise of Internet radio and the celestial jukebox, people own personal music collections in digital file formats. Amazon, Apple, and others provide apps that allow uploading those files to the cloud, from which they can be accessed from any connected device.

Integrating these three modes of listening is not easy, or common. How do personal collections (the ownership model) fit into subscription services (the access model), and how do those users integrate the existing value of their collections with the new value of music access?

It’s Called “All Access” for a Reason

That is the key issue addressed by Google Play Music All Access, and a key selling point of its subscription service. All Access provides the usual access features -- jukeboxing, playlisting, favoriting, downloading for offline listening. At the same time, All Access (living up to its name) is a cloud storage service which invites users to upload 20,000 tracks. Those collections are integrated into the jukebox service, and intelligence derived from scanning the owned music helps personalize the music Google suggests to the user.

Apple has a cloud service, too, and of course iTunes is the world’s biggest music store, still a champion of the ownership model, widely predicted to be waning. The two-month-old iTunes Radio service provides lean-back radio-style listening, a second rung of the app-listening ladder. But Apple does not have a celestial jukebox function for random access and full listening of songs and albums.

That missing piece is the opening through which Google has driven its All Access platform, and why the invasion is meaningful. Google provides both models -- access to an owned collection on the same platform which accesses the celestial jukebox, and plays radio-style streams.

Google craftily makes it easy to convert an iTunes collection to Google’s cloud. Doing so gives Apple users a full, three-point app-listening experience on iPhones and iPods. Google provides the purchasing dimension too, through Google Play song-buying, which emulates the synergy of Apple’s iTunes Radio and iTunes Store linkage.

It’s not only iTunes that could be hurt by Google. Spotify, Rdio, and Rhapsody lack cloud integration of personal collections. Google sits in the iOS store as the complete problem-solver -- in that light, the awkward “All Access” name is justified. The extra value it brings signifies why Google invaded Apple. Time will tell how disruptive the invasion will be.

Rhapsody losses deepen; is a turning point at hand?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 - 12:45pm

Music service Rhapsody’s net revenue and gross profit declined in two year-over-year measurements, according to an SEC filing by joint-venture partner and former parent company RealNetworks. Net loss also deepened in both timeline comparisons.

Rhapsody separated from its subsidiary relationship with RealNetworks in 2010, and now RealNetworks owns 47% of Rhapsody.

Comparing the first nine months of 2013 with the same period in 2012, net loss deepened from nine-million dollars to nearly $15-million. Looking at just the third quarter, year over year, the net loss increased from $3.4-million to $5.6-million.

Rhapsody has had an eventful year. Following a leadership change and 15% staff layoff sweep in September, the company revived its app products in October, bringing them to parity (and, in some ways, beyond parity) with competing music service apps. Also in October, Rhapsody closed a meaningful international distribution deal with telecom giant Telefonica. The company has said it expects to expand its global footprint to at least 25 countries (from three countries pre-Telefonica) in the next 18 months.

Rdio improves personalization of its iOS app

Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - 12:15pm

In the conforming world of subscription music services, many of which share the same broad features, it is easy to assume that they exist in parity, competing on the basis of design rather than function. But then one of those services will update one of its products, and it becomes apparent that it has lacked an important feature that might have existed on competing platforms for years. That was the case when Rhapsody recently introduced genre stations -- basic, belated, and nicely implemented.

In that context, a new update to Rdio’s Apple app is surprising, but welcome. Rdio now refines its playlist suggestions on the basis of the user’s listening history and social following. This refinement is crucial in any listening service which hopes to retain its users. When the service gets smarter about your taste over time, it plays better music and gains in value. Without that increasing stickiness, retention is more difficult.

Along with the underlying intelligence layer, the iOS app now makes a three-fold display of songs in the playlist. The current album art is surrounded by previous and next selections, enabling the user to swipe ahead to the next track, as illustrated in the screenshot. (You cannot swipe backward, alas.)

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