Rhapsody

RAIN Weekend Perspective: Week of Oct. 28 - Nov. 1

Friday, November 1, 2013 - 4:30pm

RAIN’s Weekend Perspective summarizes the week’s important events for a weekend catch-up, and revives your blasted synapses for coming week.

PARTNERSHIPS 

The Echo Nest partners with Getty Images: Music services that use The Echo Nest’s intelligence technology will be able to enhance their album art with artist and band photos. [READ]

Spotify partners with Tango Messenger: The alliance lets Tango instant message users to include 30-second Spotify music clips. You might not be familiar with Tango, but it’s a bigger service than Spotify. [READ

MUSIC SERVICES & APPS 

TuneIn reaches 100,000 radio stations: The TuneIn aggregation platform has aggregated up a storm: “The most radio stations ever in one place,” according to the press release. [READ]

Rhapsody introduces new features: RAIN reviews important additions to the Rhapsody music experience. [READ

SoundCloud reaches 250-million listeners: Take that, Pandora, as SoundCloud’s new emphasis on uninterrupted listening is bringing in new users. SoundCloud is now chasing YouTube’s 1-billion users. [READ

Pandora releases Android tablet app: RAIN reviews the essential features that exist in the new version across all devices. [READ

iHeartRadio updates features: The Clear Channel-owned platform gets into concierge-style programming, similar to Songza and Slacker, but with tongue in cheek. [READ

ILLUMINATION 

Edison Research videos show a “barrage of new” in connected cars: Seeking insight to how new-car owners are coping with modern infotainment systems built into digital dashboards, Edison Research produced video interviews with recent car buyers. RAIN interviewed president Larry Rosin. [READ]

Survey/Interview - iTunes Radio little threat to Pandora: Investment firm Canaccord Genuity surveyed Pandora users who have tried iTunes Radio, to get a picture of its existential threat to Pandora. RAIN interviewed the study’s author. [READ]

BIZ / LEGAL 

Swedish musicians threaten to sue labels over Spotify distribution: The musicians' argument is less with Spotify than with labels, and how Spotify revenue is shared with artists by those labels. RAIN untangles it. [READ]

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.

Rhapsody gives a free month to CD buyers

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - 9:15am

It makes sense. Put the new model where the old model lives. Try to bring in a new audience that might not have sampled competing services yet.

That’s what Rhapsody’s just-announced partnership with Best Buy is attempting. Anyone buying a (qualified) CD from Best Buy’s racks will be gifted with a month of Rhapsody’s subscription-only online listening/collecting platform. It’s a nice surprise for the buyer, and a bit of incentive that Best Buy can promote on its CD shelves. Rhapsody’s play is to drive a wedge into the CD consumers’ buying habits, introduce them to an access model that might be entirely new to them, and convert ‘em. In that context, Rhapsody and Best Buy are at cross-purposes.

Rhapsody competes most directly with the laboriously-named Google Play Music All Access, which likewise provides subscription-only service, with a cloud-storage component Rhapsody lacks. Among indies, Rhapsody is most often compared to Spotify and Rdio, both of which, in addition to offering premium subscriptions to avoid ads and enable downloads, provide a layer of free listening.

In recent months Rhapsody has suffered a management shake-up and sweeping staff layoff. Last week Rhapsody announced an international telecom partnership with Telefonica, for international distribution of its service in Europe and Latin America. (RAIN coverage here.)

Telefonica grabs stake in Rhapsody/Napster

Wednesday, 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.

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.)

Rhapsody launches new radio features, contributes to conformity

Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - 7:10am

Rhapsody, one of the oldest listening platforms, a subscription-only pureplay, and lately a beleaguered business wracked with internal changes, has brought new features to its Radio product. “Radio” in this context means playlists. Until now, Rhapsody has offered a suite of house-curated genre stations, but no artist-seeded or song-seeded stations in the Spotify and Pandora style.

Customized radio is increasingly desired by users who like to lean in a bit, by choosing a band or single track, then lean back and enjoy a stream of songs related to the band or track. Selections are refined by whatever the service knows about the user’s taste. That interactive model usually includes thumbs-up and thumbs-down arrows, the ability to skip forward, and an option to add any track to a collection of favorites.

It’s a good model, satisfying to use, accommodating of different listening postures, and conducive to music discovery. Rhapsody is late to the game, inasmuch as Pandora, iTunes Radio, Spotify, Rdio, and Google All Access feature the same “radio”-style feature set. This week’s enhancement comes one year after Rhapsody partnered with The Echo Nest, a leading provider of music recommendation technology to listening platforms.

Rhapsody’s new product includes a feature increasingly seen in “radio” setting: a Variety slider that determines how far afield the artist station is allowed to venture from the artist characteristics. iTunes Radio has something similar. It is a calibrating feature that reflects how adventurous the user is feeling.

In our listening tests of Rhapsody’s new Radio, using an account with extensive Rhapsody history, throwing the slider to the far right (more variety) widened the scope of listening noticeably, but not radically. In a blues-rock station fashioned after Eric Gales, the greatest variety setting brought in a harder rock edge. One terrific aspect of the Variety slider is the list of five upcoming tracks. You can jump ahead to any one of them. Moving the slider refreshes the list in real time, giving you an idea of what’s in store at any variety level.

While Rhapsody's new package is a valuable service enhancement, there is a depressing degree of conformity solidifying in this space like drying cement. Artist-based, dynamically created, radio-style playlists all seem to operate in the same way, distinguished only by small usability details. Product development is lacking innovation. Rdio recently launched its “Stations” utility, achieving product parity with Spotify. Slacker introduced “My Vibe” stations, nearly cloning Songza’s “Life Moment” listening scheme. iTunes Radio launched in an overt imitation of Pandora’s successful Internet radio model.

Everybody is reaching parity with everyone else. User choice is based on either interface design, music selection quality, or habit. Pandora is one service with a unique back end, the result of years of R&D into the characteristics of music and the signifiers of music taste. In all cases, including Pandora, quality of music selection is improved by sticking with one system and building up a history of liking, skipping, and saving tracks. In a field marked by elusive profitability, the homogeneity of interactive listening sets the stage for future consolidation.

For now, the venerable Rhapsody, which started in 2000, has joined the pack with a standard feature set for artist-based stations -- it is well implemented for the most part, and sounds good.

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