Free Slacker Premium! Cloud music already here…

It’s probably a preemptive strike with all of the cloud music services popping up and Apple’s entrance into this space almost assured, but Slacker is running a promotion for a free one-month subscription to their premium service. I’ve looked at Slacker before, but they’ve added some awesome features worth a revisit.

Subscription Music vs Cloud

Amazon, Google, and probably Apple’s “cloud” music services appear to be geared toward moving your existing library to their servers. This is inherently different than pure music subscription services like Rhapsody, Napster and MOG, where you rent music. Both give you access to music from the cloud, but the beauty of subscription is being able to instantly play something that is not in your library: a song, artist or album you want to hear on the spur of the moment.

There is a third type of online music service, although the lines are started to blur: Slacker and Pandora. These are the digital equivalent of FM radio. With FM radio, you don’t have direct control over what is played, but you can pick from a handful of stations that cater to your tastes, like Top 40, classic rock, country, etc. Think of Slacker/Pandora as radio with thousands of “stations.”

Cache is King

I believe that, most, if not all, of the online services also allow you to cache songs to your device so you don’t have to stream over the air. Not only does this save valuable data bandwidth, but it also makes these services useful on devices that only have WiFi, like an iPod Touch.

Slacker vs Pandora

Both Slacker and Pandora let you create an artist or song station; however, there is a big difference. Slacker “song” stations are actually artist-based. Pandora, by comparison, will try to play songs similar to the particular song. So if you pick a slow song from an artist that normally plays upbeat music, Slacker will likely play upbeat songs from similar artists. Pandora will play similar slow songs. In this respect, Pandora is superior.

On the other hand, Slacker appears to have a much larger catalog of music. (The website says 6 times more than their top competitor, who I assume is Pandora.) Slacker also features professionally programmed “genre stations.” According to the Slacker website, “Each station features a deep selection of music; hand-picked by Slacker DJs and includes breaking hits and top singles along with the very best deep tracks and more! Personalize them by rating the music you love, banning the songs and artists you don’t or use the Fine Tune settings to make them your own.”

I’ve always felt that the weakness of services like Rhapsody/Napster was their playlists, which is the strength of Slacker/Pandora. I’ve always thought that it would be great if Rhapsody or Napster acquired Slacker or Pandora, or vice versa. I guess Slacker with the Premium service is close to that.

Actually, I’ve always wondered why Billboard or American Top 40 has never partnered with one of the online services. Seems like a natural. Most of the songs on the top charts would be available. I’m sure it’s been explored and just is a matter of dollars and (no) sense.

Free vs Paid Service

Slacker/Pandora’s free service has some ads and you are limited to how many times you can skip a song. If you want unlimited skips and no ads, there is a Slacker Plus service that is only $3.99/month. Pandora has similar thing for $36/yr called Pandora One. If you want to play specific songs/artists–Pandora doesn’t do this–, you have to pony up for the Slacker Premium service for $9.99/month. This makes Slacker more like Rhapsody/Napster and is very exciting.

Fine Tuning Stations

The feature in Slacker that has really got me excited is the way you can fine tune the stations. There is an Artist Discovery setting where you can tailor how much you want other similar artists to play.

On an iPhone, to get to the Fine Tuning settings you have to be on a station page. Tap Menu, Edit Station, and finally Fine Tune. Now you can adjust how much you want other artists to play using the Artist Discovery setting. I also like the ability to set how popular a song has to be. You can also set the age of songs using the Year setting.

NOTE: It’s not obvious how to create a station from just a song. To do so, just play the song and when it’s done, it will be created automatically. If you can’t wait for it to end, tap the Next Track icon. To create an artist station, just search for the artist and tap the play button. The station is created immediately. However, as I stated earlier, with Slacker, there is really no musical difference between a song station and an artist station.

I’m still exploring the features of the Slacker player, but finding it more and more compelling. I find the extensive artist bios and album reviews really interesting. Lyrics are available for many songs.

One Month Free

For a limited time, Slacker is offering free access for a month to their premium service. All you have to do is go to their Facebook Fan page and sign up; no credit card required. Then go to Slacker.com/gift and use the gift code you will be given. Even if you miss the promotion, Slacker is absolutely worth $10 just to try out the premium features for a month.

What To Do?

Will I be dumping my Rhapsody account? Not yet. Rhapsody seems to have a bigger catalog and also allows me to download songs to my laptop and play music without Internet access–Slacker surprisingly doesn’t support PCs, only mobile devices.

I really like Pandora’s song-based stations and for just $36/year to be ad-free, it’s a no-brainer. I’m on the fence with Slacker since it is somewhat redundant with Rhapsody. I could possibly get away with the less expensive Slacker Plus service, but you need Premium to create custom playlists because that requires on-demand access to songs. I guess I’ll play with it for my free month and then see if I miss it. That will be the acid test.

Rhapsody, Napster or MOG…Subscription Music is awesome!

I’ve always been a fan of subscription music and started years ago with Rhapsody using their service to fill my Creative Zen MP3 players. I switched to Napster a few years ago because I preferred their use of WMA files as opposed to Rhapsody’s real file format (Rhapsody now does WMA too :-). Napster (now owned by Best Buy) has recently abandoned the DRM’d device support (via Microsoft’s PlaysForSure) for new accounts. Now, you can stream all the music you want and are allowed to download a certain number of MP3s depending on the plan you sign up for.

For some reason, it’s hard to find their pricing on the site, but Napster has monthly ($7), 3-month ($15) and annual plans ($60). The monthly gives you credit for 5 songs, the 3-month gives 15 and the annual 60. Why go for the annual with no apparent price advantage? Well, the credits are only good during the plan period, so with the 3-month plan, after 3 months you lose any unused song credits and start over with 15. With the annual, you get a whole year to use the credit for 60 songs. Keep in mind that the songs are unDRM’d MP3s so you can keep them even if you stop using the service.

Rhapsody is $10 per month with no credits, but you can download songs, albeit DRM’d, to multiple devices, like the iPhone or a PC. MOG has no downloading features and costs $10/mo. Downloading is nice because you can play the songs without being connected to the Internet. (FYI, to download to an iPhone using Rhapsody you must create a playlist first.)

I recently tried the 4-day trial of MOG.com, but hate the way it’s implemented. Napster and Rhapsody both have the concept of a personal Library. You load your library up with all your favorite music. This is nice because you can quickly select from just the music you like. MOG makes you browse through everything to choose what to play. Sure, there are playlists and suggestions, but I can’t remember all the artists I like. This analogy should put it in perspective: With Rhapsody and Napster, it’s like searching through your CDs or MP3 collection to find something to listen to. You can always go the “store” and add things to your collection or just listen to stuff at the “store.” With MOG, you generally have to select from the entire “store’s” inventory.

Another thing that irritated me with MOG is that it has no ability to treat an album as a single unit, so to add an entire album to, say, a playlist, you have to add each individual song one at a time!

Rhapsody has a great iPhone app that will play music in the background. It’s nice because your Library and playlists are automatically synced between your devices. The MOG app doesn’t do background playing and Napster doesn’t even have an app.

Now, no subscription service will have every single artist, album or song you want, but I’d say they hit 99%. Now and then there’s that aggravating one song that is not streamable or downloadable. Of course, with Napster you’ve got the ability to your your credits which is pretty cool. The real benefit of these services in my opinion is the older stuff you wouldn’t normally have on your MP3 player. You know, you hear a snippet or some oddball song just comes to mind. More often than not, it’s right at my finger tips. You never know when you’ll get the itch to hear “Too Shy” by Kajagoogoo!

There are definitely significant differences between these three services. I’d recommend testing them out. All have free trials, although MOG is the only one that doesn’t require a credit card.

Anyways, right now I have both Napster and Rhapsody. I let my daughter use Napster and I use Rhapsody. It’s nice having separate accounts because we can have separate libraries.

UPDATE  2010-07-22:
I just discovered that the new Napster plans do not let you download DRM’d songs to your PC. For this you need the old Napster to Go plan which is $15 per month. They don’t seem to be pushing this plan very hard and it’s not even listed when you try to sign up. Now the benefit is that you can download DRM’d songs to a PlaysForSure mobile device–assuming you could find one. They used to have a $10 plan that only allowed you to download to a PC, but not a mobile device, but apparently that doesn’t exist anymore. Anyways, I may switch my daughter to Rhapsody to save $5 a month since I no longer use any PlaysForSure devices. This is crazy!