Taking Spotify for a spin

I finally discovered that Spotify has a Billboard Hot 100 playlist and I’m liking it a lot. (I’ve been looking for this for years btw!) It seems to update every Thursday. I hate the commercials and inane talking on Top-40 radio, so this gets me the latest tunes without the crap. Missing from the Billboard playlist are things like last week’s position, weeks on chart, etc. which would be nice, but now I’m just being greedy ;-)

So now I can pick out new stuff, add it to my favorites playlist and automatically sync them to my iPhone and iPad. Quick and simple, and only $10 a month. Note that you can try the premium service for free for 30 days. Of course, you can use the free service, but it’s a pretty limited service on mobile devices. I’m a long-time user of Rhapsody, but I’m always game to try something new.

I do wish that one of these subscription services would do a DJ-hosted stream where the DJ actually talks about the music and artists. That would be awesome, especially commercial free!

Slacker needs New Release station

I’ve been playing with Slacker a lot recently due to their free one-month Premium service. I blogged about it here. I am really liking the iPhone and iPad apps a lot, and I also like their playlists. However, with the introduction of their On Demand feature, where you can play specific songs, they *REALLY* need a New Release station. Something that will play the new albums released each week. Since this would be an album-based playlist as opposed to song-based, I suppose it doesn’t fit their “radio station” metaphor, but c’mon! don’t they want to promote that fact that you can listen to the latest album by so and so on their service? Pretty big omission IMHO. Rhapsody has this btw.

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 iPhone app never updates playlists and other stuff

Having problems updating your playlists on the iPhone Rhapsody app? I was. The message “Updating playlists” would just sit there and never go away. It appears that the problem relates to Dynamic Playlists. These are special playlists that change over time, like “Top 20 Pop/Rock Tracks”. It appears that the iPhone Rhapsody app chokes on these. If you remove them using the desktop app, your playlists will update. You can identify them by the icon next to the playlist name. It’s a two arrows in the circle instead of the musical notes.

The other thing to avoid is any “imported” songs in a playlist. These are songs not from the Rhapsody subscription, but ones actually on your PC hard drive. These will say “Imported” in the Track Type column in the list of songs in a playlist on the desktop application. These will not freeze the update, but the playlists will not show up on the iPhone app.

Another problem which I haven’t found a fix for is just keeping my library in sync between the iPhone app, the website, and the desktop app. I wish Rhapsody had a formal “Update Playlists” button, but it doesn’t. It seems to try to update if you close the app down and restart–actually kill the iPhone task, assuming you are using iOS4. Generally, the syncing works fine, but from time to time they get out of sync. Songs will appear in one or the other and never correct itself. The only thing that seems to work is deleting the c:Program FilesRhapsodyradfile.rcf file. I just had to do that and had to start all over re-creating my library!

I wish there was some sort of back up option so you could restore your library to some point, but I suppose that will never happen. I think the whole DRM/licensing mess just makes this harder than it needs to me. Oh well. I have come to the conclusion that I cannot depend on Rhapsody for my main music source and must continue to rely on actual files on my iPhone. I’ll still use Rhapsody to discover new artists and songs, as well as access old catalog stuff. However, I’ll use it in a more dynamic fashion and not care if the library or playlists get lost. Not the perfect solution, but not the worst scenario either.

Another limitation of using a subscription service like Rhapsody is when something isn’t in their catalog. If you’ve got the CD or MP3s, you can import it into the desktop environment, but you are SOL on the mobile client.

Still, I love Rhapsody and recommend it highly. Being able to access nearly any song I want on the fly is wonderful. The new background playing ability on the iPhone is awesome.

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!

Tunecore music royalties. I’m rich!

I posted some songs from my old band, Mind Games, to iTunes, Napster, Rhapsody and eMusic using the Tunecore service and just got an email with the subject line “You Have Royalties From iTunes”. WOW! So I log in and low and behold, there’s a whopping $1.06 in my account! 40 cents is actually from Napster. Appears to be mostly from streaming, but maybe one actual purchase. Yeah, I don’t even know how I get paid HAHA. 66 cents is from UK iTunes.

Well, I don’t know where I’m gonna  spend it all. I think I’ll just let it sit there and grow =)