The Internet jukebox vs. downloading.

Inside the Internet.
April 21 2004 6:01 PM

The Internet Jukebox

Does Rhapsody have the answer to the downloading wars?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Streaming audio has long been regarded as the sorry second cousin to the heroic MP3. For years, Net users complained that streaming made music sound like it was being broadcast from the bottom of a bathtub, and the slightest congestion caused annoying pauses, burps, and warbles. But just as important, for decades we've treated music as our personal, tangible property. We buy albums and CDs, lend them to our friends, and sell them once we get bored. Forking over $10 a month to listen to music on demand—as the streaming-audio services at Rhapsody and the new Napster require—doesn't jibe with our sense that songs ought to be part of our stuff, not a service you pay for like cable TV.

But as music fans are finding out, when you buy a song online, it usually isn't property any more. It's a license, an agreement to let you use the song. And those licenses impose some maddeningly Byzantine limits on how you use your music. Most legal downloads will work only on approved devices. A song bought at iTunes in "AAC," or Advanced Audio Coding, format won't work on anything but an iPod, while songs bought at MusicMatch or Napster in Microsoft's "WMA," Windows Media Audio, format won't work on iPods or many older MP3 players. And what if you get bored of that Strokes album you downloaded? Too bad: You can't sell it to anyone. That, too, would violate most of the licensing agreements. Worst of all, licenses on downloaded music can be rescinded. If the music companies want, they can "turn off" your right to listen to the music you've bought.

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By using licenses, the labels and their download sites are secretly transforming music into a service—something to which you subscribe, and about which they can change the rules any time they want. But it's a particularly crappy service. Who wants to "own" this sort of pseudo-property, these annoying, stubborn, mulelike music files? In contrast, a music-streaming site advertises itself as a service, with an entirely different sort of consumer logic and much more satisfying results.

I recently tried Rhapsody, a streaming-audio service that gives you quick jukebox-style access to any song on its 30,000-album collection, for the price of 10 iTunes songs a month. My fears of lousy audio were unfounded. Rhapsody first went online in late 2001, and by now the service has vanquished any technical problems. Songs began playing in barely a second when I clicked on them, and no matter how aggressively I used my Net connection—surfing Web sites and checking e-mail while I listened—the audio never skipped or lagged. Rhapsody achieves this partly by cunning use of caching: The player uses up to a gig of space on your hard drive to store parts of your most-requested songs, the better to play them at a moment's notice. The catalog is pretty good, too, and includes everything from modern diva histrionics to postwar jazz. Rhapsody is like the mutant child of broadcast radio and a record store, with the best DNA of both.

Using a streaming service such as Rhapsody also allows you to opt out of the AAC vs. WMA war, a face-off that is queasily reminiscent of the fight between Betamax and VHS. You probably remember the sad fate of the losers who bought Beta movies. The downloading services are forcing you to similarly gamble about which music format will win. Right now, because of iPod and iTunes, AAC looks pretty solid. But what happens if WMA triumphs, iPods die out, and the only music players available in 2014 won't play the thousands of songs you legally bought at iTunes? (Or vice versa.)

Some people have already been locked out of their music, after they slammed into the "three computers" rule: Almost all download sites let you listen to a song on only three different computers. Author and blogger Cory Doctorow buys a new Apple iBook every year, but when he recently had to send one of his machines in for repair, he got stuck: His old computer couldn't play his archive of legally paid-for songs because there was no easy way to "de-authorize" the computer he'd sent in for repair and "re-authorize" the old, still-functioning one. His stuff was there, sitting on his computer, but he couldn't use it.

Downloaded music is designed to work with a demographically averagecomputer user, someone who uses only one or two computers most of the time. It actively discriminates against the sort of globe-trotting power-user whose life sprawls over lots of devices—even though those are surely the people most likely to blow tons of cash buying digital music.

In contrast, streaming services tend to be much more flexible. You're allowed to install the Rhapsody software on as many computers as you want, though you can only stream to one machine at a time.You could show up at your friends' party, set up the software on his computer (it takes less than a minute), then compose a massive 300-song mix for the entire evening. Like cable TV, Rhapsody's goal is to keep you so happy that you come back each month with another 10 bucks.

Sure, I've got complaints about Rhapsody. You can't tweak the bass or treble on the sound, the search engine is lame, and the music library has many weird bald spots: only one song from Nevermind and almost no Madonna? (Napster, Rhapsody's main streaming rival, has a slightly different mix of music, but I find the interface clunkier.) And Rhapsody is truly suited only for people who are around broadband computers all day long. That excludes teenagers or anyone who doesn't work near a screen. More important, there are philosophical problems with music as a service. People want songs as property because they understandably want control. They don't want a music label to take their stuff away at the press of a button.

So, no matter how good streaming might be, it won't end the download wars. (In fact, Rhapsody itself offers 79-cent AAC downloads of most songs, though it's not the service's central focus.) The flexibility of "unlocked" MP3s remains the gold standard for online music. Since you can store and play MP3s any way you want, they're the most like real stuff. There are legal routes to getting MP3s online: eMusic sells tunes in that format, but it specializes in super-alternative music. That's why many users are cracking the digital-rights limits on their paid-for downloads. You can, for example, burn your legal downloads onto a CD and then rip them back into MP3s. It's a pain, but I've done it myself, because my old MP3 player won't play WMA or AAC files. Meanwhile, geeks are beginning to create software like PlayFair, which strips the digital-rights limits from iTunes files.

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