Yesterday some snark over at Slashdot slathered his ignorant condescension on the Rhapsody music client from Real Networks: “I can’t comment on how good Rhapsody is since I’ve never met anyone who used it. That probably says enough right there,” this fellow posted. What a wonderful argument. Apply it to, say, the Macintosh OSX (currently being used on, what? Three percent of computers?), and you would be spammed mercilessly with hate mails by the Steve Handjobbers.
I’ve been using Rhapsody for the last 18 months and I will tell you that if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose between Rhapsody and iTunes, I’d burn my iTunes purchases onto CD and give it the boot. Don’t get me wrong — I love me the iTunes, and when I do make DRM-shackled download purchases, it’s my avenue of choice. But aside from playing the Apple DRMed music files (which is easily got around in any event), Rhapsody does everything iTunes can do, and does one absolutely critical thing that iTunes cannot: It can stream 60,000 albums and a million songs for me to listen to, any time I want.
Why is this critical? Well, because I want to hear what I’m buying before I buy. Because I’d like to be able to hear the hip new songs the kids love without, say, inviting Kelly Clarkson into my home on a permanent basis. Because most of my CD collection is in boxes, and I don’t want to take the time and/or effort to encode them onto my hard drive, and since this music client allows me to access 90% of the music in my CD without that annoying digging/ripping, I don’t have to. Because it’s fun to skip across music like you skip across the Web, following links from one place to another until you end up someplace new that you would never have gotten to otherwise. And because when I write articles about music, I now have access to the very closest thing to a universal jukebox there is.
Example: Recently I did an article for an Uncle John book about songs with the word “Detroit” in the title. If I didn’t have Rhapsody, researching an article like that would be like pulling teeth. With it, I enter the word “Detroit” into client, get a list of 70 songs, and then get to listen to any of those I choose before writing up my article. Paying $10 a month for Rhapsody ends up making me money because of its admirable utility.
Needless to say, not everyone is going to use it for that reason, but nearly anyone with disposable income $10 a month to sample albums and artists and to play with and listen to music is not unreasonable. The newest version of Rhapsody, released yesterday (I think), also offers the option to download tracks to play them offline, or (for an additional $5 a month) drop them into an MP3 player (other than an iPod, of course) to take around with you. Again, for music browsers, I think this is a pretty good deal.
No, you don’t own the music, which seems to be the whiny mantra against streaming music schemes like Rhapsody’s, but I have to say that I don’t really understand the problem here. You don’t go into Blockbuster to rent a movie and then get indignant that the rental fee doesn’t provide you a perpetual license to the film. If you want to own the film, you buy the film. As long as your brain can conceptualize the idea of renting music, this approach should be non-controversial. As I was writing this up, I was listening to the new album from the Ceasars (a band made famous, ironically, by having one of its songs featured in an iPod ad). I’m listening to the album, and can at any time, but I’m not under the impression I own it, and I don’t get all snotty when I close up Rhapsody and it goes away. If I reach that point, it’s a signal that, well, maybe I should buy it.
And, of course, having listened to the album now and having liked it, I’m more inclined to own it than I was before — either the entire album or parts of it. As I’ve hinted above, Rhapsody has increased the amount of music I buy because now I know what I’m getting before the purchase. Conversely, since I don’t end up buying music I don’t want, I don’t have much of that “I got really burned on this deal” attitude I used to get when I’d drop $14 on an album to discover it had only two tracks worth listening to. Which means my overall opinion of music as a worthwhile expenditure has gone up. So not only am I spending more on music, I’m inclined to spend more on music in the future. Everyone wins.
The only other rap against Rhapsody I can think of is that it’s owned by RealNetworks, famous for its Real media properties, which are the streaming audio and video you want to use if you really, really, really like buffering. I’m not a fan of most Real-based media — I honestly can’t remember a time when I’ve streamed anything off of RealPlayer that didn’t look and/or sound like absolute crap — but aside from the rare server disconnect, I’ve never had a problem streaming music with Rhapsody. This partly has to do with its streaming strategy, in which many of one’s favorite listens were largely cached on one’s computer, thereby needing requiring only a small download for repeat listening. But however it’s done, it’s worked for me.
The Slashdot snark bothered me because it’s part of the hallowed tradition of people talking out of their ass about technology they don’t actually get to know and also (this admittedly being somewhat reasonable on Slashdot, but endemic anywhere vaguely geeky folks hang out online) having a smug and snotty attitude toward people who don’t have the interest and/or inclination to hand code their own personal Ogg Vorbis player (to be fair to Slashdot, a number of comments that followed the initial post flambéed the initial poster for his snark). What I’m saying is I actually use Rhapsody and I find it to be a good and useful application, enough so that I’ve cheerfully paid for it on a monthly basis for a non-trivially long time, and will continue to so for some time to come.
The only thing that might change this behavior is if iTunes begins some form of streaming service in the near future, as it might reasonably do. However, in this particular case Apple’s streaming solution would have to be really elegant (and cheaper) to cause me to switch. I already stream my music with one client and buy it online with another. I don’t mind not putting all my musical eggs in a single basket, even if it’s a basket with the famous Apple aesthetic. And as I’ve noted before, right now, if push came to shove, it’s not iTunes who would be left standing. There’s no reason to automatically assume it would be the one left standing in the future, either.