All-You-Can-Eat Music Services Revisited

The student government negotiated a deal with Ruckus last semester for the college to run an on-campus music server. I was (am) a little skeptical that much will come of it since the rights management system used to protect the music is incompatible with the iPod. At least 90% if the students I see at the Rec Center are using iPods, and it’s hard to imagine a music service catching on that doesn’t allow students to take their tracks with them.

The announcement that IT was building this server did get me to take another look at subscription (all-you-can-eat) music services, though. I was an early adopter of MusicMatch’s premium service back in my pre-iPod, pre-iTunes days and continued pay the $100 annual subscription service until MusicMatch was purchased by Yahoo. (Yahoo’s enrollment and upgrade service didn’t work for me, so I let the subscription die.)

MusicMatch claimed about a million songs, allowed you to build custom playlists and to integrate online music with tunes stored on your hard drive. I used an old XP laptop pretty much as a dedicated radio when I was working in the office–the software was PC only, and I’m doing most of my work on the Mac these days. As a certifiable iPod fan-boy, I never considered even trying another MP3 player until a couple of weeks ago.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to explore the iPod free zone again–not with Ruckus but with Rhapsody. Rhapsody offered a two week free trial for unlimited streaming from their catalog of some number of millions of tracks. (I have no idea of how many they actually have–every description is different.) The streaming services works through the browser on either the Mac or PC–with Safari working better than FireFox. (The scroll bars on the music player window don’t display in FireFox.)

To get the most out of the service, I had to install the software on a PC and get a compatible MP3 player. The music-to-go service is $15 a month and the streaming-only service is about $12. I went to Staples and bought the SanDisk Clip for about $30, and, after one very frustrating Sunday afternoon of trying to get the PC to recognize the Clip as a USB device, it seems to work pretty well. I can put about a dozen albums on it, and the sound is certainly good enough to listen to for an hour on the Arc Trainer.

I’m going to keep the service for a month and see if it grows on me. So far, the biggest benefit seems to be the recommendations for albums or artists that I might like to explore. (I still like the concept of Pandora in focusing on specific tracks rather than whole albums, but their selections are still pretty limited.) I’ve also been able to listen to many of my old albums that were destroyed in the great South Carolina Beach Fiasco back in 1974. The subscription service allows me to re-listen to music that isn’t valuable enough for me to buy, but is fun to listen to once in a while. (I’m listening now to an old Buffalo Springfield album–nothing that I’d ever buy again, but interesting enough for a frigid Sunday afternoon of pretending to write.)

The ideal would be an Tunes subscription service, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. This might be a useful addition to my musical life, but I’m not sure that most students will find the drawbacks–not actually owning the music and the lack of iPod support–to be pretty big obstacles to adoption.