Why Not P2P?
First let me answer the obvious first question: why not Kazaa? Or Gnutella? Or one of the other peer-to-peer file sharing networks? I've used the P2P networks since the Napster days. I have Limewire, a Java Gnutella client, on my linux system, and I have Kazaa Lite installed on the Windows 98 partition of my notebook PC. Both can deliver lots of music, but they also have problems. The problems are largely the same with both, so I'll limit my comments to Kazaa.
There's no doubt that you can find a broad variety of music on Kazaa, including some rare tunes, but finding what you're looking for is a roll of the dice, and you're not likely to find everything you're looking for in one place. For example, I recently wanted to find a copy of the album "Buckingham Nicks" from the early seventies, recorded by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks before they joined Fleetwood Mac. (I was willing to surrender cold hard plastic to buy a copy of Buckingham Nicks, but evidently it's never been released on CD, and isn't carried by any CD retailer.)
I looked diligently, but it took me weeks to collect the entire album. In fact, I never did find the last three tracks; they were located for me by a friend who uses a P2P service I don't. The songs I did find came from a variety of different users, and varied tremendously in quality. Most of the mp3s were encoded at 128Kb/s, and a couple were encoded at 160Kb/s. One was recorded from an LP full of scratches, clicks, and pops.
Another problem with Kazaa is that, although you can find some rare tunes there, you're still largely at the mercy of what is popular. If you want the latest hit tune by Manufactured Boy Band, you're probably going to find hundreds of copies. If, on the other hand, you want to collect a copy of, say, the Stone Poney's second album, you're out of luck - although you will find dozens of copies of the one hit song off that album.
Downloading a single mp3 from Kazaa often takes hours. I connect to the Internet over a dual-channel ISDN connection, which is fast enough to download most mp3s in less than ten minutes, but my downloads always take much longer than that. My guess is that this is because the P2P clients at the other end of the connection are swamped with connections, and thus dividing their bandwidth too thinly, or because the other users are throttling down their outgoing bandwidth. Regardless of the reason, the effect is that I always have bandwidth to spare, even with two or three simultaneous downloads going. The rate I typically see with Kazaa is 1 to 2 kilobytes per second.
Finally, many tracks I download from Kazaa have problems. Many are truncated. Others have audible ripping or encoding glitches. Some are mislabeled. Again and again I have downloaded a song only to discover that it's not what I want, that it's incomplete, or that it's so garbled I can hardly listen to it.
Of course, the problems I've listed are just the technical issues. I'm not going to talk about the ethical issues with P2P networks, because not everyone feels the same way about them. I'll just say that I would prefer to pay for the music I download. That's one of the things that led me to try Rhapsody in the first place.
To use Rhapsody, you have to download and install an application that's part streaming audio client, part CD-R driver, and part web browser (it appears to embed Internet Explorer). You also have to sign up for the Rhapsody service. It normally costs $9.95 per month, and $0.99 per track you burn to CD, but with the current promotion, the monthly fee is reduced to $4.95 for the first three months of service, and until the end of March the per-track burn fee is $0.49.
The Rhapsody application includes a web browser pane that you can use to browse the content available at listen.com. You can look though the music by category and artist, or you can search for artist names, track titles, or album titles. Each artist's page is cross-referenced to show contemporaries, influences, and followers. The content is well-organized and is presented in logical fashion.
Beside the browser pane is a playlist pane, showing both a hierarchical list of artists, albums, and songs in your personal "collection", as well as the songs in the current playlist. Above the browser and playlist panes is a media player pane, with the usual CD-like controls: play, pause, forward, back, and volume. The media play also shows the download progress of the currently playing song.
Rhapsody protects, or maybe I should say hides, its audio tracks so that when application is playing a song, there is no file associated with it the song. In other words, although the application is clearly downloading and caching the song's content, that file or buffer is hidden from you and is not available in any clear or direct way. The only way to keep a permanent copy of a song is to burn it to CD; more about that later.
The quality of the streaming music depends on whether you connect to the Internet over modem or broadband; the quality of the former is clearly inferior to the quality of the latter, although both are adequate for auditioning tracks or albums. I find that I don't need CD-quality sound in order to tell whether I like a song.
Rhapsody lets users connect to its service, listen to music, and burn CDs from any PC, unlike some of the for-pay services, which "node-lock" your songs so you can only listen to them on the PC where they were downloaded. Rhapsody even makes it easy for you to use the service from any PC by synchronizing your collections, playlists, and preferences with their server. This makes your personal settings available even on a PC you've never used before. And every Rhapsody account is protected with a password, so, assuming Rhapsody's security is well-implemented, you don't have to worry about someone else logging onto your account.
Any given song within Rhapsody may be at one of three levels of availability: it may be available for both live streaming and burning to CD, it may be available for streaming only, or it may be unavailable in either form. Rhapsody does a good job of clearly indicating which songs are at which levels. Those that are available for streaming have green buttons to add the song to your personal collection, or to play it without adding it to your collection. Songs that are also available for burning have an orange "fire" icon displayed by their name.
The number of artists and titles available through Rhapsody is disappointing. Some artists have nearly 100% coverage. For example, everything Neil Young and Crazy Horse ever recorded seems to be available for both streaming and burning to CD. Some acts are missing entirely, and have nothing available for either streaming or burning. In between these two extremes, there are many artists whose songs are available for streaming but not for burning.
I have little use for a song that I can listen to only while I'm connected to Rhapsody, and can't take away with me and enjoy somewhere else. I want music that I can burn to CD. (Actually, what I want is music I can transfer to my iPod, but more about that later.) In other words, I have little use for songs that aren't available for burning. They may as well not be there. For purposes of this discussion, then, I'm going to equate "Not available for burning" with "Not available at all."
That said, what I find most disappointing about Rhapsody is the number of artists and albums that are only partially available. Some examples: Nirvana has but one song from one album available on Rhapsody. The reggae dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson has recorded a dozen albums, but only one is available on Rhapsody, and it has a handful of songs missing. "Frampton Comes Alive" has an odd hole in it: "Jumping Jack Flash" is missing. This is the most maddening Rhapsody phenomenon: the album with one or two missing tracks. For this reason, it's a good idea to browse into each album and check it for completeness before putting on your burn list.
Many artists on Rhapsody will have entire albums missing. Often these are clustered together, a series of albums at the beginning or end of the artist's recording career. The prevailing trend seems to be that recent albums are more often available than are older albums.
Burn, Baby, Burn
Here's how burning a CD works on Rhapsody: first, you put your collection into "burn" mode, which shows only those tracks that are available for burning. Then you drag the songs, or the album, onto the burnlist (displayed in place of the playlist). When you're satisfied with the songs you've arranged, you click the Burn button, and the process begins. If you're using Rhapsody to play music, playback will stop at this point; Rhapsody can't play music and burn CDs at the same time.
The first thing the Rhapsody software does is to check the length of the songs on the burn list, to ensure that they will fit on a CD - Rhapsody does know about both 74 minute and 80 minute CDs, and will warn you to use an 80 minute CD if your burn list exceeds 74 minutes. After verifying the disc length, Rhapsody will ask for your password, even though you will have already given your password when the application started. The first password check is to connect to the server; presumably the second check is to prevent someone from walking up to an unattended PC and burning CDs on someone else's account.
Once your password has been verified, the download begins. If you're using a dialup connection, Rhapsody will warn you that the download can take several hours. They claim this is because they are downloading CD quality audio. I did some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations, based on my first couple of downloads, and I believe that the download proceeds two to four times as fast as it should if Rhapsody were simply downloading raw WAV or CDDA files. Evidently they are using some kind of lossless compression to shorten the download.
Three or four beers later, the download will finish, and Rhapsody will display an itemized list of the songs you've downloaded, and the total cost of burning the CD. To this point, your credit card has not been billed, and you can cancel the burn without having to pay. Once you click "Submit", though, your credit card will be charged, and you had better hope the burning succeeds.
You don't have to have any CD-burning software installed, because Rhapsody has its own embedded CD-R driver. If you have more than one CD-R in your system, Rhapsody will let you choose the one you wish to use, and will let you choose the data rate at which to burn the CD. If your CD-R doesn't have "BURNproof", the driver will also give you the option of doing a test run before burning. Rhapsody was able to detect the CD recorders in my system, both an old Panasonic SCSI unit, and a newer Asus ATAPI drive.
As with downloading tracks to play them, downloading tracks for burning does not give you access to an mp3, WAV, or any other kind of file that I could locate. In fact, I was rather surprised to see that my hard disk usage did not increase by several hundred megabytes during the download process. Again, this suggests that Rhapsody is using some kind of compression to store the CD audio.
How Well Does It Work?
The Rhapsody software has not worked well for me, in particular during the CD burning process. The very first time I tried to burn a CD, a Mark Knopfler disc, the software locked up twice during the phase in which Rhapsody is actually writing the CD. This is the last phase in the burn process, after authorizing payment for the tunes. I gave Rhapsody one more try, but if it had failed a third time, I would have simply uninstalled the software and canceled my membership.
In fairness, Rhapsody may not be entirely at fault. I was running Windows ME at the time, which been crash-prone from day one. I wouldn't use ME at all, except it was required by the software that came with my iPod. However, I now use Wine to run EphPod under Linux, so I decided to downgrade the OS to Windows 98 SE, to see whether it might make CD burning a bit more reliable. It did; since downgrading, I haven't had another failure while writing a CD.
The CD failures did give me a chance to try out Rhapsody's customer service. I immediately e-mailed them to report the lockups and to say that I expected to receive a refund for the two failed burns. I received an automated reply saying, in effect, that their customer service agents were swamped with requests for help and that they would get back to me as soon as they could. I never heard anything more, but several days later noticed that refunds had shown up in my account history. I'm glad that Rhapsody was able to give me a fairly prompt refund, but I would have liked to have been sent an e-mail when the refund was posted.
I wish I could say that running on top of a clean install of Windows 98 caused all the Rhapsody software problems to disappear. Unfortunately, many remain. Here are the notable problems:
Because it takes so long for Rhapsody to download music for burning a CD, the screensaver (I use the default screensaver) often activates. Sometimes, upon deactivating it, Rhapsody's displays appear trashed - full of gibberish - and the mouse won't work. Strange problems, but they don't appear to interrupt the download, at least judging by the LEDs on my modem. I always reboot the computer anyway, because with Windows garbled screens usually mean a total crash is imminent. Fortunately, Rhapsody keeps copies of the tracks that have already been downloaded in an on-disk buffer, so the download can take up where it left off instead of having to begin again at track one. This problem can be prevented by simply to turning off the screensaver and power-saving modes for the monitor.
Sometimes when downloading tracks to burn a CD, the download will stall. The software reports no error, but its progress bar stops moving, and the "RX" LED on the modem goes off. This could be a problem either with the client software or with the server, but regardless, it is extremely annoying. It means that you can't just walk away from the computer, and come back an hour or two later. If you do, you might find that the download is stalled at, say, 50% complete, and you still have a long way to go. Fortunately, this problem is fixed by clicking "Cancel" on the download dialog, and restarting the burn process.
One time I tried to kick off a CD burn, only to have Rhapsody tell me that the tunes I had selected wouldn't fit on a 74 minute CD. However, the time total displayed on the burn list was just over 65 minutes. I removed a five-minute track, bringing the total on the burn list down to about 60 minutes, at which the burn proceeded without complaint. This is perplexing not only because the displayed total was clearly shorter than 74 minutes, but also because previously I had been able to burn a CD that was 79 minutes long. I have only seen this problem once.
Several times I have had my PC lock up while simultaneously playing tunes in Rhapsody and browsing the Internet with Internet Explorer. It's possible that this is not strictly a Rhapsody problem, but a strange interaction between the two applications, or even a generic OS bug. However, the only time Rhapsody locks up while playing music is when MSIE is running at the same time. Regardless of which application is at fault, it's extremely annoying that the combination is so fragile.
What About MP3s?
As I mentioned earlier, I want my music in the form of mp3s so I can transfer them to my iPod. My iPod is about the only way I listen to music anymore. I have ripped and mp3-encoded the active portion of my CD collection, and have copied the lot to my iPod. (I do not make any of these songs available to others through P2P clients.) It's wonderful being able to carry around an entire record collection in my pocket, and I expect any music I purchase online to go onto the iPod alongside my CD collection. This is why it's so disappointing that listen.com doesn't trust its Rhapsody customers enough to give them mp3s.
Fortunately, once you've burned a CD, you can then rip it back to onto your hard disk just like you can with any store-bought audio CD. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find that freedb or CDDB databases can correctly identify any Rhapsody-made CD that contains the same tracks as its store-bought counterpart. I had erroneously believed that these databases indentified the CD based on some kind of tag embedded only on the stamped disc. Evidently the numeric ID that's calculated is some kind of hash based on the number, order, and lengths of the tracks on the disc. Regardless, it's nice not having to type in all that information by hand.
Of course, if you make a compilation CD, or put two extremely short albums together on the same CD, then the freedb lookup won't work, and you will have to type in the artist name, disc name, and track names by hand. This is also the case if you leave out a tune, and yet another reason why I'm irritated by the missing songs on some of Rhapsody's albums, like the missing track on "Frampton Comes Alive". I had to type in the information for that CD, an unnecessary nuisance.
It's a real shame Rhapsody doesn't trust its customers enough to provide us more direct access to its music, like mp3, ogg, or whatever your favorite format. If they did, not only would the value of the service go up for customers like me, but there are some side effects that would prompt some people to download, and thus pay for, more music.
Downloading mp3s directly is much more convenient than having to burn a CD, then rip the CD, and encode the tracks. That's a time-consuming process. Consider the time: first, having to wait an hour or more (on my dual-channel ISDN - twice as long on a conventional modem) for the audio content to download, then another hour or so ripping and encoding the disk. That's a couple of hours at least, and a two-stage process. Let me download mp3s directly, it takes me perhaps a quarter of the time, and it's a one-stage process: just the download.
But there's more: because Rhapsody forces me to burn a CD if I want a permanent copy of a song or album, Rhapsody limits me to downloading music in CD-sized chunks, and it forces me to attend the process. In other words, I can't ever kick off a single download of more than 80 minutes of music at a time, because that's the most that can be burnt onto one CD. Furthermore, I have to hang around the computer. Even if Rhapsody's downloads didn't tend to stall, I'd still have to be there when the download finishes, to click the payment authorization, and stick a blank CD-R in the drive.
Now, consider how this would change if Rhapsody would let me download mp3s directly: I'm no longer limited to 80 minute chunks of music. I can queue up and download as many tracks, or complete CDs, as my hard disk will hold. And if I don't have to manually feed CD-R blanks into the computer, I don't have to hang around at all. I can start a download, go to bed, then get up in the morning to find ten new albums on my computer, ready to transfer onto my trust iPod.
Which of these two usage models do you think will encourage people to download more music?
The Bottom Line
Is Rhapsody worth it? Will I continue to use it? Will I recommend it to others?
I'll start with the last question first: no, I won't recommend it to others. There are too many subjective variables in the equation; for some people, Rhapsody might be a good value; for others it will be a waste of time. I will tell people about Rhapsody - but I will also tell them about its many flaws, in particular its buggy software. That alone will discourage many would-be users, and rightfully so.
Is Rhapsody worth it? Another subjective question; to me, it's marginal. I don't mind the $0.49 per song charge; that's the most I would be willing to pay per song, but I don't mind it too much. The monthly fee, though, is money I shouldn't have to pay. I'm sure the argument for a monthly fee is that it's like paying for cable, or satellite radio: you can listen to it all the time, even if you're not downloading and burning CDs. But I'm not likely to use Rhapsody that way, and I resent having to pay the fee when I'm not using Rhapsody like a radio. And I'm absolutely not going to pay nearly ten bucks a month and a dollar per track to burn songs to CD.
My bottom line: Rhapsody just isn't there yet. The software is too buggy, and there are too many holes in their catalog. Of the twelve albums I wanted to find when I signed up for Rhapsody, only three were available for burning to CD. I have found other CDs to download, but for each disc I've burned, there's another that I wanted to burn but couldn't. Oh, and I don't want to hear about their problems negotiating catalog access, regardless of whether it's with some huge multinational, or some little independent label. I'm a consumer, and I want to consume. Don't tell me about licensing problems; just show me the music.
I will be dropping Rhapsody sometime before the fees increase at the end of March, but: fix the software, add mp3 format, fill in the holes in the catalog, drop the prices again, and I'll be back with credit card in hand and a long list of CDs to buy.
Listen.com Unwraps Its Subscription Service, Scarlet Pruitt, IDG News Service, December, 2001
Listen.com Adds CD Burning to Service, Liane Casasavoy, PCWorld.com, October, 2002
Online Music Sites Seek Paying Customers, Leslie Walker, Washington Post, February, 2003
Listen.com Discounts CD-copying Fee, Reuters/CNET News.com, February, 2003