I exist mostly in an Apple ecosystem: I work on a Mac, call on an iPhone, and work out with a Shuffle. And yet, here I am, spending more and more time on Rhapsody.
Rhapsody, Real's subscription-based music service, is my tech life's ugly duckling. There's no Rhapsody iPhone app, so I can't take it on the go, and since I stream it over my browser, it's subject to all the dropped connections that my crappy Time Warner broadband service sees fit to deliver. It works clunkily on the Safari beta I'm browsing with, and site's search engine is a throwback from the Clinton administration (search Notorious BIG, and you'll get nothing; you must type "B.I.G." with the periods.)
And yet, here I am, because it's fun, and because it's free.
Well, not free. But I don't pay for it. Rhapsody's two unlimited music plans—one of which is $13 a month, and the other $15—don't place limits on how many computers can log into one account at once. On their membership plans site, they list "sharing with friends" as one asset of the unlimited plans, which gain you access to their entire massive library of music as long as you keep up your subscription (though you can purchase music through Rhapsody too). But I'm not sure if they intended what I'm doing: I've been given login information by my friend, and I'm using his account to stream music. Along with about 30 other people.
The secret beauty of this operation is that we can all save the playlists we've constructed in Rhapsody's Web interface. There are nearly 200 of those playlists now, as my friend gives out his login to more people, and those people, in turn, share the login with others. Many of the playlists are named in accordance with their creator, so I can dip into the bank of mixes and see what our friends are listening to, or guess at who made the anonymous mixes.
Is there a Facebook or iPhone app that does exactly this? Sure, there are probably ten. But while those are oversharing—"Your Friend Thought You'd Like This Song by Lilly Allen!"—this is regular old pre-Web 2.0 sharing. I, the sharee, find the music I want to borrow, and knowing that each playlist hasn't been packaged by some image-conscious friends for public consumption and display. Not when my friend adds a Pink song to one of his lists, no, no: this is real sharing, guilty pleasures and all. And that's what's fun.
Rhapsody announced this week that they're following Apple's model and introducing tiered pricing this week for their purchasable MP3s, muddying their model. But why buy when you can stream for a flat fee? Isn't that the whole point of Rhapsody? The fact that I've been drawn away from Apple's excellent suite of services to use Rhapsody, and that Rhapsody seems utterly unaware of why I find it fun, makes it seem as though Real isn't sure exactly where the power of their service lies. And maybe they don't, or at least, they don't know how to leverage it; according to PiperJaffray, Apple's iTunes is gaining saturation-level marketshare faster than ever, even though it's more expensive dollar for dollar than sites like Rhapsody (or Slacker, another great service I wrote about recently.) None of these services, not even Apple's (who could gain literal monopoly by simply introducing a subscription service) seem to know precisely what people like about them.
Because of that service-user disconnect, music distribution remains one of technology's unsolved mysteries: the best business model hasn't yet been hammered out by any of these guys, even though each competitor does one part well. Like a lot of people, I want my device to be an iPod, but I want a monthly service like Rhapsody or Slacker so I can fill it up with tunes for cheap. But I also want to get some kind of credit for each month of membership so I can own some of that new music, as with Microsoft's excellent Zune Marketplace. I don't want a Slacker player or a Zune, and I don't want to redundantly buy music through my subscription service. Hear that, guys?
There are about 100 also-rans: services like emusic, iLike, Imeem, Yahoo Music, and Lala all have their advantages, but try and do a side-by-side comparison by the important metrics—player compatibility, price, library size, ease of use—and you'll be driven to drink. Slacker probably has the closest thing to a complete, usable and fun ecosystem with their Slacker player and iPhone app, but it lacks Lala's ability for me to upload my iTunes library and sync it with my Web library. Forget XM and Sirius, Chrysler and Fiat—why can't all these music services merge and give people what they actually want?
Til then, it's a part-and-parcel musical life: iTunes for my old favorites, iPhone for the train, Rhapsody for at home, and Slacker Radio for you'll-like-this-too recommendations. Should Rhapsody release an iPhone app, Slacker improve its interface, or Apple introduce a subscription service, well: that might have me, and many other listeners, marching to a different drum.