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The Importance Of An API (Or Why Nobody Cares About Rhapsody)

Sure, most people download apps and sign up for web services without consulting a bona fide engineer. But music services are a little different—once you sign up and start building a collection, you’re basically married to the thing. No one takes their choice of cloud music service lightly—so the services that will survive are the ones that are courting a technical audience.

Remember Rhapsody, that service that pioneered streaming music back when you still had to explain what "streaming music" was to your Luddite friends? Sure, Rhapsody still gets mentioned in music app write-ups and reviews for the sake of naming names, but anyone who is truly considering a new music service probably doesn't give Rhapsody a serious thought.

Why? Because developers don’t care about the platform. And these days, what devs think of your music service matters more than perhaps any other category of user.

Sure, most people download apps and sign up for web services without consulting a bona fide engineer. But music services are a little different—once you sign up and start building a collection, you’re basically married to the thing. No one takes their choice of cloud music service lightly because the pain of switching is so great. Even non-technical users understand this intuitively—everyone has felt the pain of having to transfer a music collection from an old computer to a new one, or rebuilding it from scratch after a hard drive fail.

So when it comes to selecting among Pandora, Rdio, Spotify, and the like, many people do ask their technical friends for advice. Which of these platforms is going to be around the longest? Which one is going to sell my personal data? Which one integrates with the social network I use?

When it’s time to answer those questions, the sentiment from music enthusiasts and developers is that Rhapsody doesn't innovate anymore, they haven't kept up with mobile or realized the importance of accessible APIs. It's not hard to find all sorts of social apps using both Spotify and Rdio's API to power new, innovative, ideas for listening to or exploring music. But it’s hard to find anything that connects with Rhapsody.

It’s not that Rhapsody doesn’t technically have an API—after all, the company’s own apps have to contact its servers somehow. The issue is that the API isn’t open to anyone—you have to apply for approval first. And what about documentation and the community? Just check out Rhapsody’s crappy developer portal to see why it’s so inadequate (or if you’re jonesing for a trip back to 1999).

Left confused after seeking out Rhapsody's developer relations, I turned to Rdio, which has it's own easy to use portal—the company even has a Twitter account for the Rdio API and email address in the bio. I sent an email and bluntly asked a few questions including, "Why is having mobile APIs and web based ones important to your business?" The response I got back from API engineer R. Kevin Nelson explained the goals of uniform mobile APIs across different platforms and a simplified web one, but he also added:

I think perhaps the question you're really asking here is "Why is having an API important to your business?" And I think the answer to that is a lot more interesting, but it's also less specific to being a music company than it is to being a tech company.

For starters, our public-facing API is a subset of our internal API, which powers all of our applications. This has a handful of organizational benefits that aren't necessarily visible on the outside, but are familiar to folks in the industry: separation of concerns, team and codebase modularity, dogfooding, that sort of thing.

From a business development and marketing standpoint, having a feature-rich API infrastructure is really important for strategic partnerships. For example, we recently sponsored the Pitchfork Music Festival, and the mobile apps for the festival used Rdio for music playback.

Having a public API also keeps us active in the digital music community, which is an important part of the larger picture. We sponsor and attend hack-athons (most prominently, Music Hack Day) and take the opportunity to meet with developers and discuss new ideas. A lot of the time, these hack-athons are where the "next big thing" gets conceived and built.

As a music enthusiast myself continually looking for new ways to discover music and easier ways to listen, I've encountered these apps Nelson alludes to, ones that use an API to build their music idea around music services. One of these is SetList, an app that combines your Rdio music collection and your location and alerts you when one of those artists is playing a show near you. A brilliant idea, but one that Mediumrare (company behind SetList) couldn't support without an easily accessible API. cofounder Shehzad Daredia echoes Bryan Maniotakis from Mediumrare and says a public API is "Definitely critical, why reinvent the wheel or go through the prolonged / painful process of licensing music?"

While streaming services like Rdio and Spotify are interesting in their own right, it's the small upstarts that can come to market with the killer feature before anyone else that's the most interesting in the music space.

As I’m re-reading this, it sounds like a rant—but it should be taken as a wake-up call. Dear Microsoft (with your Xbox Music service) and Napster/Rhapsody: Wake up before all your users leave. We need lots of choices in the music platform industry. Consumers don’t want you to die off. Counting on people signing up for a trial only to forget to cancel it is no way to run a business. In the same way Blockbuster gets a backhand everytime someone mentions Netflix, I think Rhapsody should feel the sting when Spotify and Rdio get talked about. But without a robust platform, the sting is only getting worse.

[Image: Flickr user Burning Souls]

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