(Dave) Last fall, a reader wrote us about broadband applications: "Rhapsody charges a monthly subscription fee for their service but I am particularly fond of the 'build-your-own-radio-station' feature that is offered. As the 'free' Internet radio stations dry up it looks like 'pay to play' will eventually become the standard for Internet distribution of audio and video content." We were intrigued by his observation and made a note to learn more about this feature.
We recently started using this feature. The "radio stations" in Rhapsody are preprogrammed music sequences from albums in Rhapsody's catalog; these cover many genres similar to satellite radio. But none of them really matched the music I like best: American and English folk-rock. I quickly found the "Create a Custom Station" feature, and entered eight artist names (it allows up to ten). I then clicked on "play" and immediately started listening to a sequence of tracks from those artists -- and other artists Rhapsody found that were similar. This approach is really better than radio -- you can fast-forward past any song you don't like.
Pretty soon, I heard a great song by a group I didn't recognise. Clicking on the "Album info" icon brought me to an album I'd never heard of - "The Guv'nor Vol 3" by Ashley Hutchings. I knew about Hutchings since he was in several of the groups I'd selected. So I did a search by artist on "Hutchings" and found two more albums in the same series -- and then listened to the three albums.
I really wanted to hear the albums on our audio system as well as on my PC so I wondered if there was a way I could get the albums into our PC jukebox. (Readers will remember that we use our PCs as a jukebox and play tracks over our audio systems with an *AudioTron" networked digital audio system.)
I noticed that Rhapsody was promoting a special price for "CD burning" - 49 cents a track instead of 99 cents - so I decided to burn one of the albums and see how this works. The first album was available for burning (not all are), selected all the songs and burned a CD. It took about ten minutes and was very straight-forward. And at $9.31 (19 tracks) it felt like a bargain compared to buying the CD -- I didn't have to pay shipping and I had it right away. (At the regular price it wouldn't have made much sense - unless I selected only the songs I liked best.)
I next needed to "rip" the CD to my hard drive. Since it was not an original CD, I wondered whether Gracenote CDDB (the online music data base) would be able to recognise it and give me the track information.
I started up AudioStation (the PC digital-music player we use) and put the CD in the drive. CDDB immediately identified the CD as "The Gov'nor" and downloaded the track list! In about six minutes, the tracks and all the "meta data" -- track names, times, etc. -- were on my hard drive and added to my library.
But the music didn't sound quite as good over the loudspeakers as on my PC. This is partly due to the poor quality of some of the original tracks, but I think also partly due to the process. Rhapsody downloads the tracks in a compressed format and converts them back to standard CD audio format to record the CD. AudioStation then re-compresses each track in WMA format to rip it to disk. This sequence must cause some loss in audio quality.
And I really didn't want the disk: I wanted the compressed tracks and the meta data on my hard drive. I would have saved a lot of time if Rhapsody could just save the tracks to disk in a standard compression format - either MP3 or WMA. That would have preserved more audio quality and I could always create a disk if and when I needed one.
The combination of Rhapsody, AudioStation and AudioTron -- plus a PC, broadband connection and home networking -- shows where music distribution will go. It's not perfect yet, but it's a great step forward and will get easier from here. Hopefully, the labels will see how much better this distribution method is compared to pressing disks, and will license large parts of their catalogs for online listening, legal download and disk burning.
The music industry has been slow to come around to what has to be the wave of the future. It certainly looks as though some retailers who have been so negatively affected by the drop in CD sales over the past year are not going to sit by and watch the business disappear. Our news section above mentions Anderson Merchandisers, the music distributor for Wal-Mart, buying Liquid Audio's digital music fulfillment business; and the formation of Echo, a consortium of the six largest music retailers. These bricks-and-mortar based establishments seem to understand the importance and complementary nature of making profit both from physical CDs and from music downloaded (with their participation) from the Web. Let's hope the rest of the industry follows their lead.
Meanwhile, I see that Rhapsody has lots of other albums available for burning. I'm looking for more to add to my collection before the price goes back up.