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Online Music Buffets: Tasty Fare, Many Choices

July 31, 2005|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Music subscription services have been called the all-you-can-eat buffets of the online music world. That's because, unlike the a la carte option of paying by the downloaded song, subscriptions offer a huge variety of tracks for a set monthly fee.

And as any veteran Las Vegas-goer can tell you, buffets have evolved from tawdry to lavish. So too music subscription services. Only a few years ago they were the backwater of online music, with highly limited selections and buggy technology. Downloading on a per-song basis, legal and not, was king. It still is, but subscription services -- designed more for trying out music than collecting it -- have grown far more sophisticated.

Now the three big subscription services -- RealNetworks Inc.'s Rhapsody, Napster Inc.'s Napster and the newest player in the field, Yahoo Inc.'s Yahoo Music Unlimited -- each claim to offer subscribers 1 million tracks to choose from. It's hard to confirm that number, but it's safe to say that the offerings are far greater than they used to be.

The services also sport much-improved interfaces and each offers a "to go" function, allowing subscribers to transfer their music choices to selected portable players.

There are issues, however. The services have a ways to go before they are entirely user-friendly, and there remain large gaps in the music available. Also, they are still for Windows computers only. Mac users are out of luck.

But they have certainly evolved to the point where they are worth trying out. All three services, locked in battle for users, are offering free trials. (But let the trier beware -- these offers can easily slip into paid territory if you don't pay attention to their limitations.)

The services all work on the same general principle. For a monthly fee of $7 to $16, depending on the services and features used -- Yahoo is by far the least expensive, but then it's still in beta -- you can delve into new and vintage tracks from a huge variety of genres: pop hits, alternative, opera, hip-hop, salsa, symphonic, blues, electronica, dance, country, original instrument, original cast, movie soundtrack, folk and many more, some of which I'd never heard.

Searches are still frustrating. Napster allows you to search its database either by artist or track title. So if you have a song that has been recorded by lots of performers on numerous albums, you're going to have to go through long lists to find what you want. Yahoo is a bit better because you can search by the name of the album, too.

Rhapsody, which allows "keyword" searches that mix categories, scored as the best search engine in my book. For instance, to zero in on Aretha Franklin's version of "Spanish Harlem," I was able to use "Franklin Spanish Harlem" in the search.

The title-only searches did lead to some fun stuff, I admit. Searching on "Spanish Harlem," I found the original version from Ben E. King and a cover by Laura Nyro, both also wonderful. Crooner Andy Williams also took a stab at it, I learned. Better he should have stuck with "Moon River."

The searches can't help but take you into new areas. Looking for anything by the contemporary composer Lou Harrison, I found on Rhapsody a cello version of a prelude he wrote for guitar. Very nice. On the same album, by young performer Matt Haimovitz was an insane acoustic cello version of Jimi Hendrix's famed performance of the "Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock.

The Harrison find, however, was a rarity in that subscription services are at their worst when dealing with classical music. The selections are far too few and terribly organized in the databases. Overall, the field doesn't get much respect.

Click on classical as a genre in Rhapsody, and the top three "artists" are Bach, Mozart and Josh Groban. On Napster, the soundtrack to "The Planet of the Apes" (2001) is a featured classical pick. Yahoo doesn't even list classical as a genre on its home page.

It's not saying much, but among the three, Napster did seem to have a wider variety of classical choices available, including some from small labels. But Rhapsody gets snaps in search, again, for having a composer category.

To compare the services' content, I searched each for a list of tracks from a variety of genres. I didn't include any of the top current hits from major labels, because it's a given that all three have them. (For my search results, see the accompanying chart.)

While searching, you can pick songs or whole albums to put in personal playlists. Napster and Yahoo made playlist building a nearly one-click affair. You can listen to the music in your playlists anytime, in whatever order you choose. When you're tired of those selections or want to dig deeper into genres or an artist's catalog, you can head back into the music pool to gather some more.

Your playlists actually reside on the services themselves, under your user name, and you can access them only as long as your subscription is active. Should it lapse, you have to re-up to listen to them again.

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