Subscriptions and the sinking ship

The proposed takeover of Yahoo by Microsoft has been the big merger news of the past week but, for those who care about digital music and its current and future distribution, Yahoo Music’s decision to get out of the subscription music business and transfer its customers to Rhapsody should be of some interest as well.

The move was recently announced by Yahoo Music’s Ian Rogers on the company’s corporate blog, the salient point being this:

Around 25 million people visit Yahoo! Music each month. Relatively speaking, a small percentage of those use Yahoo! Music Unlimited, yet an large portion of our resources were being poured into this service. It was clear to us that we needed to make a major strategic shift.

In short: “We’re losing our shirts. Time to go.”

That message hasn’t seemed to penetrate the walls at RealNetworks, the new and seemingly proud owners of Yahoo Music’s client base. Nope, those sitting at the big table at Rhapsody HQ are pleased that this brings the service one step closer to being The Player in the music subscription business.

Seems to me that this is like celebrating that you have the finest First Class cabin on a floundering Titanic.

And this is coming from someone who likes subscription music services.

After all, I’m still paying Rhapsody each month for the benefit of streaming music from its service to my computer’s speakers. And sometimes it really is a good thing. Having access to such a huge catalog of music, day or night, is very nice. But I’ve come to understand that I’m not getting my money’s worth from it.

To begin with, I don’t use it often enough because the service—at least under my subscription plan—is tethered to my computer. When I’m sitting at my computer I’m working and find most music distracting. Sure, for a few extra dollars each month I could download Rhapsody’s music to an MP3 player but, regrettably, the music player I use—the iPod—isn’t supported.

The compromise I’ve come up with is to use Rogue Amoeba’s $25 Airfoil to stream Rhapsody from my Mac downstairs to the AirPort Express Base Station I have attached to the upstairs stereo. But it’s kind of a drag to run up and down the stairs whenever a new musical mood strikes. And, of course, it doesn’t solve the iPod conundrum.

And when I remember to use it, it doesn’t always deliver what I want. For example, on Tuesday mornings I like to see what’s new at the iTunes Store, flip over to Rhapsody, and give some of the new releases a full listen before choosing the music I want to buy. Today I chose four albums from iTunes New Releases section—Sheryl Crow’s Detours, Jack Johnson’s Sleep Through the Static, k.d. Lang’s Watershed, and Chick Corea and Gary Burton’s The New Crystal Silence. None were available for streaming (hell, Rhapsody couldn’t even come up with the old Crystal Silence).

So, on the one hand I have access to a darned fine catalog of music. On the other, that catalog is tied to my computer, won’t play on my iPod, and is only darned fine rather than damned fine because its catalog isn’t as current as the iTunes Store or Amazon MP3.

Again, Rhapsody, while I appreciate the ship’s many fine appointments, you might want to take a gander over the port bow….

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