By Steve Rosenbush
The Good The Musicmatch player works like a gem, and the LAUNCHcast radio service offers good value
The Bad Musicmatch isn't compatible with iPods
The Bottom Line A solid choice for folks who aren't wedded to iPods
I was excited to try out LAUNCHcast, part of Yahoo!'s (YHOO) emerging music empire. The Internet radio service invited me to fill out a long form listing my favorite musicians across a broad range of genres. I had a good time clicking through the extensive list of options that were presented to me and adding four favorites of my own.
SPECIAL REPORTDIGITAL MUSIC FORMATS
Dancing to the Digital Beat
Slide Show: The Software of Digital Music
iTunes: Still the Sweetest Song
A Quintessentially Good Player
Yahoo Music Forms a Strong Band
RealPlayer: Master Music Manager
Winamp Still Loves the '90s
Microsoft in Fast-Forward Mode
After all this work, I was somewhat perplexed when I booted up my personal radio station for the first time, only to hear Extreme's neo-doo-wop ballad More than Words, a band that didn't appear on my list. Oh well, I thought, I'll just skip ahead to the next song. Then I realized that wasn't an option and that I'd have to listen to all five minutes of the song. A message offering me an opportunity to buy the song didn't help, either.
WELL-ORGANIZED PLAYER. A few minutes later, LAUNCHcast played a song by 4 Non Blonds. I have nothing against 4 Non Blonds, or Extreme for that matter, but I'm not inclined to listen to either band. I waited patiently for the next programming. It turned out to be a commercial.
Yahoo Music is the latest in a new breed of subscription-based Internet music services. Like cable and satellite TV and satellite radio, they charge a monthly fee for their premium services. By upgrading from LAUNCHcast's free version to LAUNCHcast Plus, for $3.99 a month, I get a commercial-free, higher fidelity service. And paying members can look at and influence one another's playlists.
The other pillar of the Yahoo Music bundle of services is the recently acquired Musicmatch player, which is a parallel offering to the Yahoo Music Engine player. Musicmatch is a well-organized and versatile program that has been on the market for years. Adept at playing, recording, and transferring music to portable devices, Yahoo's offering is on an equal footing with Microsoft's (MSFT) MSN service. It records in a variety of digital music standards, including MP3, MP3 Pro, and Windows Media Audio.
But when it comes to versatility, RealNetworks (RNWK) has an advantage over both Windows Media and Musicmatch because it records and plays using the AAC standard as well. That's the format used by Apple's (AAPL) iPod. To be fair, the iPod does not play Windows Media tracks, although it can play MP3s.
AIMING FOR SUBSCRIBERS. As with most players, Musicmatch allows users a fair amount of control over audio settings. Users can record CD-quality tracks, but they take up more space than lower-quality versions do. The free version of Musicmatch can record tracks from a CD at 10 times the speed of real-time playback. So, it would take 6 minutes to rip an hour-long CD. That's respectable performance. However, the $19.99 upgrade is 40 times faster than real-time play. That means it can rip that hour-long CD in just a minute-and-a-half.
The Musicmatch player is intuitive. When I downloaded it onto my laptop, it offered to search through all the files on my hard drive and copy them to the Musicmatch library. Other players copied a certain number of ring tones and other unwanted files. Musicmatch managed to avoid that pothole.
Yahoo's real goal, though, is to get people to start listening to music on a subscription basis. My experience with Extreme and 4 Non Blondes notwithstanding, Yahoo has come out with a competitive offering. For an annual fee that works out to $4.99 a month, subscribers can listen to more than 120 radio stations and a catalog of about 1 million songs.
LOW-TECH OPTION. Members can also download songs for no additional fee, keeping the tracks on their computer or portable player for only as long as they keep paying the monthly fee. If they want to purchase the music outright, they can pay an additional 79 cents per track. Rival RealNetworks charges $13.32 for its Rhapsody service, where downloads cost 89 cents. The Yahoo site has plenty of music videos, too.
Yahoo Music holds promise, but I'm not ready to buy in. Even at 79 cents each, it would cost $8 to buy the equivalent of a CD with a modest 10 songs. It's not a huge bargain, especially because the catalogs offered by these services are still limited compared to what's available at the local CD shop.
For my money, there's a low-tech way to enjoy music on the cheap. Go to the local used-record store, buy a bunch of old CDs, and burn them onto your hard drive. When it comes to new music, downloading direct from the Internet is a good option. For that purpose, Musicmatch gets the job done nicely.
MILLIONS IN THE LIVING ROOM. The larger question about subscription music services is whether they can capture the feeling of sitting around a friend's living room, flipping through the album collection, and discovering something new and worthwhile. That's the goal of the "influencers" feature. You can peek at the musical preferences of people whose taste you trust. You can't actually copy the tracks on their hard drive (that would be file swapping), but you can add their preferences to your LAUNCHcast personal radio station.
But you have no control over exactly which tracks from that great new band will appear on your radio station or when you will hear them. The radio station will eventually "learn" more about your preferences, playing the tracks you rate highly on a more frequent basis. And you can instruct LAUNCHcast not to play tracks that you don't like ever again.
The advantage of sitting around a friend's living room is that you can put the CD in the player and listen to exactly what you want. LAUNCHcast's digital living room can't quite duplicate that experience without violating laws. But the advantage is that it lets millions of people into the living room at once. That won't work in a real living room, or at least not in mine.
Rosenbush is a senior writer for BusinessWeek Online in New York