Rhapsody, Real’s Free Music Service, a Viable Music Source?
Few online music services, besides iTunes, support the Macintosh so whenever a company like Real makes an effort it is worth taking notice. Rhapsody 25 is Real free online music service. It relies on the Real Player and its browser plugin to serve music over the internet. It works with Firefox and Safari on the Mac. Real also offers a premium service for subscribers willing to pay $9.99 per month, but you can get 25 free full-length song plays, 25 free radio stations and access to most of their site features for free.
The theory is that if you start using the free service and enjoy it, you will start paying for the premium. Unfortunately, the theory failed miserably with me.
Signing up was a pain. In the past, I already had a Rhapsody account so I clicked on My Account. Once on this page, I realized that I probably had to create a new account for the new free service. Clicking on “Register Now” took me to a page that said I could not use Rhapsody unless I used Windows! Now, I already knew Rhapsody was available for Mac OS X, if only through the browser, so this was ridiculous. Then I went back to the Rhapsody home page and clicked on “Create a New Account”—this time it worked. Strange.
Of course after I signed up I realized that my old account was still active and also had 25 free plays. That means I have 50 songs a month from two accounts (and yes, Real, you can shut one down if you find it).
All songs are not available on Rhapsody for free subscribers- I tried listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Stadium Arcadium and all they have is a one hour long “audio commentary” by the band. An audio commentary that presupposes that you have the album and are listening to it simultaneously. The songs are probably only available to paying customers.
Overall, the sound quality is pretty decent. Once in a while, network congestion caused it to buffer and since the rest of my Internet connection was still lively, I know it was not an issue at my end. The Firefox plugin is flakey—in my week of experience with it, it froze, crashed and at one point refused to let me log in after repeated attempts. It also does not fail gracefully when I tried to use it from behind a firewall. It told me to re-enter my user name and password repeatedly, though the real issue was my firewall. Once I changed my firewall settings, it allowed me to log in successfully. A less net-savvy user from behind a corporate firewall would think they forgot their password.
To be fare, Rhapsody’s site is still in Beta. But considering the fact that this service is a subset of the one it offers for $9.99/month, I expected a lot more solid service. Also, half of Google, MSN Live and Yahoo!‘s new services are in Beta so the word has lost the meaning it once had.
The web site is pretty good with a lot of information on artists, albums and cross-linking. The iTunes store could learn a lot from these guys in terms of navigation options, customization and search options. Once you give the site a chance, you realize that the best way to think about Rhapsody.com is as a music portal that also allows you to listen to 25 songs for free every month, not as a music service that also has a decent web site. The only gripe I have about the design is that it is tough to figure out which features you are allowed to use as a free subscriber. All features seem available to you until you hit a brick wall and even then, it is not clear if the feature is actually restricted or if you just are not accessing it correctly.
The My Rhapsody feature is great; it is a single page where all your favorite genres, recommendations and past listening history is collected. You can also browse user playlists—that is, of premium members. Of course, even if it did allow regular freebie members to create playlists, the lists would be of limited utility with the 25 song per month cap.
Rhapsody also has music videos to watch—for free, except that you have to watch an annoying commercial beforehand. They appear inside your browser through the Real Player plugin. The plugin failed right after the advertisement a few times, which meant that I had to watch the ads more times than I got to watch music videos. “Requested file not found”, I was told, in both Safari and Firefox. If anyone else is able to successfully watch Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” let me know! Also, you can “mute” the ads if you want. Another tip—there is a limit to how many songs you can listen to but no limit to the number of music videos you can watch. So if you really need to listen to a song and have blown your quota, you can always look for the video. Not much of a loop hole, but if you don’t want to upgrade to premium you’ve got to take all the breaks you can get.
With all my hanging and crashing woes in Firefox, I switched to Safari. The performance of music was a lot more predictable, though I did not test it nearly as much.
The Rhapsody service is great for checking out new music before you buy it elsewhere; i.e. use Rhapsody for free before you decide whether you want to spend your money with Apple’s iTunes. Also, within a month of 25 listens you can figure out whether the song you like right now will be a long term favorite or just a passing fad.
The 25 free radio stations are pretty decent and have something for everyone with mainstream tastes. Premium users can skip songs and get per-artist radios. Mmmmm, premium.
Sharing music in Rhapsody is not what you think it is, but is still sort of cool. It allows you to send a friend a link to a song and your friend can actually listen to it for free. It allows you to legally, refer your friend to a song that you think they should listen to. The only other way to do that is to direct them to bittorrent/peer-to-peer, but that may be illegal and inconvenient to the pre-free music generation.
Overall, Rhapsody has limited use when it works and is frustrating when it does not. In the past, I have used its Windows-only version that required all browsing and listening to be done through its software, and that worked a lot more seamlessly. While this is a step in the right direction—and I appreciate its support for Mac and Linux—the execution needs to be a lot better before people will jump from the free version to becoming paying customers.
P.S. In Apple’s history, Rhapsody has a much more significant connotation. It was the code name for Mac OS X between the time that Apple purchased NeXT in 1996 and the announcement of OS X in 1998. OS8 was called Tempo, OS8.5 Allegro and OS9 Sonata. Between Sonata and 10.0 Cheetah came Rhapsody.