My new online music love affair…

UPDATED: 2014-02-07   [sigh]  

Read the original — without strikeouts:  http://tkmajor.com/mbo/my-new-online-music-love-affair-original/

FILE UNDER:   shameless, hopeless tech product worship
[Note to non-US readers: you can skip the rest of this article, the services I’m going to talk about, besides Spotify, are or were US-only.]

 

I’m in love.

Let me first say that I’ve been a subscriber to a series of streaming music subscription services since mid-2004.

I’m not some consumer-johnny-come-lately lured in by the whirlwind of shameless press-flackery over the once European-only Spotify.

Bored already?  If not, you probably will be. This is an over-extended paean to my latest tech-love, MOGClick here to go straight to the end of this post for a a free two week trial subscription.

Or continue reading to find out why I fell in love…

The first two  services I used (Music Match On Demand, which was bought by and subsumed into Yahoo for their decent-enough but virtually unpromoted Yahoo Music Unlimited) are no longer in biz, despite offering a quite decent deal for music lovers — unlimited on demand streaming from large libraries of major, minor, and indie label music for about $10 a month.

When Yahoo Music Unlimited folded, I found my way to Rhapsody. And — until about a week ago — I thought it was the greatest.

I’d been iffy, but Rhapsody proved to be a much superior service to the previous two. Ireally found myself liking it. For one thing, it had a quite good selection of classical albums by major artists. And a better selection overall.

And the player was solid, didn’t leak RAM or crash (like the MusicMatch player did) and had some nice features. Its search options, like those of Yahoo Music Unlimited, however were more than a bit funky.

You could probably forgive Rhapsody, whose parent company, RealNetworks had got their start with the old RealAudio, an early, proprietary data-compressed audio format that was largely swept aside by the MP3, AAC, and WMA formats. But the fact that Yahoo couldn’t even provide proper search capabilities for their own online music catalog seemed amazing to me.

The quality on Rhapsody seemed roughly equivalent to the earlier services, which claimed 160 kbps WMA streams. (WMA is Windows Media Audio, generally assumed to be roughly euivalent to the same size in Apple’s AAC or the open source Vorbis format.)

And, unlike the earlier services, Rhapsody eventually fielded a browser-based player — offering the convenience of allowing a user to sign in from anywhere without downloading a special desktop player app: listen from work or log in at a friend’s house or at a party and play DJ, a nice feature.

(Note: Rhapsody recently overhauled its browser-based player offering some nice enhancements but, while I don’t have bitrate measurements to prove it, the new player seemed, at least sometimes, to use lower quality streams than the desktop player. I went back and forth between the same song in both the desktop and browser-based player on one of my favorite ‘test’ tracks, Paul Weller’s “Wild Wood,” and, to be sure, the desktop player version sounded better. My guesstimate was a probable 160 kbps for the desktop and probably 128 kbps for the browser version. Perhaps it was only some tracks? I don’t know.)

Meanwhile, I kept hearing from online friends and acquaintances in Europe about the relatively new Spotify, which had a free, ad-driven tier that allowed a limited number of plays per month, as well as a medium tier that removed ads and play restrictions, and a premium tier that offered higher audio quality (as high as 320 kbps) and some extra premium content.

Word came that Spotify was negotiating with US labels and would eventually field a similar service in the US.

I watched and waited — and finally, a little over a week ago, the full Spotify US service opened for business. I downloaded the player, registered for the free tier and immediately jumped in.

It was… okay. The player seemed to work well but had a dark light-on-dark look that I suppose is supposed to look hip. (About as hip as those depressingly retro black-background websites that so many bands first put up in the 90s.) But it worked well, didn’t leak RAM, and, once you realized you that the ‘exit’ button (the ‘X’ button in the upper right corner in the Windows version) was actually a minimize button that merely minimized the player down into the (Windows) systray (sorry, I haven’t used the Mac version but I assume it’s usage parallels the Win version) and you had to right-click thaticon to unload the player from RAM, it unloaded clean with no apparent leakage.

But quality of the first 20 or 30 tracks I listened to in the free version was distinctly low fidelity. (Now, I’ve since heard a few more tracks that sound more like the relatively decent 160 kbps streams I was used to in Rhapsody, which was what I’d heard informally from my European friends. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.)

The free version is relatively unlimited and relatively ad-free in the US — but only for a short time. All that is scheduled, in a few months, to increase the number of ads and impose limits more like those in the European version, a limited number of hours per month and a limit of 5 plays per song.

So… ultimately, I was definitely under-impressed by Spotify — particularly in light of the apparently free publicity blitz laid down by tech journos across the US.

I was writing informally about my conclusions in a record engineering oriented forum and one of my online friends mentioned that he had been using a service called MOG for a while. I remembered reading some glowing comments about MOG in another recording forum in another discussion of the new US version of Spotify.

But I was skeptical. When he said it had all 320 kbps streams, I was even more skeptical. But I visited their site, and sure enough, there it was in black and white. But I was still skeptical about the selection.

I mentioned that I’d been less than impressed by Spotify (free tier, don’t forget the $10 tier offers what they promised as some extra premium content at bitrates as high as320 kbps), and mentioned, in particular, that while Spotify had had a number of Fleetwood Mac albums from the Buckingham/Nix era (their most popular period, without doubt), they  had had almost nothing from the earlier period often known asPeter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, music beloved by fans of classic English blues rock. (Peter Green, in his prime, was one of the finest English blues players ever, with technique and speed   surpassing players like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.)

My friend listed the Peter Green era albums on MOG — so I listed the same perod’ offerings from Rhapsody.

MOG won by a nose. And of course, they both left Spotify in the dust. (At least at the free and $5 tier, which share the same selection — I can’t weigh in on any extra content that may be available in Spot’s $10/mo. premium tier.)

The tear point?

MOG’s 320 kbps, similar selection was only $5 per month (with smart phone apps for iOS and Android kicking that up to $10/mo.)

So, warily, I signed up for a free, two week trial. Of course, like most such offers, I had to pull out the plastic and set up an account. If I didn’t cancel before the two weeks was up, they’d begin charging. One very nice feature — the player tells you right up at the top how many days you have left in your free trial period. As long as you’re using it, there’s little chance of getting caught off guard by the end of your free period sneaking past you.

At any rate, it only took about 45 minutes of playing a quick succession of tracks, checking the promised 320 kbps quality with what’s left of my tired old ears. I was shocked by how much better MOG sounded than Rhapsody’s current streams. There was simply no competition while  listening over my ‘industry standard’ Yamaha NS10 nearfield monitors. No competition. (If your bandwidth is too low, however, MOG’s streams dumb down to 128 kbps, which virtually any broadband should be able to stream. But that fi is not so hi.)

I’d signed up for the $5 per month, desktop browser-only based service tier. (Of course, you can log in from anywhere with Chrome, Firefox, or Safari. Internet Explorer requires the Free Google Framework plug in — but Chrome is recommended. When you log in from a new location, you’re automatically logged off your former location transparently.)

I liked it so much, it was only a day or so before I — with a certain bittersweet regret, since we’d shared so much fine music — logged into Rhapsody and canceled my service, which would turn off at the end of my current monthly period.

And then, since I’d already budgeted $10/mo. for music, I decided to give MOG’s mobile service a try as well. I’d noticed that the reviews in the Android Market were less than stellar, about 3.5 out of a possible 5. Some users complained of spotty service — but I already knew from Rhapsody’s component that a 3G connection wasn’t really adequate for streaming music and that, even over WiFi, streaming — which is inherently not as efficient as a straight download — was a battery drain. That’s why both Rhapsody, MOG, Spotify and the similar subscription service, Napster, offer unlimited downloads into your phone (where they are ‘locked in’ by the phone OS’s intellectual property protection schemes). MOG does, however offer optional 320 kbps streams as well as 320 or smaller downloads. I’ve had to  force quit the app once or twice — but it can be immediately reloaded in my experience and seems to work, really prettywell, overall.

So, ‘hi fi’ sound, a selection roughly as good as any other service (or, I decided, maybe effectively better than Rhapsody’s in the areas I compared — as any on demand veteran knows, catalogs often include different versions of the same album, greatest hits collections, remasterings, etc), as well as flexible mobile options, including hi fi downloads up to the capacity of your phone (of course, you need a current subscription to continue listening to them)…

Oh, and the MOG player…

They’re currently offering a beta player (that, unfortunately shares the light-on-dark motif of  Spotify) but their current player (with an easy on the eyes dark-on-light UI) works very well, has a true shuffle function that shuffles or reshuffles the current play queue, and allows one to save the current queue to a playlist. Also, the playlist editor works well, overall, and, of course, you can share/publish your playlists, give them custom images, tags, and write-ups.

Rhapsody, by contrast, simply has a random order play that works but is unpredictable and inflexible. With MOG, you can shuffle, view the order, and, if you like reshuffle until you get a randomized distribution you like.

There are a couple of quirks to the current player however. You can’t drag a track or selected block of tracks ‘above’ or ‘below’ the currently visible window. But it adds a pretty cool feature —  the ability to add a radio mode to the end of the current queue so the music continues when you reach the end of the queue.

Another nice feature: you can see the ‘radio’ selections coming up, and even — by dragging one of the current queue’s tracks down into the ‘gray area’ of the radio selections to make them part of the current queue — allows you to switch out of radio mode and shuffle the queue again to mix the radio tracks into the main queue. One more nice feature: the radio mode has a slider that moves from ‘Artist only’ (the last artist in the queue) to ‘Similar Artists’ on a sliding scale.

But that brings to mind another quirk: if you aren’t in radio mode, the legacy player will automatically loop back to the top of the queue.  It’s not a deal-breaker for me, by any means — but there are times when you’ve just heard a killer album or playlist that ends on a devastating track — and you just want a minute or five of silence. Be ready with a mouse click in that case. Oh well. As Leonard Cohen sang, there’s a crack in everything.

And a consideration that might be important so some folks: because the player isbrowser-based, you can’t mix in music from your local hard drive or from other sources.  That said, the chances are that you want to play is already on MOG and probably easier to find that your own CD or mp3.

A couple of last points… one of Spotify’s most touted features is its social aspect. (And it’s certainly nice that you can share music, within limits, with free tier users.)

MOG also has a nicely developed social aspect, allowing users to post comments on tracks, albums and playlists — MOG actually started out as a music-oriented social/micro-blogging site and that culture is well-developed there.

MOG is also very open to suggestions about its service in general, its player, and — this is killer to me — they welcome suggestions for additions to its catalog of tracks, devoting a user forum to it.

At Rhapsody, on the other hand, there was really no good way to request content short of getting on your Twitter account, address an @message to them, and then hope for the best.   (You have a Twitter account don’t you? LOL… I have to, in real life, I’m a web developer who has to stay on top of all the latest developments.)

did do that while still on Rhapsody when much of their Rory Gallagher content disappeared suddenly. I tweeted, asking them to look into it.  But unless you constantly scan your Twitter stream, it’s easy to miss the answer. I eventually searched and found that they had responded, saying they would look into it. Further searches didn’t find any other messages addressed to me, but a month or two later the content was back. It worked that time but it was awkward, vague — and tried to make Twitter into a messaging system it’s poorly suited for.

MOG, conversely, posts messages right back (in my experience so far,  it has been a matter of a few hours or less. You can read the messages from both parties easily, and the staff seem quite forthcoming and welcoming.

When I asked them to look into a surprising lack of Ry Cooder content from the 70s, I got a message in an hour or two from a service rep saying she’d looked into it, she didn’t see any reason why the albums shouldn’t be available through them, that she’d put in a request to the label in question, suggested that it was likely just a not uncommon clerical error at the label, and that she expected to get the albums in question back and available soon.

I was found that I was pretty darn impressed.

No, strike that — I had fallen in love.

PS… MOG is strictly legit — Sony Music and Universal Music are both investors and legendary producer Rick Rubin is on the board of directors.

RECAP

  • unlimited on-demand streaming from an 11 million track library for $5/month
  • add unlimited mobile streaming or downloading to iPhone or Android for $5 more/mo (check your mobile carrier for data limits/charges)
  • all tracks are super high quality 320 kbps — best of any current service
  • log in from anywhere (Chrome recommended; Firefox, Safari and most other modern browsers should work well; IE requires Google Chrome Frame plug-in)
  • advanced, flexible ‘radio’ (variable between artist-only and similar artistmix)
  • completely legit with full industry support (major labels are investors; Rick Rubin sits on the board of directors)
  • possible downside: because the player is browser-based, you can’t mix in tracks from your local hard drive

Now… speaking of shameless…  you can sign up for a free 2 week trial of MOG here:http://mog.tellapal.com/a/clk/10FlCl [And not entirely coincidentally earn this writer a free month of MOG service — an opportunity that will be open to you, too, if you become a MOG member.]

Don’t like the idea of referral rewards? I understand. Find out more about MOG and/or sign up for the same free 2 week trial via MOG’s virtual front door, here:http://MOG.com — with no benefit to this writer. And that is perfectly cool with me. I just want to make sure MOG survives and thrives.

(PS… if you do  sign up with MOG, either way, you’ll still have the opportunity to shill your own pals into a 2 week free trial and earn yourself a month of free service.)