A Rewind on Music Subscriptions

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 23, 2005; 7:17 AM

I've got music on my mind again this week. In Sunday's column, I review the two latest additions to the digital-music market, RealNetworks' Rhapsody and Yahoo's Music Unlimited. These two are the latest in a long line of stores that have tried to challenge Apple's iTunes supremacy, but they seem set to do more than just imitate and follow the market leader. Read on to find out how.

Elsewhere in the computing world, the video-game industry had its annual week of wretched excess in Los Angeles, the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Mike Musgrove, who's covered E3 for us every year since 1999, filed his report from the show floor.

In Web Watch, Leslie Walker noted Yahoo's new Internet-phone-calling instant-message software, Google's new desktop-search software for businesses and personalized home-page option for consumers, and an additional travel-search option from SideStep. Our software reviews assess Forza Motorsport (much improved from the demo that crashed during Bill Gates's keynote presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in January), Dungeon Lords and AOL Service Assistant (which makes my old Help File item about copying an AOL address book to a Mac obsolete).

Speaking of Help File, this week's installment deciphers a Windows error message and suggests a more flexible way to transfer pictures from a digital camera into Apple's iPhoto program.

DJing For Dollars

The first time I looked at a subscription-music service -- Napster to Go -- I recoiled at the idea of paying rent on my music.

Since then, I've softened slightly on the concept, in that I've realized there are occasions where people will gladly pay for a music service that entertains them and, in the process, helps them find music worth buying. Think of all the people paying Sirius or XM $13 a month for satellite radio.

But those services have other people doing the hard work of finding interesting music. With Rhapsody and Music Unlimited, you have to do the job instead. And not everybody has the time to play record-label scout, auditioning dozens of songs a week.

So I'm glad that both of these subscription services also include personalized Web radio stations. You customize these by telling the software your favorite artists; Yahoo's LaunchCast lets you further refine the programming by rating each song played (a task that I found unfortunately reminiscent of training my e-mail program to filter out spam).

LaunchCast worked as badly as I'd feared, consistently serving up the same songs I've heard too many times on commercial FM. It was like listening to a radio station DJ'd by somebody afraid of getting a call from management if he strayed too far from the approved playlist. My LaunchCast station had yet do more than tip-toe into the realm of the new and obscure.

Rhapsody, however, worked amazingly well. I kept having these "how did you know I'd like that?" moments when the software would play a song or an artist I hadn't heard in way too long. My station's playlists were full of the kind of strange mixes of genres you'll hear all the time on mix tapes and iPods. (Consider this sequence: Simple Minds' "Promised You a Miracle," Public Enemy's "Shut Em Down," U2's "Gloria.") Rhapsody also served up a decent number of artists I hadn't heard before, although not quite as many as I would like.

Still, that's undeniably gutsy, creative programming -- far beyond what I've heard on the air lately. Real, can you please license this software to the FM stations around here?

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