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Friday, January 09, 2004


Someday, and soon, every book will be easily available online. So far, though, a big bookstore is a much larger source of books than a computer. The story is different with music. There may be a few mega-stores stocking over 20,000 CD titles, but I doubt it. Yet, that is how many CD's are available immediately on the Rhapsody music service. This is not an ad for Rhapsody, but an ode to services like it that are emerging very quickly as the new way to get access to music.

I pay $9.95 a month, and in return it is as if I own every CD in a large CD store...only better. I sit comfortably on my couch, browse through a well-organized database and play anything I want. It plays on my stereo or my headphones and it sounds as good as the real CD.

This is easier than searching through a record store and getting the CD into the player. And while I'm listening I consult the convenient links to influences on the artist I'm listening to, or contemporaries, or followers, or read a short biography, or switch over to the web to learn more.

This service and others like it have been available for several years now, but most people I know are completely shocked when they find out about it from me. For some reason, MP3's have dominated music listeners' attention. They have some advantages, but some disadvantages. Let's just consider legally obtained MP3's, leaving aside the ethical questions and quality risks that come with the illegal kind. There are two advantages to MP3's. One is that MP3 files are portable. They can be put on a small player than fits in your pocket and they can be moved from one computer to another. The other advantage is that they can be listened to even when the user is not connected to the internet.

This second advantage continues to decrease in size, as wireless access become more available. I am connected to the internet very often: at home, at my office, at the cafe, in a hotel, and in surprising places where a wireless connection simply pops up on my laptop. This access to the net is growing fast so that soon laptop users will be able to be online most of their day, wherever they are. You can't be on your laptop while you're walking down the street or driving in the car, so a portable MP3 player is still useful in those situations. But those will change before long.

What are the advantages of the streaming method of delivery, such as Rhapsody. The main one is the huge quantity of music that is available on demand, with virtually no download time. Suppose you like Bob Dylan, and you have a large MP3 collection. I bet you don't have every cut from 45 albums by Dylan. Rhapsody does. Not 45 songs, 45 albums, just by Dylan. Click em and they play. People brag about their MP3 collections, but I have more music at my fingertips than any of them, and I didn't have to put hours into downloading and organizing my files and buying larger hard drives to hold them. My music all sits on Rhapsody's servers. If I want to have offline access to any of this music I can pay 79 cents per song and burn music to a CD that I can play anywhere. The cost is more than an illegal MP3, but not more than a legal one. Having a CD that you paid for might seem so 20th century, but on Rhapsody you can hear the whole CD as many times as you want before you decide to pay to burn it. This is the stuff of dreams just a few years ago.

One of the limitation that we have all noticed with the glut of information that the internet makes available is how hard it is to find your way around it to what you really value. I may have 20,000 albums on Rhapsody, but how would I know what is there or what to try listening to? There are tons of ways to discover its riches. One is by browsing what they have added to their library in the last week. You'll be amazed for one thing, but it will also put your mind on artists you weren't thinking about. On January 4, for example, they added stuff by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Sting, Robert Palmer, Michael Jackson, Stan Getz, Stevie Wonder, Merle Haggard, Marilyn Mason, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, The Cranberries, LL Cool J, Jame Brown, Bob Marley, Boston, Carole King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Barbara Streisand, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker, Nirvana, Seal, Roy Orbison, and tons more. That's just what was added on one day. Many of these are older artists, partly because newer artists are well-represented and they keep working on the backlist. You can browse the whole artist list here.

Here's another way to find new music on there. You can make what they call a "radio station" by selected one or several artist, and they will automatically stream and endless string of tunes by artists deemed similar or related. The other day I just set up a station with one artist: Natalie McMaster, a contemporary celtic artist. Got a wide variety of celtic music as if on a radio station, much of it very obscure, lots of it great, some of it terrible. On the terrible cuts, I just clicked "skip." Amazing. They also have a bunch of good pre-designed radio stations.

The key to taking advantage of Rhapsody, I think, is to have it wired to your good home stereo. I keep my laptop in the living room and plug it into the stereo whenever I'm home. The quality, on a pretty good stereo, is excellent. In my experience it's better than most MP3's, though it's sampled at the pretty standard rate of 128kbps. This is often called CD quality, which is not technically accurate, though I'm not sure I hear any difference from a CD.

What's interesting to me about it is this: I'll bet Rhapsody is pretty close to what many music lovers wish they had and dream of having someday, and they don't know it exists. Hardly anybody knows. But you do.

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