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Summary:

Music subscription services promise unlimited access to enormous libraries of songs, typically on the order of 6-10 million tracks. But there are plenty of empty trays at the all-you-can-eat music buffet, some of which will leave you hungrier than others.

Music subscription services promise unlimited access to enormous libraries of songs, typically on the order of 6-10 million tracks. And while a few superstar artists are famously absent from streaming services as well as Apple’s iTunes -– the Beatles and Garth Brooks among them -– my experience testing out several services has left me frustrated in other ways.

Indeed, there are plenty of empty trays at the all-you-can-eat music buffet, though some will leave you hungrier than others. Use one for awhile, and the gaps in its catalog soon become apparent. Try two or more, and the inconsistencies among them become downright baffling.

Most of the services claim to provide access to the full digital catalogs of all four major labels and a slew of independently distributed recordings, most delivered via aggregators such as IODA and the Orchard. But why is MOG missing the first two Tom Petty albums, while Thumbplay has them all? Why does Spotify – at least the preview version I’m testing here in the U.S. – have only two or three Bob Dylan albums, when its competitors have dozens? Why is Rhapsody the only one that has Grizzly Bear’s “Veckatimest,” an acclaimed independent-label album that entered the Billboard chart at No. 8 last June?

As I’ve learned from conversations with subscription providers, obtaining a complete and stable catalog of music is hardly as simple as working out a contract with a label or distributor. Songs and albums are constantly blinking in and out of view as ownership rights change hands, reissues are prepared, and songwriters and performers change their minds as to where they want their songs to be heard. Some labels handle their own distribution rather than going through aggregators, meaning that individual deals have to be struck in order to make their catalogs available. Geography can be a factor, as licenses vary from country to country. What’s more, a glitch in something as simple and unsexy as the file metadata that identifies a song –- a missing capital letter here, a misspelling there –- can render a track invisible to the consumer, even if it’s properly licensed by the subscription service.

Filling holes in the catalog is time-consuming and labor-intensive. (As MOG’s director of content licensing, Buzzy Cohen, told me, “Finding the holes is harder than filling them in.”) Companies with deeper financial resources and more personnel will have the upper hand when it come to chasing down rights holders one at a time in an effort to maintain a more complete catalog, so it makes sense that the older companies are more successful at it than the new ones — and explains why Rhapsody’s service, which has been around for more than eight years, satisfies my searches more consistently than any of its upstart rivals.

Though the causes are manifold and the companies’ efforts to fill the gaps are admirable, it’s frustrating to music fans when our searches aren’t satisfied, and even more irritating when songs in a playlist disappear without warning. And as consumers choose from among several services — or choose not to subscribe at all — holes in the catalog can ultimately be a dealbreaker.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user samsmith

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  1. Does anyone know why the Beatles are happy to sell you CDs but refuse online sales?

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    1. I can’t speak to their motivations, Rich, but they’re still doing just fine with physical product. They sold 30 million records during the 2000s decade, second only to Eminem’s 32.2 million: http://bit.ly/ar7mmR

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  2. I was thinking the same thing during Hyman’s Mog talk at SXSW. In my listening, Mog has more holes than Rhapsody, Napster or Zune. All the services lack content, and they should all be more explicit that there is some content you don’t get access to with your subscription.

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  3. I don’t know. It’s like gorging yourself at a Roman Feast, and complaining that there’s no Lark’s tongues in aspic. I’ve been using MOG, and for everything they don’t have, my mind is continually blown by all the other stuff I’m finding. I have a looot of vinyl and mp3s. Yet I don’t find myself even going to my mp3s to fill the “holes”, I’m filling it with other things I wouldn’t have listened to without the service.

    This could be the music; I’m listening to moslty jazz. But if you are a jazz collector, this music-from-the-cloud thing is a feast you won’t find me complaining about…

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    1. ‘Larks’ Tongues In Aspic’: Not a bad album… http://bit.ly/cpcLy3

      Thanks, Jesse. Interesting notion: The people most likely to notice the gaps in the catalog might also be the least likely to care.

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  4. Jesse J,
    No Lark’s tongues in aspic? I’m outta here!

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  5. Good post. I own a music site, and have to say I definitely agree with the points you made in this article. Though my website doesn’t have any of these issues, most of the sites will say they have all the songs, and it is apparent they only have some songs by artists or don’t have some artists at all. It’s a long process of the music companies and website’s working out contracts, and I feel like it’s been taking years to get positive results.

    -Marco
    Audiolizer.com

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  6. Nice article. I agree with you that none of the music services carry all of the music people have or are willing to listen to. If you add Ethnic songs to the list this becomes even more difficult.
    There is another thing that all of these services miss is that not everyone is willing to pay for listening to a music stream if they already own the CD of the music that they paid for.

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  7. <

    p>I’m a premium user of Spotify myself and am forced to play music from my own mp3 library every now and then due to the gaps in the catalogue of Spotify. But I’m ok with that as the benefits like being able to constantly find new music are big enough. So I agree with Jesse J here.
    What I would like to have though is to be able to have also my own music library available from the same UI

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  8. The ‘holes in the catalog’ problem is not just about the longevity of Rhapsody versus Spotify. As you rightly say, it’s about whether the efforts of the streaming services to secure rights holders’ permission is successful or not.

    Rights holders’ have changed their view of streaming services, and the viability/attractiveness of their underlying business models, over time (cf Warner’s announcement http://bit.ly/9l88e9).

    I’m convinced that users need to populate cloud music services to ensure a complete catalog – albeit that this entails restructions on use (30 second samples, restricted number of plays etc). If you accept this is primarily about discovery, rather than consumption, then it incentivises the user to download and own music they find in the cloud. This is good for everyone: artists, labels and users.

    Now all we need is for rights holders to make the entire catalog available for download and not impose unrealistic limitations on that process (see Psonar Blog “Floyd Don’t Get It?” http://bit.ly/aHdPRH)

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  9. [...] are still significant gaps in the catalog. As I wrote yesterday, the services may offer all you can eat, but their menus aren’t always complete, and they keep [...]

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  10. [...] has improved its song catalog impressively since launch, and has filled in a lot of the gaps that the newer rival Rdio is still remedying. Both compete in an increasingly crowded music [...]

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