50 Comments

Summary:

Music is moving into the cloud. Access is replacing ownership of albums and song files, online streams are replacing desktop playback and mobile access is renewing interest in on-demand music subscriptions. So how come I’m still not ready to pay for any of it?

Music is moving into the cloud, right? Access is replacing ownership of albums and song files, online streams are replacing desktop playback and mobile access is renewing interest in on-demand music subscriptions. Older services such as Rhapsody and Napster now appear prescient, though they never quite went mainstream, and newer ones such as Spotify and MOG are attracting big VC dollars.

So how come I’m still not ready to pay for any of them?

I’m a voracious music listener, one with varied but quite specific tastes and as such, a large collection of albums and songs in both physical and digital form. After taking several different subscription services for a test-drive, however, I found that they provide a good — but still very flawed — experience. Here are five reasons why:

There are still significant gaps in the catalog. As I’ve noted, the services may offer all you can eat, but their menus aren’t always complete, and they keep changing. It’s frustrating to pay for a service that doesn’t have songs you want, and even more frustrating when songs that used to be there aren’t anymore.

I still can’t merge things I own with things I just want to stream. Nearly all music fans have songs in their collections that aren’t on any subscription service. It could be an unlicensed mashup, your friend’s band, the Beatles or Led Zeppelin. But there’s still no subscription service that lets me make a party playlist that includes both Beach House and the Beatles. I choose not to own the former, and I’ve got MP3s of the latter, but I can’t have them both side-by-side. (Spotify, for one, may be working on a remedy for this, but as far as I know it hasn’t gone live anywhere yet.)

Ownership of music still provides a smoother listening experience. Try listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” or any live album with applause between songs on these services, and you might start wondering where your CD player is. When the next song doesn’t load fast enough to pick up where the previous one leaves off, you’ll hear an abrupt silence –- a major turnoff during album-length pieces with continuous “banded” tracks that run together. When I use iTunes, there’s sometimes an audible seam but no pause, with an option to crossfade; physical formats have no such issues. In this respect, the cloud-based experience can be a degraded one.

I can only share music with fellow subscribers. If playlists are the new mixtapes, as Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said this week at SXSW, I’d like to share them with my friends. In a market as fragmented as music-as-a-service is shaping up to be, playlist sharing won’t be that compelling until we’re all using the same service — or at the very least, compatible ones. This isn’t as big an issue when there’s a free component, as with Spotify and Rhapsody, but in general, until a critical mass of my friends are subscribing, there will be better ways to share. (I miss you, Imeem. You too, Muxtape.) The MP3 file is very flexible; cloud-based subscriptions still aren’t.

I can still hear things that I don’t already own without paying for them. I’ve already got a lot of music, and there are still new records I’d prefer to own, and for which I will happily pay. (You might be very different.)  But I can also hear an awful lot of on-demand free music via both legitimate and legally questionable channels: Hype Machine, Lala.com, Grooveshark, Play.me, YouTube, Blip.fm, FreeAllMusic, BeeMP3.com, Skreemr, MySpace and elsewhere. Pandora and Last.fm help me discover things through a sort of customized serendipity, while the blogosphere provides curated discovery. Yes, an on-demand subscription gives me more, sometimes in a better-quality experience. But for things I might not choose to own, free options are often still good enough. (Remember, more than 95 percent of Spotify’s users think the free version is good enough, too.)

Music subscriptions are improving, and I imagine that most of my quibbles will be dealt with in time. (See my further discussion of the services in this GigaOM Pro piece, sub req’d.) But for now, I still view subscription services as supplementary — not primary — sources of music, and ones that haven’t done much to change my preference for a hybrid of music ownership and free options.

As I said, I’m a voracious music listener with varied but quite specific tastes. And if subscription services’ numbers are any indication, there are millions of subscribers out there who are quite satisfied with what they’re paying for. So I’d love to hear more about how subscriptions work for you -– or don’t.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user itchy73

Related content from GigaOM Pro:

Rankings: Spotify Leads the Streaming Music Scene

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com

  1. While I agree with the points you make, I must confide something to you. I pay a monthly subscription to use the Zune software. Gasp! What’s that you say? Before you get all worked up let me make it painfully clear that I am not a microsoft fan in any way shape or form. In fact, I had given up all hope of ever seeing anything barely resembling innovation from the Gates squad.

    This all changed the moment I became acquainted the latest Zune software. It is actually a product that software that I enjoy using, and the best part is it doesn’t resemble iTunes in any way, shape, or form.

    I understand, that this article is primarily about music moving into the cloud but hear me out. First, your second gripe about not being able to merge songs you want to stream with songs you own is negated. The Zune software does this effortlessly. All the music is stored in your Zune library just as if you own every track even though that isn’t the case.

    Secondly, the above also eliminates the complaint about breaks in the audio stream; like I said, it is like you own the music even though the majority of your tunes are yours via the subscription.

    Next, as Zune allows you to share one mp3 player with multiple pcs it is easier than ever to distribute and share music with friends. Yes, even though they don’t subscribe. Of course the number of pcs you can sync with aren’t unlimited, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too right?

    In summary, yes there are some things I don’t like, still overall the Zune software is working out great for me and I don’t mind shelling out the $15.00 a month to keep it. I mean, I get to choose 10 tracks that are mine to keep every month. How awesome is that? At least the money I’m giving them is affording me an actual product that I will get to keep when/if I choose to cancel my subscription.

    If you haven’t already, you should check it out. You just might be surprised.

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    1. Steven, this is about as strong a testimonial for the Zune service as I’ve ever heard, and it’s enlightening me. Thanks so much.

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    2. Coincidence of sorts for me. I was on the sidelines and was doing some research on Zunepass when I saw this article. I was surprised to see that Zunepass was not discussed in the original article. Thanks to Steven, I got the thumbs-up and an in-depth review I needed to take the dive.

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    3. The part about syncing on multiple PCs to share music doesn’t sound easy or legal.

      Easy is emailing a link to a playlist. Difficult is having to install Zune software, log in at someone else’s computer (since I expect you aren’t giving out passwords), and physically connect your device to their computer.

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    4. Johnny Roberts Friday, March 19, 2010

      It sounds to me like this person has been paid by Microsoft to make this comment.

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      1. Actually, I doubt it. Pretty much anyone who sees me using my Zune pass will end up AT LEAST asking how in the hell I’m doing this so effortlessly. I don’t even have to download a song, I can just stream the full track in an instant. It’s pretty easy to get all wrapped up in it’s “wow factor” and then feel the need to tell others how awesome it is. Imagine a kid forcing cotton candy into people’s mouths after their first taste, they have to know that others love it too. Really, the software sells itself.

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      2. Apple fan, huh? Or maybe you’ve never used the Zune software.

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      3. Let me say with the new Windows Phone and Zune.. its a no brainer.. I can’t believe how much music I have on my computer now. I find a new artist I can download all thier stuff, and try it all out. Yes there are gaps in some music availablity. I.e. AC/DC and BOb Seger have yet to get on ANY of the sites.. (iTunes included). But I just pop those CDs into my computer Zune rips them and puts them in my collection. They also seem to hav a large colelction of indy music too.. which is also awesome.

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    5. One thing that I would add is that the Zune Pass allows you to use your song credits on songs that are not available as part of the subscription. For example, John Lennon’s catalog on Zune is not available to Zune Pass subscribers, but you could choose to use your 10 free songs on those tracks.

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  2. I use Grooveshark a lot & subscribe to their VIP account. With Grooveshark you can upload your own music, create combined playlists and share them with anyone. VIP access only give you additional interface options. I find the depth of the catalogue is pretty impressive now too.

    Grooveshark’s legal battles seem to be settling – hopefully they’ll stick around for a while longer. They’ve done an impressive job of fighting back and maintaining a full catalogue so far.

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  3. Yeah you can hear alot of stuff right now without buying it. There’s even old fashioned radio.

    Hell I wouldn’t doubt that in the future iTunes and Amazon let you listen to the full song at least once. I can’t see why not except bandwidth costs go up ~6-8x. But bandwidth will only get cheaper.

    Zune plan sounds neat because you get to keep 10 songs. But you have use it or lose it every month. I hate being on the clock to buy stuff. My music discovering comes in spurts. Subscriptions run according the rise and setting of the sun.

    IF I take a break from buying music for a few months I can still listen to what I have.

    Plus, and this is a biggie, once they get you on subscription there’s no reason they can’t raise the subscription price. The deals you’re getting now are to get you hooked on the candy. They aren’t the deals that are making these companies any money at least from what I’ve read.

    I’m older though. I’m not a 15 yr old. The kids are who you have to look at to see if these things will succeed or not. I have to think kids don’t have the money to pay $15 every month. College-aged kids don’t either.

    The buy one song at a time model fits them much better. Combine that with radio, internet radio and streaming sites (at least while they last financially speaking) and … they get enough.

    I mean who has the time to wade through everything anyway? Few do. Most will learn about music through a friend and go buy a song or something.

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  4. As Steven said, in Zune Marketplace your collection lives alongside your subscription tracks. Lala also merges the two, but is obviously a slightly different kind of service.

    The high quality option in Mog’s forthcoming mobile app shows they get this, but for many high bit rate is a very important factor (at least 320) if your attempting to replace your collection with subscription tracks. Also the mobile offering has to have off-line access to everything, not just your playlists.

    Most important to me is that my library is used for the majority of my listening, but that there’s also a discovery element. Zune’s Smart DJ does this nicely; it makes a mix of only my music or my music plus similar things I don’t own. Slacker has a similar ability with Artist Discovery when you fine tune a station made of artists in one genre of your library. I’ll be interested to see what their on-demand offering looks like.

    Also, not everyone wants a cloud/browser only solution. I like desktop clients.

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  5. Music is moving into the cloud. Access is replacing ownership of albums and song files, online streams are replacing desktop playback and mobile access is renewing interest in on-demand music subscriptions. So how come I’m still not ready to pay for any of it?

    Share
  6. paul, remember that 15 million(?) people pay for satellite radio in the u.s.

    i hear your criticisms loud and clear and we’re working to close the gap. i can’t say the space between songs is a big one. maybe 5 reasons sounds better than 4? : )

    although i agree with your issues, i’d still rather pay $5 for MOG than pay for 5 downloads. by a longshot.

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    1. Paul Bonanos Friday, March 19, 2010

      Thanks, David — and fair enough, although I have to say that when I discussed this with some musician friends, the seamless album playback issue was probably the thing they reacted to the most.

      I may be insisting on a dream service here; like I say, I’m interested in what does and doesn’t work for people, and everyone’s different. MOG’s very good already, and if this is constructive criticism, I’m looking forward to the next update.

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  7. Regarding sharing – if you share MP3s with your friend, aren’t you breaking the law?

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    1. No.

      Did the music industry’s scaremongering advance to the point already that people actually believe that they are breaking the law?

      The music industry wished that it would be that way. That doesn’t make it so, no matter how many ads they place saying “it is so”.

      At least where I live – Austria – there is the “right for private copy” – which we pay for, mind you -, so of course we can give a copy of the MP3 (or anything else) to our friends, since we are paying for “the privilege” anyway.

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  8. Richard Urwin Friday, March 19, 2010

    Psonar is one worth checking out.

    It’s a free cloud-based solution which is focused on allowing users to do more with music that they own, unlike streaming services where you effectively ‘rent’ the music as long as you continue to subscribe (and hope that the music doesn’t get pulled by the copyright owner.)

    With Psonar you can upload the music you own to the cloud, so it’s accessible everywhere, from any internet-connected device.

    You can also search and listen to 30 second clips of any other track uploaded to the cloud and buy that music if you like.

    Psonar also provides web-based iTunes-style management so that you can drag and drop tracks to any device that you can connect to a PC via USB. This enables you can have your music on your device when that’s best, but also in the cloud. This means it is great for backup, as Ben – one of my team – discovered the other day:

    http://blog.psonar.com/2010/02/26/laptop-dead-music-safe/

    So – it’s perfect if you love your old MP3 player, want to keep your music on an inexpensive memory stick or for when you don’t have an internet connection and thus offers you the best of both worlds.

    Finally, by utilising the cloud, we can do what the cloud is great for – discovery and social. We’ve got basic discovery with lots more innovative discovery and social stuff on the way very soon.

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  9. I would never pay for it

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  10. I’m enjoying the irony of reading a story about a reluctance to pay for premium music subscription services on a site that then prompts me to pay for a premium subscription to read their study about the topic.

    Maybe I’ll write a story on the 5 reasons I’m not willing to pay for a subscription to GigaOm Pro…

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  11. [...] Well, it appears that others agree with me, and today I found this article on GigaOM titled “5 Reasons I’m Still Not Paying for a Music Subscription Service.” The author raises some interesting points worth checking [...]

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  12. As a forty something old fogy, I sat on the sidelines as Napster/iTunes/torrents took over music the last decade. I stuck with the physical media model, which best represented ownership to me and the way I wanted to listen to music.

    Then I discovered Pandora. Great music that I didn’t know existed, delivered to me with such ease. Of course, the limitations eventually become apparent – very limited catalog with lots of repetition and not quite enough control over the playlist. Still love it though.

    So that led me to start looking at subscription services. With clunky interfaces, high monthly costs, etc., none of them caused me to open the wallet.

    Reading about Spotify got me excited, but it turned out I was on the wrong side of the ocean.

    Then MOG launched last December and I gave them a shot. It’s been a good experience. Definitely has the issues that you site in the article, but for me it passes the cost/benefit analysis.

    So I’ll go forward with a blended approach, pulling music from multiple sources, with a realization that the owning of music will be decreasingly relevant as time moves on.

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  13. What about the positive sides to online music? One of the things I like about music sites such as iTunes is that now I don’t have to buy th eentire CD if only I like just one song on the CD, now I can go to itunes and purchase just that one song I like for a reasonable price of $0.99 instead of paying $15 for an entire CD. I think online music is still evoloving and the points you bring up will have to be addressed soon by online music companies

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  14. I’ve had Zune for almost 2 years and I am about 95% satisfied with it, which is very very good. The 5% I’m not happy with it is the lack of artists and albums, which can suck but I’m usually able to find them for free on other cough downloading cough sites :)

    I love that I get to keep 10 free songs which is basically an entire album or more, if you buy stuff like Miles Davis or pink floyd. The 15 a month is a little steep, but it is very much worth it if you are an avid music nerd and love to keep up with the latest bands and new releases. I do still but albums now and then, but for the most part zune is all I need.

    They do need to work on their catalog though, it seems to be shrinking very very slowly, which is not good.

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  15. I have to admit, that my method for learning about new music has evolved with each passing year. While it might benefit me to subscribe to a pay service, the fact of the matter is the tried and true method of :

    1. Search on Metacritic for new album releases. Read the reviews, sort by genre, and discover new music each week.

    2. I watch a number of TV shows that will introduce up and coming artists each week. I still remember discovering Bon Iver through Greys Anatomy before he became huge.

    3. Grooveshark and Pandora are great ways of being introduced to new music with their radio features.

    4. Blogs

    These all work just fine and considering my music collection is up to about 21,000 songs, I don’t think that I am “missing out” by choosing to avoid a pay service.

    Maybe its just me but until pay sites become as open source as other methods, I will not bother with them.

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  16. lala.com let’s you synch up your home music collection and stream it for free anywhere. It also let’s you play any song on their site for free one time, then only a 30 second sample after that.

    They offer two purchasing options, .89 download mp3 or a .10 stream only purchase through their service.

    The recommendation engine isn’t as robust as the other sites, but it serves its purpose ok.

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  17. I would have subscribed to Rhapsody, but I often go out of the country for a couple of months and would need to cancel or suspend my subscription, as I often do with Netflix. It’s very easy with Netflix. But Rhapsody makes it very difficult to cancel — you have to do it by phone, it’s impossible to get through, then you get a guy on the other end trying to hang on to your subscription at any cost. Too bad. Rhapsody is a good service, it should just be easier to cancel.

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  18. +1 for the Zune Pass. A lot of your concerns are completely addressed using Zune Pass + Zune software – plus you get to keep 10 songs a month in non-DRM format, which makes the price of unlimited subscription music drop to $4.99/mo. And the music works across Xbox 360, Windows, Web, Zune HD, and receivers that support WMA DRM.

    It also does the right thing of separating out subscription + temporary Smart DJ music on your drive, not merging it with your collection (though in the UI, it’s merged). So if you cancel your subscription, you just delete the folder. And when you “convert” subscription content to your content using credits or purchases, it cleans it all up automatically.

    It has completely changed the way I find and listen to music. Not to mention the software is jaw-droppingly fun to use compared to iTunes.

    Disclaimer: I work at Microsoft, but not on Zune.

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  19. Rhapsody does offer two of the things you complain about. If you download the app, and not just use the web page, you can combine tracks you already have and streaming tracks into playlists. You can even add things to your library without buying them and download them to your computer for offline playback on that machine.

    Second, you can share songs with friends even if they don’t have an account, though it is limited. Anyone can get 25 free listens a month, which is not a lot. But you can still send or link a song for them to listen to.

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  20. “I still can’t merge things I own with things I just want to stream”

    It’s because you still have not purchased a SONOS player. What are you waiting for.

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  21. Zune Pass addresses a lot of those things. You can create playlists with both imported MP3s and subscription MP3s. It’s also got a neat social program that let’s your friends see what your favorite bands are and stuff like that.

    There are a few gaps in the catalog, but it’s getting bigger all the time.

    Also, gaps in between tracks? Isn’t that a setting in your music player of choice?

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  22. I’m with DK, here. Lala.com is the way to go. Their software allows you access to all of the songs you already own in their catalog, too. Plus, you can upload songs they do not already have.

    There is no monthly fee, but rather a “wallet” system that you fill with funds and use for online-only or DRM-free MP3s. Monthly fees add pressure to buy even if you don’t have a pressing need.

    The only real red flag here is that Lala was recently purchased by Apple, and there’s the looming possibility that it’ll be stripped for the wallet/micropayment functions and left for dead.

    Finally, I have lots of old vinyl. I could rip them to the computer, edit out clicks and pops, separate out the tracks, name them, tag them, etc. OR I can listen to Thomas Dolby’s “The Flat Earth” online whenever I want for $.63. That’s not a typo.

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  23. I won’t bother repeating what others have said, but please give the Zune software and Zune pass subscription a try for a month. While the catalog needs to be improved I have very few complaints otherwise. And with the new Windows Phone 7 series devices that will begin showing up at the end of the year I really believe (hope) that the service will only get better, including a more diverse catalog. All of these devices (multiple hardware manufacturers and carriers) will be have the Zune software built in, which will mean the ability to play purchased mp3s, downloaded subscription based tracks, and cload based marketplace content together in playlists on the phone, Zune HD device, and in the software on your computer.

    Anyway, I’m pretty happy with it.

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  24. I’ve been using Zune for afew years now and I love it the zune sits in my car at all times and autosyncs at night while I’m listening to music with my Zune desktop software. The only annoyance I have is when Microsoft changes the name of availibility of a song and it is removed from my playlists but more often than not there is another version of the song I can grab. All of means nothing in the face of channels and smartplaylists those two features have completely changed the way I discover and consume music. I challenge anyone who actively listens to music to use a Zune and Zune Pass for 3 months and not become attached to it.

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  25. sorry but, my 7300 tune library is a lot deeper an XM radio and every track is one i like.

    last year i had to choose between XM and napster to go and kept napster to go.

    i was one of the first on XM too and had it from feb 2002.

    my 60 gig creative vision rocks from gatemouth brown to patsy kline.

    well worth the 14 bucks a month.

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  26. 1 reason why I dont pay for music…

    THEPIRATEBAY.ORG

    Yet another shameless pirate…

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  27. I have thousands of ratings in the Yahoo! LaunchCast system and have not subscribed to the Rhapsody service due to the simple fact that this is not possible for anyone living outside the US.

    After using LaunchCast for years I got royally screwed by Yahoo! Music when they they made two very infuriating changes to their product some years ago:

    1) Moved the community channel sharing feature and high-quality streaming behind the paywall and

    2) Prohibited all non-US users from using the Premium Service.

    Naturally, the community bit died instantly.
    Then about two years ago – I think? – Yahoo! left the streaming bit to Rhapsody and now I can not even access my low-quality music anymore.

    In spite of all this I have still been desperately trying to find a way to buy this this product from Yahoo!, since they have all my ratings in their system. No response from Customer Care and no indication of what will happen to non-US customers. I have now given up and am in the process of buying all my favorite songs from Apple instead.

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  28. Count me as another avid LaLa.com supporter. The ability to upload my music collection into the cloud and listen to music from it or new music from LaLa is perfect for sitting in front of a computer all day.

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  29. All you say is true. There are fundamental problems with music subscription services, the biggest being that only a small percentage of people will EVER want to pay for it limiting how far they can go in offering extras and eliminating annoyances like gaps in the catalogue. It seems to me that Napster and Zune have the right idea: you actually get mp3s out of the deal “for your trouble”. I subscribed to the one year Napster deal, where I paid $60 for 70 tracks. So about 85 cents per track with a music streaming service thrown in for good measure. That is why I can put up with all the frustrations you mention (although I do think I could upload my digital music to their software so I can co-mingle music. I choose not to bother because their software is a bit clunky). I like to own CDs and mp3s, so Napster is my way to make sure I make intelligent purchases, plus explore their catalogue for fun. But it will never replace owning music for me.

    As far as a seemless wonderful experience, nothing beats LaLa.com. But obviously that is a) not a music subscription service and b) has been acquired by Apple so who knows what its future is.

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  30. [...] sounds great, but a lot can change in a few months. Spotify already faces increased competition as subscription services continue to spring up — each taking a slice of the paying consumer market it will need to [...]

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  31. I subscribed to Rhapsody for several months but recently cancelled it. At home, I have a Mac which doesn’t work with Rhapsody online. However, for me the iPhone app was what convinced me to dive in. The iPhone app is buggy. For example, new music in the browse section is often not updated for weeks, although that issue has improved. Reception was a problem for me. Often, I would get thrown out of the program, and often, I couldn’t log-in (or if I did, log-in was very slow. On my iPhone, when I use the iPod, ican play the music and use other apps at the same time. But not with rhapsody. So I cancelled, learn about new artists from iTunes and Pandora, buy music when I have to have it, and go to artist myspace pages for free listens.

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  32. [...] and Viacom possess equal minority stakes, Rhapsody also said today that it will offer a $10 monthly subscription service in an effort to better compete with several innovative and inexpensive rivals that have sprung up [...]

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  33. .Zune.Pass.Uber.Alles.

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  34. I understand, that this article is primarily about music moving into the cloud but hear me out. First, your second gripe about not being able to merge songs you want to stream with songs you own is negated. The Zune software does this effortlessly. All the music is stored in your Zune library just as if you own every track even though that isn’t the case.

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  35. [...] already written about some of my frustrations with cloud-based music services, and Rdio doesn’t solve all of my issues concerning [...]

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  36. [...] MOG represents an increasingly attractive standalone offering, even if consumers have historically never demonstrated all that much desire to subscribe to a music library. Instead, it could be a viable takeover target, as a mobile music [...]

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  37. [...] cloud-based services will suddenly prompt people to rent music rather than own it, and have cited several reasons why the new services have left me a little cold. That said, Rdio has just addressed one of my [...]

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  38. [...] music fans, others don’t like the holes that exist in their libraries, and many users still prefer to own and keep their music on their own computers rather than relying on the cloud. Apple’s [...]

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  39. [...] some, music subscriptions carry a number of flaws, as noted on a Gigaom.com post, including an insufficient selection of music, despite some services touting millions, upon [...]

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