The music subscription market may be unproven, but it sure has seen a lot of action over the past few months. And today, with the launch of its mobile app on BlackBerry (s rimm) devices today, Thumbplay became the latest company hoping that anytime-anywhere access to on-demand music will make consumers pay a flat fee for an all-you-can-eat service — in this case, $9.99 a month.
As it enters public beta, Thumbplay’s music subscription service becomes the first to launch simultaneously on desktops and smartphones. The company’s deep mobile experience is one key differentiator that sets it apart from incumbents such as Rhapsody and Napster as well as upstarts MOG and Spotify, the latter of which hasn’t launched in the U.S. yet.
CEO Evan Schwartz told me half of Thumbplay’s installed base is now using smartphones, and the company already counts hundreds of thousands of customers for its existing mobile entertainment subscription service, which offers ringtones, wallpapers and other goodies. Online radio provider Pandora, for one, has shown how mobile phones can drive user adoption of a music service, and Thumbplay may have some advantages as a result of its presence on smartphones.
As an iPhone user, I wasn’t able to test the mobile app, but I did get to survey the desktop version (screenshot below), an Adobe AIR-based client that was up and running quickly after a brief installation. Thumbplay’s library, said to comprise 8 million songs from all four major labels and numerous indies, showed some gaps (no Arcade Fire?), but I found that the songs loaded quickly and played without interruption. If it can replicate that experience on mobile devices — and early reports suggest that the BlackBerry app may still be buggy — Thumbplay will have a real contender, given that Rhapsody ($14.99) and Spotify (€9.99 in Europe, or $13.56) are charging more for the anywhere-anytime experience. Thumbplay also offers smart playlisting built on the Echo Nest’s music brain, delivers instant syncing between desktop and phone, provides offline caching on mobile devices — good for airplanes and train tunnels — and allows users to import iTunes playlists.
Schwartz said Thumbplay reached profitability around the middle of last year, and has reportedly raised $61 million from venture investors. The company’s expansion to include a full-track music service is in line with forecasts suggesting that the market for ringtones has already peaked, and that consumers will soon expect a more complete music experience from their mobile phones. Spotify’s imminent U.S. launch will probably still make the biggest splash, but given its large installed base and understanding of mobile behavior, don’t count Thumbplay out.