"All You Can Eat" Music Services Still Don't Have Everything You Want to Hear

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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