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Rdio and Kazaa (re)join the online music lineup

Rdio, MOG, Rhapsody, Napster, online music, subscription services, Spotify Subscription music services have struggled the last several years to attract more than a fraction of the market of music consumers. Nevertheless, the idea of selling access to songs, rather than copies of the tracks themselves, is on the upswing.  Two more entrants arrived this week: Rdio, which charges $5 to $10 a month for unlimited streams from a (somewhat limited) online jukebox, and Kazaa, which charges $15 for unlimited streams and copy-protected downloads. Neither one measures up to the competition yet, but Rdio at least makes a credible effort to do so. Kazaa, not so much.

Rdio, which made its formal launch Tuesday, is the latest creation from Kazaa and Skype founders Janus Friis with Niklas Zennström. Its offering most closely resembles the service offered by MOG -- both incorporate elements of social media to yield better music discovery and a more entertaining service. It also offers ...
... a $5-a-month Web-only service and a $10-a-month mobile version. 

Both services allow you to search for tracks or artists, browse new releases (although only MOG makes this easy on a mobile device) and play an unlimited number of songs on demand for a flat fee. Rdio also enables you to virtualize the digital tracks you have on your PC -- the "match collection" function on the downloadable Rdio desktop player looks at your iTunes or Windows Media Player library and adds those titles to your collection in Rdio (just the titles, not the tracks themselves). That's a great feature for mobile subscribers -- it lets users access their collections through their mobile phones rather than having to load up their phones with songs or carry a separate MP3 player. But Rdio can only match songs if it has the rights to them, and so far its library is missing some notable independent labels. Rdio couldn't match almost half of my collection, probably because my tastes run to the obscure.

The most compelling features of Rdio are the ones that let you follow in the footsteps of other users whose tastes you admire. Rdio aggregates onto a single page the activities of your network (i.e., the people you're following) -- the albums they've been playing most often, the records they've added to their Rdio collections, the people they've started following and the playlists they've created. All of these are jumping-off points for sampling and discovering new music.

You can also drill down deeper, going to any Rdio user's profile page to see and play what they've been listening to and read any reviews they've written. You can also collaborate with friends on joint playlists. Rdio helps you find people to follow by making recommendations based on what you've been playing. It also recommends music based on your listening habits.

The biggest weaknesses of Rdio are the sparse amount of information accompanying the music it provides, the limited functionality of its mobile application and its hit-and-miss coverage of independent labels. The best illustration of the latter problem is that Rdio didn't have the most buzzed-about new release on its launch day: The Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs."

Kazaa, MOG, Rdio, online music services, subscription music, DRM Friis with Zennström brought the Kazaa file-sharing software to market back when the music industry was suing the original Napster out of existence. Kazaa eventually ran into the same legal buzz saw, ultimately settling the lawsuit brought by the major labels and studios for more than $115 million. (Friis and Zennström had already exited by then.) The current owners of the Kazaa brand -- Brilliant Digital Entertainment -- announced the launch of the beta version of the new, non-file-sharing Kazaa service Tuesday, about the same time that Rdio made its offering available to the public.

My first impression is that Kazaa, which has been converted from a file-sharing network into a more conventional (and authorized) online service -- is miles behind the competition. It's as if the company locked its technologists in a room four years ago and they've just now emerged, having missed the growth of social networks, the explosion in smart phone usage and the death of music DRM. The service costs $15 a month -- 50% more than Rdio, MOG or Rhapsody -- and doesn't have a mobile app. Instead, it offers unlimited streams and tethered downloads (that is, songs wrapped in electronic locks to deter copying) that can be played only by Kazaa's proprietary plugin for Windows Media Player. 

It also has only rudimentary social-media features, most notably the ability to play other users' playlists and to watch a continuously updated list of what other users are playing. And although there are a handful of "editor's picks," there's no preference engine to recommend tracks based on a user's tastes -- a major handicap when it comes to discovering music. Essentially, users are left to search for tracks or artists they already know, or take unguided tours through the library's eight genres.

There are some nice touches, such as the ability to find songs by searching through a database of lyrics. I also liked the ability to find user playlists containing particular songs or artists, which could be a useful form of crowd curation. On the whole, though, the service struck me as being very much a work in progress, with a much smaller library of tracks (1.8 million vs. 8 million on MOG).

The press release from Kazaa put the best possible spin on the offering, saying "Kazaa’s beta offering of our cloud-based download music application and everything that comes with it signals our commitment to continue developing new product offerings and services at full speed." Judging by the beta, Kazaa needs to go even faster.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

 
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