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Rhapsody challenges Muve, pitting music streaming vs. downloading

August 19, 2011 |  5:47 pm

MetroPCS-Rhapsody-Muve music dueling subscription services It's long been the ambition of music-subscription services to make their monthly fees disappear into some other charge, such as your ISP bill. This week, Rhapsody -- the granddaddy of music subscriptions -- accomplished that feat. It will be bundled into a new MetroPCS offering that costs $60 a month, the same amount the company had been charging for its 4G unlimited data plan.

The Rhapsody offering is MetroPCS' answer to Muve, the music service that prepaid rival Cricket launched late last year as part of a $55-a-month calling plan. The contrast between the two is pretty clear: The MetroPCS service lets people stream songs or download temporary copies to Android smartphones, while Muve is download-only and works on a customized feature phone. (Cricket is expected to announce some Muve-friendly smartphones soon.)

Naturally, Cricket argues that it provides a better user experience, in part because its service was built from the ground up to work on a mobile phone (and to minimize the impact on mobile networks). Muve's download-only model also avoids the "frustrating and confusing" options that Rhapsody gives users, said Jeff Toig, Cricket's vice president of marketing.

I'll concede that a download-only model might be a better fit for carriers that charge customers by the megabyte of data used. In that environment, it's better for consumers to download the bits once than to stream them several times. But that's not an issue for MetroPCS, which allows customers to make unlimited use of Rhapsody for no extra charge.

And I don't think there's anything inherently superior about downloading or streaming. The former is better when connectivity is iffy, the latter is better when you're running short on memory or reluctant to fill your phone with songs you're just sampling. The hybrid model of Rhapsody allows for both -- users can download the songs they know they want to play over and over again, and stream everything else.

But I have noticed something about streaming services, of which I have used (and continue to use) many. When you have access to millions of songs, any and all of which you can play at no incremental cost, you tend to listen to a lot -- including unfamiliar things you probably wouldn't have tried out if there was a cost attached (e.g., time or storage space). As a consequence, though, it can be hard to keep track of what you like. I often find myself scrolling back through the titles of things I've played, struggling to remember which ones were worth hearing again and which ones weren't.

That's the advantage of compiling a personal collection, as opposed to sharing a practically unlimited online jukebox. I used to subscribe both to a streaming service and eMusic, which offers discounted MP3 downloads for a flat monthly fee. I stopped subscribing to eMusic last year when it radically changed its pricing plan, figuring I had finally reached the point where streaming would be enough. As it turns out, I miss having a limited number of new MP3s each month that served as my musical foundation.

That's a bit like arguing that less is more, which is silly. But sometimes less is more comfortable.

Perhaps that's what BlackBerry maker Research In Motion had in mind when it decided to offer its own music service. Shortly after the MetroPCS-Rhapsody announcement, CNet reported that RIM will soon start testing a music service that will run on top of BlackBerry Messenger, its instant-message system. The Wall Street Journal added some details: the service would give users "access to about 50 songs at a time," which could be shared with other users of BlackBerry Messenger. Just 50 songs? Really? Here's hoping it's free.

RELATED:

Cricket tries to Muve music collections to cellphones

Spotify blazes the free music trail -- again

Sonos' networked music player tones down the sticker shock

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him at @jcahealey.

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