Searching for Music Online the Major Label Way

Napster, the pioneering peer-to-peer file-sharing service that revolutionized the music industry and the online music landscape, was as much a search engine as a way to acquire free digital music files.

The big business players of the music industry finally rolled out their own online music services last year, aiming to fill the void of consumer demand they created by destroying Napster and its relatives.

Most of the news about the paid subscription services (MusicNet, Pressplay, Rhapsody) is flat-out bad: rip-off pricing and usage restrictions, second-rate sound quality, buggy software, poor selection. But there is a silver lining, in that the new services are a big step forward in music search capabilities — at least in theory.

How We Used to Search — Peer-to-Peer

You probably know how Napster and its P2P file-sharing successors like Kazaa work: you install the desktop application, log on to the service, then search for music or other media files of interest by song title or artist name. Just as if you are using a search engine, they retun lists of available files with file names that match your search terms. Then the software makes it easy to download files from the results list with a few clicks.

As search methods go, this is a rough and un-sophisticated approach. Getting results depends largely on the scant and unreliable information embedded in file names. You can gather a little extra insight from other data drawn from the file properties, such as duration and encoding bit rate: for example, you might distinguish between alternate recordings of a particular title and artist by checking the duration, perhaps comparing this information with data from some other reliable source.

Some of the post-Napster alternatives go a little farther, for example by offering classification tidbits derived from the descriptive tags (genre, more complete artist and title info) embedded in MP3 files. In my experience, however, this counts for little, as tag data is typically too sketchy and unreliable.

In a way, the unpredictability of the search process is part of the allure of P2P file sharing. It may be difficult to find exactly what you are looking for, but along the way you might discover all kinds of unexpected musical treasure.

Of course, you might also waste a great deal of time in a frustrating search.

How We Can Search Better

This is where the licensed online music services have a huge opportunity.

Each service has full data for its catalog of content, and can potentially make the data accessible through powerful search technology.

Not only that, but as a by-product of the digital rights management process (copy inhibition and protection), each service also provides its own custom-built application for accessing the content, so the search method can be tailored precisely to the structure of the data.

To the paying subscriber, this should mean it’s easy to find and access music, either known content through precise field searching, or new and unfamiliar selections through style, mood, tempo or other classification matching and comparison.

In Reality… RealOne Music and Rhapsody

To see how the reality of major-label online music services is playing out, consider the two offerings that illustrate the best and the worst of the breed.

The worst of the lot is RealOne Music, offered by RealNetworks as the first outlet for the MusicNet download service it is operating with backing from Warner Music, EMI and Bertelsmann Music (BMG).

The best is represented by Rhapsody, the on-demand subscription service built on Listen.com’s multi-channel radio-style streaming audio service, with major-label content from EMI, Sony Music and Bertelsmann.

RealOne Music and Rhapsody each provide search interfaces that query against both their paid subscription content, and a broader universe of free content and information. Each also provides a database of artist and composer biographies, album reviews, and a recommendation engine that suggests similar artists as you browse through the catalog.

The experience provided by the two services is vastly different, however. To put it bluntly, Rhapsody’s search and browse interface works, RealOne Music’s doesn’t.

Next: A closer look at Rhapsody

Also:

AudioWorld’s Full Review of Rhapsody (Feb.19 2002)

AudioWorld’s Full Review of RealOne Music (Feb.19 2002)

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