Yahoo! Music for the Masses

Yahoo has entered the music scene, and it is looking better than other music download services to date: better than Napster, Rhapsody, and dare I say iTunes. Yahoo! Music Unlimited is debuting at $4.99 per month when you sign up for a year. Like the name would indicate, you rent unlimited music and enough features to keep you satisfied.

Think about it: lay down the subscription fee for a year, and you can listen to all the new and old music you can handle for the price of 4 standard CDs ($59.88). For anyone who buys a few CDs a year, Yahoo! is a considerable alternative. It gives you all that you can possibly handle instead of limited tracks.

Since Yahoo is giving users such a huge collection of music, it really seems targeted for teenagers and other people who like lots of music but don’t own much (or have the means to own it). Also, buying CDs can be too costly to be worthwhile for those who find themselves selling CDs they lost interest in. Yahoo can be a complete alternative way to listen, or just a way for music fans to dabble in different music, even if its service won’t attract the die-hard CD and vinyl fans.

Yahoo boasts having over 1 million songs. Of course, that wouldn’t mean much if they had hunderds of thousands bad songs. To subdue your doubts, you can check out what artists and albums they have before you sign up. Just visit the website at http://music.yahoo.com/unlimited. They really do have a great selection. They have brand new releases already, like Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth that just came out over a week ago (a great advantage over record clubs). Their front page has ads for new CDs that are yet to come out which they’ll have in stock once released. They also have plenty of older CDs. I tested out their search bar a number of times, figuring I could find a band they didn’t have in their collection. I found their selection was way more expansive than I would have ever expected.

And if you run out of artists and songs you want to hear, that’s only the start of your fun on Yahoo. It’s time to start exploring the vast collection of music that is essentially yours and finding new music. You could naturally just start clicking and listening at random, but Yahoo has a feature to help you out. It will recommend new music to you based on your listening preferences, kind of like Amazon.com or the helpful guy at your favorite CD store. If you’re still a CD fan and like owning things, Yahoo’s service could still be a cheap means to help you find new artists or try out new CDs before you buy them.

Provided you have the right mp3 player, you can take your songs with you anywhere. Your new music can go to the gym with you, or you can rock out at work. Like other music services, this one also gives the option of buying burnable downloads so you can use them in CD players. To burn a track, it will cost 79 cents, compared to 99 cents at Napster and iTunes and 89 cents at Rhapsody. So that makes burning a standard 12 track CD cost under $10. But why burn CDs when you can buy a portable player with a lot of space?

Another great feature is Yahoo’s commercial-free radio stations. They have 120 pre-programmed, and you can make your own. If you just want to share one track and not a whole station, you can send it to your buddies on Yahoo Messanger, provided they’re subscribers too. Then to get an idea of what other people are listening to, you can browse their music collections.

 

The catch for some people is that the service uses DRM (digital rights management) files. In order to offer popular mainstream artists, Yahoo has to put some restrictions on the music. Services like eMusic put no restrictions on the mp3s they sell, but they offer independent, smaller bands that most people wouldn’t drop a monthly fee for; eMusic has a few pop bands, but it can’t get many contracts for big artists from recording companies in that format. While eMusic is a good service in a niche market, Yahoo doesn’t want this. They want the bigger pie, music you hear on the radio and MTV.

Yahoo is showing us the future of buying music, and it isn’t “buy to own.” The DRM restrictions are the structure of Yahoo’s plan. As long as you subscribe you can listen to whatever you want, which is incredible freedom. The DRM basically makes sure that the tracks you download stop working when you give them away unauthorized or stop paying. This may sound like a bad deal for some, but it really isn’t. It may take time, but people will see the benefits of leaving the “buy to own” model. While Kazaa addicts might be spoiled by their unrestricted downloads, Kazaa (and other download programs) isn’t a legal venue for buying music so it’s not even comparable. If you intend to use your mp3s for legal purposes, DRM shouldn’t automatically raise objections.

This kind of DRM isn’t as troublesome as iTunes’ DRM, since what you are buying is a subscription. Customers of iTunes buy files; if their hard drive dies, their files are gone and they must pay to re-download. iTunes is still a part of the “pay to own” scheme, and as such it cannot offer full access to as vast a music collection as Yahoo can. When Yahoo customers pay to download music, they are buying listening rights and not files. If they lose the files, they can just re-download them with no trouble at all. Yahoo is breaking the established mold of buying a CD or a song that can be damaged or lost. Even with DRM restrictions that cripple mp3s if the subscription is cancelled, Yahoo’s service seems more like freedom; it gives you any music anytime.

The true catch of this service (which will probably keep many people from joining for the time being) is that the DRM restricts what mobile devices downloaded songs play on. And the number of mobile mp3 players that correctly play the protected WMA files is very limited. Players need to be Plays-for-Sure subscription-compatible to work. What does this mean? Well, most importantly, iPods won’t work. Apple didn’t build support for Microsoft’s protected files into their player, probably because it’s not in their own best interest (though that may change if subscription services using WMAs become as popular as iTunes). iPod users make up the dominant market share of hard drive and flash players, and they will probably stick to iTunes.

Some companies that offer compatible players are Creative, Dell, and iRiver. You can check out the few that are currently available here. This limitation seems quite a detriment to an otherwise good idea. Even though this is a major hindrance, you can expect to see more of these kinds of players as these services become more popular. Until then, Yahoo is still good for playing directly through your computer, granted you have Windows XP or 2000 (I guess the other 5% of desktop PCs can stick to iTunes too).

Comparing Yahoo’s service with buying CDs is apples and oranges. Buying CDs cannot be replaced entirely. But there are plenty of things about Yahoo that make it more attractive than collecting plastic disks. Primarily, people will love having an enormous collection of music for a small monthly fee that would have cost thousands of dollars on CDs. Yahoo’s extra features are just bonuses. CDs provide a space-consuming backup, but so long as you keep Yahoo’s service you don’t need any backup. The true advantage of CDs (and the reason why it cannot be really compared to Yahoo) is that buying them is more expensive and gives you rights to the music as long as the media lasts, whereas Yahoo’s licensing lasts as long as your subscription does. Then again, how long will it last? CDs have been around for quite a while; it seems almost time for CD players to go the way of vinyl and betamax players.

However, instead of record stores, Yahoo’s truly established competitors will probably be competing heavily with another medium of music: radio. Yahoo’s subscription service is easily a better alternative to satellite radio and internet radio. When signing up for XM Radio or SIRIUS, you’ll have to buy yourself a satellite radio device to pick up the signal. The devices start at $100, but somebody could easily spend $300, $1500, or more for a really cool one. Then you’ll have to subscribe for $12.95 a month, and dish out $6.99 for every additional radio on your plan. As soon as you stop paying, you get no more music and the devices are useless.

Enter Yahoo. You need nothing but your computer and broadband connection. If you want your music to go, buy yourself a nice compatible mp3 player, which won’t cost any more than the satellite radios and also won’t be converted into a paperweight if you stop subscribing. It will still be useful for carrying around other songs you’ve bought elsewhere. If you like the shows and news on radio services, buy an mp3 player with an FM tuner (iRivers are known to have very good ones) or else sign up for Audiofeast for free. Yahoo’s subscription fee is also a relief, less than half the monthly cost of satellite radios. Even if the price goes up as some people speculate, it’s still a deal. And you have control over the music.

But there is much greater potential for Yahoo! Music Unlimited. News of mp3 players being integrated into cell phones is already spreading. Nokia plans to be a leading mp3 player manufacturer simply by sticking memory chips and mp3 software in their phones. The phones should hopefully support Yahoo’s protected WMA format by the time they are released. Not only will people be able to browse and listen to music in their all-purpose device, they may be able to download songs they want to hear over their cell phone. Given that yahoo continues developing mobile technology, as they have been with mobile search features, we could see mobile players that download songs on demand. Or mobile users could transfer songs directly from one phone to another. There’s hardly any need to say how cool the idea is.

Yahoo’s competitors, Napster and Rhapsody, have been offering similar services for a while now with some success. However, their prices were even more than satellite radio. Yahoo releasing music for less than half their costs with more features makes music services more of a practical option for people. It will be interesting to see how these other companies respond in their product lines.

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