Finding and auditioning music online

If online music services are really going to take off, they need to demonstrate that they work, and work well. That means a seamless of experience of discovering tracks, previewing or ‘auditioning’ them, and committing either to buying them (in the à la carte, iTunes-style model) or downloading them ‘to go’ (in the subscription model of Napster, Rhapsody and Yahoo Music Unlimited). This article is an assessment, using the example of playlist services, of some areas where the experience could be better.

For the last four months Ian Rogers has gone through the reviews section of Mojo magazine and identifies which albums are, and are not, available via Yahoo Music Unlimited’s subscription service. Here’s his most recent review [may require Yahoo registration to view], which also identifies how many of the albums unavailable on Yahoo’s service can be found on iTunes, Rhapsody and other services. Ian then creates a Yahoo playlist of all the new albums available there. He’s found that between 36 and 47% of the albums reviewed in Mojo have been available on Yahoo within the month.
You’d expect the ‘hit rate’ to be higher with older ‘catalogue’ albums compared with new releases (especially since monthly magazines often review albums several weeks before they’re commercially available), and that’s been my experience in compiling playlists of catalogue material. Ian Rogers actually works at Yahoo, so there’s a nice symmetry that my latest playlist is based on a book by Daryl Easlea, who is head of catalogue publicity at Universal Music. The book is Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco and I’ve created a playlist that combines tracks that influenced Chic, tracks they influenced, and a few of the many that their members produced, wrote or played on.
The playlist is available in versions on FIQL, GoFish and upto11, the last of which has some more extended ‘liner notes’ to explain the selection of tracks. [Update, 8 August 02006: GoFish has withdrawn its playlist functions.]
Of the seven playlist services I reviewed previously, I chose these three because I valued above all (a) the promise of being able to listen to the tracks, even if only 30-second samples, and (b) the ease of searching for the right tracks. The former rules services like webjay and plurn (because the tracks in this playlist are unlikely to be freely and legally available online); the latter rules out Mixmatcher and Soundflavor.
Ease of searching does not mean ease of finding, of course. My hit rate with each of the three services for actually finding the track I wanted was about 90% (FIQL will let you include any track and artist in a playlist, but if it can’t recognise them it provides no links to sample or buy them, so I counted the hit rate as the tracks it provided at least one link for). There were two tracks from the early days of New York disco that none of the services could find: Angel Man by Rhetta Hughes and Discocide by Roundtree (and I’ve checked that both do indeed exist). In some cases subtle tweaking of searches was needed to get the best results: upto11 says A Fifth of Beethoven is by Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band, but FIQL will only recognise the track if you attribute simply to Walter Murphy.
My 90% hit rate isn’t directly comparable with Ian Rogers’ 36-47%, since, with Yahoo, he could hear full length versions of all the tracks he found in the catalogue.
With the three playlist services I used here, it turned out that when you’ve found the tracks you want, what you see is not necessarily what you get, or at least what you hear. The different services link to online retailers in different ways. FIQL really ought to make clear that it is only aimed at US users. If I click the FIQL iTunes link for David Bowie’s Ricochet I get an error message saying “The item you’ve requested is not currently available in the UK store, but is available in the US store…” — of course, the track is available in the UK iTunes store, but FIQL can’t find it (this seems to happen in the majority of cases with FIQL, but bizarrely it can find Madonna’s Like a Virgin).
The iTunes links from upto11 work more seamlessly with the UK iTunes store, but upto11 irritates by providing a link to iTunes even when the track concerned is not in the iTunes catalogue (in either US or UK), as with Charge Plates And Credit Cards by Sheila & B. Devotion. Small glitches in upto11’s database undermine its functionality: because there’s a spurious ‘e’ on their entry for The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steele, the search of iTunes which is spawned by the link returns no results; take off the ‘e’, and the search finds the track.
[Update, 8 August 02006: GoFish has withdrawn its playlist functions.] On the face of it, GoFish seems to offer the most seamless and straightforward listening. Clicking the ‘Playlist listen’ link launches a media player pop-up window that plays samples of each of the tracks in sequence. I don’t know if there are any PC users who can tell me if this works for them, but I’ve tried it on Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer on my Mac, and I don’t hear a thing whatever I do!
One thing I do like about GoFish is its inclusion of album cover thumbnails in its playlists, and the ease of publishing a GoFish playlist on your own site — see the example below. Thanks to my inclusion of the GoFish Rose and the Briar list in my previous posting, that playlist is now ranked #3 on their system.

For me, an ideal playlist sharing service would combine the easy, powerful searching of upto11, the editing usability of FIQL, the presentation (album covers and blog publishing) of GoFish — and it would let me listen to the playlist, either in short samples or (better) low quality full versions, from beginning to end.

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