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Rhapsody, MTV and the iRiver clix

Rhapsody_logo The future of Rhapsody America, the joint venture between RealNetworks and MTV, depends to some degree on MTV's marketing prowess -- not what it once was, but better than nothing. And when it comes to marketing Rhapsody, "nothing" is a pretty good description of what Real has done. CEO Rob Glaser just doesn't like to spend money the way Steve Jobs or even Chris Gorog does.

More important, though, is for Rhapsody to show the benefits of subscribing to a service instead of collecting music. It's not clear what, if anything, MTV can do for the joint venture on that front. Subscription music services are easy to demonize -- music "rentals" that leave you empty-handed when you stop paying the monthly fee -- because the value proposition is complex when compared to the iTunes Store. The best way to convey that value is by saying that Rhapsody lets you hear anything you want to hear, anywhere you are. Unfortunately, neither part of that statement is quite true, not just yet.

Rhapsody's library is sizeable -- more than 4 million tracks from more than 150,000 250,000 artists on over 6,000 10,000 labels -- but it's not complete. MTV brings along some live content, but doesn't fill the gaps that matter the most: a handful of A-list bands, including the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, that haven't allowed their songs to be made available through subscription services.

Iriver_clixAn equally nettlesome problem for Rhapsody is the technological challenge involved in letting people take their subscriptions with them wherever they go. I'm not talking about being able to download songs through a mobile phone network; enabling streaming through Verizon Wireless would be an interesting play, but that doesn't appear to be part of the deal announced by Real, MTV and Verizon on Tuesday. Instead, I'm talking about letting subscribers transfer songs to a portable device (cellphone or MP3 player) on a temporary basis, so that they'll cease to play if and when their subscription lapses. The DRMs developed by Real and Microsoft supposedly support this kind of thing, but I've run into problems repeatedly with both. Most recently, I tried the iRiver clix Rhapsody, a $190, 4GB flash-based MP3 player that's been optimized to work with Real's $15-a-month Rhapsody to Go service.

The clix boasts some very nice features, including the ability to load customized Rhapsody channels (read: playlists) from sub-genres or bands that match the subscriber's tastes. When all of these features work, it's a truly beautiful thing. That's because Rhapsody is a great service, and adding at least some portion of it to an MP3 player makes it more valuable (albeit at a price; Rhapsody to Go costs $2 more per month than the non-portable Rhapsody Unlimited). The system broke down repeatedly for me, however, causing many frustrating hours of praying to the software gods to purge the demons from my loaner unit. After about a week of off-again, on-again clix madness earlier this summer, I gave up.

This really pains me, 'cause I'm a Rhapsody fan from way back. I've been a subscriber since its debut in late 2001, and that's not a comp account -- I pay for it out of my own pocket, thank you very much. (Ditto for eMusic.) But I have to admit, it's not surprising. First, I'd had a very similar experience with the portable version of Yahoo Music Unlimited last year, using an iRiver T10. Second, since RealNetworks took over for Listen, which created Rhapsody, the service has been plagued by buggy software -- in particular, DRM-related bugs. The shift to version 3 was a near disaster for many users, who complained so loudly that the company advised them to re-install the previous version.

Before my clix arrived, a publicist for iRiver tried to head off DRM problems by advising me to download the latest versions of Rhapsody and Windows Media Player. That I did. Then I plugged in the clix and proceeded to assign it one of my Rhapsody playlists and a few channels. It spent the better part of the evening loading what appeared to be gigabytes worth of tracks, but when it was finally finished, none of the tracks would play. In fact, the clix ground slowly through each track, struggling in vain to make it play before moving on to the next, unplayable track.

Ultimately, I had to reformat the player and start over. After that, things worked perfectly for a while, and I really liked being able to load Rhapsody channels onto the clix. So what that it didn't seem to respond to my ratings; for example, it kept offering me more songs by the Doors despite my panning every track. I still liked having Rhapsody make playlists for me and load them directly onto the player, even if the process of downloading the tracks was painfully slow.

Sadly, the good times were too often interrupted by mystifying device flake-outs. One day the clix thought it was empty, even though it had a couple of gigabytes worth of music stored. Some of the personalized channels refused to be updated. And after about a week of usage, the clix refused to take any channels at all. Resetting and reformatting made no difference -- my clix was out of the channels business. Sigh. That's when I reached the end of my rope.

Every one of these problems almost certainly was a function of the DRM. And the fundamental problem here is that there's no one entity that can take responsibility for all the moving parts, in the way that Apple does with iTunes and iPods. (Yes, Microsoft is trying to emulate that model with the Zune, but I found the first version of the player buggy, too. The loaner unit I tried wouldn't recognize the Zune store, to name one glitch.)

I'm optimistic that Real can work the technical problems out eventually, just as the artists and labels that have stiff-armed Web-based music services are gradually relenting. And the $230 million cash infusion from MTV, which the joint venture will use to buy ads on (surprise!) MTV channels over the next five years, will help. Still, it's an uphill climb.

Updated Rhapsody stats courtesy of RealNetworks. Clix photo courtesy of iRiver.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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