I just had the pleasure of trying out Musicmatch’s new Music Download service, and though I eventually plan to more neatly organize my thoughts about this and other online music services like PressPlay and Rhapsody, I thought some folks might be interested in my ‘rough review’ and notes at this stage in the game.
About my system that I used for trying out Musicmatch’s new service
I have a Dell 2.4ghz Pentium system with one gb of RAM, a 200gb hard drive (with plenty of free space), a 52x CDRW drive and a CD/DVD drive, running Win XP Home SP1.
Updating to the new Musicmatch (“MM”) 8.1 version
I already had MM+ (paid version) version 7.5 on my site, and apparently the software had automatically downloaded the 8.0 version a while back. So when I ran the MM program this afternoon, it asked me if I wanted to update my software. I clicked on ‘yes,’ and within about 2 minutes, I had version 8.0. However, I figured I needed the most recent 8.1 version to effectively use the new download service, so I trudged over to the MM Web site to fully update my MM software. That was annoying. I then had to reboot my system, which didn’t make me any happier. But I think that this is more of a reflection on Windows’ eccentricities than any fault of MM’s.
Registering my account with the Download service
I already had an account with MM (for their paid radio service), but I was asked to reconfirm my billing info and retype in my credit card number and expiration date. This was straightforward and went pretty quickly; I was able to do all this from within the MM application (no separate browser windows popped up). Note that my card was NOT billed, since the MM download service charges per song downloaded (a la carte), with no monthly fees, just like iTunes.
Searching for tunes by artist, title, etc.
Like all the other current online music services, MM has a single search box where you type in a query, and a small pulldown menu in which you indicate “Artist, Album, or Track.” IMHO, this is ridiculously limiting. Where’s the “powersearch” option?! Why can’t I search for “Time Out” by Count Basie? How come I can’t find all Duran Duran hits from 1986? If MM and the other services want to win the loyalty of true music lovers, they shouldn’t treat us like such simple-minded folks. Defaulting to a simple search is reasonable and appropriate, but give us some more options, please!
It’s especially frustrating when the search engine isn’t very smart. Searching for “Bobs” fails to bring up ANY songs of “The Bobs.” And in fact, when a Bobs song is saved to one’s library, it’s saved under “The…” Ack 😐
Of equal annoyance, typing in an unambiguous name for an artist, such as “Sting,” sometimes yields either multiple entries (Sting, Sting (138), and Sting (composer)) and other times results in a useless list of one item which you still must click on, instead of just bringing up the actual artist page.
There are two redeeming aspects of MM’s search implementation. First, it does occasionally offer helpful suggestions when one’s search term is unclear or is correlating with one or more artists/titles/etc. Also, MM thoughtfully provides info — often including short bios, discographies, and so on — even for artists it has no available downloads for. Though Rhapsody is similarly sharp on this point, PressPlay, in contrast, simply pretends the artist or album doesn’t exist.
Browsing for tunes
Unfortunately MM doesn’t offer a very nice experience for generally browsing tunes, either. Some genres — like Soundtracks — are entirely missing. And with genre-based searching in general, MM offers a sample artist on the front page, but no real info or description on the genre. MM deserves at least some credit for offering expanded sub-genres, however. Whereas other services may have two or three classical divisions, MM offers six. However, MM doesn’t do such a great job explaining some of its sub-genres. CCM? I’m guessing Christian Contemporary Music, but who knows! In the area of informing users, Rhapsody is by far the best of all the major services.
Also, it’s a shame that MM fails to offer any ability to browse by artist or album alphabetically :(. Sometimes one can catch the most serendipitous finds via this sort of browsing, instead of just focused searches.
On the flip side, MM does offer some interesting browsing twists. Unique amongst all the services, MM lets you browse for songs by their recording date, so you can, for instance, see top songs from 1963, or any year between 1960 and 2002. Additionally, while outside the scope of this blog entry, MM’s radio offerings are actually quite good and one can select an entire station just of 19xx year music! I had fun selecting music from my high school graduation year, and no, I’m not going to specify what year that was 😉
MM does offer the ability to see top artists, tracks, and albums, but its offering here is anemic compared to PressPlay’s detailed Billboard chart features, which let users check out the most popular songs and artists by specific genre according to Billboard.
The overall user interface
It’s not bad. Most artist, track, and album names are hyperlinked (although unwisely not underlined), letting you get more details quickly. Sort order is typically editable with just a click, and that’s nice. The entire app is pleasantly resizeable, as are its individual parts. And when the app is minimized, you can still see any the track and album name of any track playing specified in the taskbar, and my MS keyboard’s Next and Previous track buttons work (unlike with PressPlay). Unfortunately, drag-and-drop functionality is quite limited; for instance, I tried to drag the listing of a song currently playing to my Favorites section, and nothing happened. That’s a shame. In fact, I could find no easy and consistent way to bookmark my favorite artists, albums, or tunes 🙁
This is a key selling point of MM, and one way in which it vaults FAR ahead of all the other online music services. When you download a track, it is immediately integrated into your MM library, complete with name, track time, and all other relevant info. You can drag and drop a combination of your previously-existing MP3s along with your new MM Download tracks to the MM burner and burn a CD seamlessly (more on that later). You don’t realize how valuable this integration is until you experience it firsthand.
This is a bit frustrating. First of all, sometimes the track listings include the track running times, sometimes they don’t. Also, there are separate listings for downloadable tracks and each artist’s discography. It would have been much nicer to simply have these two integrated, so you could check out an artist’s discography, noting which tracks had download symbols next to them. Also, MM’s notation of “Popular” tracks is a bit confusing. What is the measurement here? Popularity offline? Popularity amongst MM users? And if the latter, based upon sampling or downloads or…?
MM offers the now-industry-standard 30 second song samples, and at 64kbps WMA. The sound quality is extremely good, but the buffering takes longer than I’d like… typically 4-5 seconds even on my hefty system with broadband. I know that Microsoft brags that WMP9 (Windows Media Player 9) offers instantaneous playback with no buffering, so I’m wondering why that’s not implemented here.
All individual tracks that I saw were 99 cents, and though 99% of the albums were priced at $9.99, I did see a couple priced at $11.99. Overall, though, I was impressed that even larger albums (like “Urinetown,” at 18 tracks) were still typically priced at $9.99.
This is where MM truly shines… and provides an experience worthy of iTunes comparison. After registering once, downloading either an individual track or an album requires a mere two clicks: Buy, then Confirm. The track is added to your download queue and starts downloading immediately if there are no other tracks being already downloaded. Once it’s downloaded, it starts playing, and it’s added to your library. Easy and hassle-free! Better yet, the sound quality of the downloaded tracks is simply divine; 160 VBR (variable bitrate) WMA (Windows Media Audio). This consistent high-end quality is better than any other download service I’ve ever experienced, legal or otherwise (most MP3s on KaZaA are 128).
DRM (Digital Rights Management)
The DRM isn’t terribly onerous, though I’d certainly like to see the labels wise up and loosen DRM dramatically or even entirely (yes, I’m serious). But that’s fodder for another entry ;-). Anyway, the MM DRM is at least consistent (unlike the horrid BuyMusic service), allowing you to listen to any downloaded track on up to three computers, and burn it to a CD an unlimited number of times (albeit only 10 times in any single playlist set). Sending downloads to secure portable devices is also supported, though it’s important to note that not all portable music players support the secure WMA format yet.
Regrettably, however, the “three computers” allowance is a bit misleading. As a test, I took a song I downloaded with MM and copied it to a friend’s computer. I was unable to play it unless I installed MM (even though the track is in Windows Media format and should be playable by WMP). And I’m guessing that even if I had downloaded and installed MM, the track still wouldn’t have played unless I registered the copy of MM on that computer in my name. That’s not very helpful if, say, a college student wants to listen to a track on his college computer and at his parents’ house over Christmas break. Frankly, I think “three computers” should mean any three computers, but, yeah, the recording industry still has a Stupid Stick up their posterior. One day they’ll learn that sharing can lead to smart viral marketing; for instance, allowing any user to share any legal download with an unlimited number of friends, who can then play that track ten times over thirty days for free, and unlock it for 99 cents. Free publicity from passionate music listeners. But no, the recording industry prefers to still use dumbly-crippling DRM, preventing enthusiastic souls from sharing ANYTHING with other people. Idiots
Burning downloaded tracks to CD
I have to admit that this was a bit problematic for me. Even after three separate burning attempts (including once after a full reboot), I had repeatedly mixed results each time as follows:
– Playing the CD back on my CD burner results in the first ten seconds of the track being horribly garbled, and the rest of the song being fine.
– The CD sounds flawless in my computer’s DVD player
– When popping the CD in my roommate’s CD-boombox, the first half-second of the song is cut off, but the rest sounds perfect.
This is using relatively new 700mb hi-speed Sony CDRs and my 52x burner set to 4x via MM. In fact, one can ONLY burn MM tracks on MM, not on Nero or Windows Media Player as I found out, to my frustration. But I guess that’s not really so much of a problem, since you have to have the MM player anyway to even use the service, so it makes sense to burn tracks in the integrated player.
Unsurprisingly (but to the recording industry, perhaps ominously), I was easily able to insert the newly burned CD and rip a high quality MP3 or WMA file off of it… with the new file being completely DRM-free. In other words, if I wanted to be a twit, I could simply pay for and download an entire album off of MM and burn it to CD, then rip it and upload the unrestricted (but nicely labeled) tracks to KaZaA. This is why, briefly touching back upon one of my earlier arguments, that it’d make a lot more sense for MM and the recording industry to support much more friendly DRM implementations at the get-go, allowing people to share downloaded tracks with friends or even posting them to p2p services… with those tracks simply timing out after a while. Actually, I am definitely going to expand upon this in a later entry 🙂
Availability of music
With regards to the scope of popular music, I’ve found MM to be about on par with Rhapsody and PressPlay, though each has its own significant gaps. Unfortunately, it appears as though MM currently offers ZERO classical downloads, since searches on popular classical artists like Bach, Telemann, and Monteverdi turned up no actual downloadable tracks :-(. Adding insult to injury, on lists featuring the various composers, MM suggests that it has dozens of downloads available, and it’s only after you click on a composer name that you realize it’s all a mirage, at least classically speaking. [NOTE: See 10/10/03 edit at the bottom of this note]
For folks who aren’t primarily classical aficianados, though, MM certainly offers quite enough tunes to fill up a lot of iPods, and it IS indeed fun checking out the depth and breadth of available artists and songs.
Though only available in the U.S. right now (due to licensing restrictions), polyglots and similarly cultured souls will be displeased to see MM’s butchering of foreign language characters, such as the ? in se?orita. MM omits the special diacritical marks in some cases, or substitutes weird-looking characters or character combinations in other cases.
Despite some frustrating restrictions (imposed by the recording industry) and occasional UI flakiness, Musicmatch shines where it really counts: enabling the masses to download tunes from a large library quickly and affordably. Since the software is free and registering an account is also free and pretty painless, I highly recommend that every PC user (at least those with broadband) give MM a try.
Useful and interesting URLs
– Musicmatch: http://www.musicmatch.com/
– * This entry: http://www.bladam.com/archives/0309292010.htm
– MM Discussion (no registration required): http://www.smilezone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=319
– The ideal music service – http://www.bladam.com/archives/0309300101.htm
– RIAA Amnesty — A Parody: http://www.riaaAmnesty.com/
– My earlier brief look at Listen.com’s Rhapsody: http://www.bladam.com/archives/0302141717.htm
– My rant about the horrid buymusic.com service: http://www.bladam.com/archives/0307251009.htm
* Please do share this article with friends, but kindly offer the URL above (http://www.bladam.com/archives/0309292010.htm) rather than cutting and pasting large sections of my commentary. I want to make sure that any corrections or other updates I add here are not missed by those interested in this area! Thanks for your consideration :-).
EDITED TO ADD:
10/10/03 – Mick Orlowski noted in the Conversation Corner the following:
Just a note on Classical in MM… Musicmatch has a very powerful Classical component of the streaming “MX” service. If you were seing track totals after composer names, it is likely you were seeing how many works were available in their Artist on Demand feature. No you can’t download Bach… but you can listen to a Bach-only CD-quality station on demand… or create a station that plays only your 5 favorite composers. MM definitely does not ignore classical… it’s just not downloadable yet.
Thanks for the info, Mick!