Calculate your chances...negative...negative...negative!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Rhapsody in DRM-free mp3.

Last week was the debut of Real Networks' Rhapsody MP3 store. To celebrate, they offered a $10 credit to the first 100,000 people to sign up. Yours truly was among the people who ended up downloading an album (and then some) on Real.

I didn't even know Real was entering the DRM-free mp3 sales arena until I heard about the sign up offer. And, I'll admit, the $10 credit offer struck me as either ballsy or desperate, I still haven't quite decided, though I'm leaning towards the latter.

The question is, who is Rhapsody trying to reach? At this point, they are the fourth of the five biggest major label download music sellers to go the mp3 route. Their site, which, to be fair, is listed as a beta, isn't all that user friendly. Trying to search for a specific album title may or may not net you what you're looking for, though the artist search seems a bit more fleshed out. The keyword search is just about useless though.

One thing that shouldn't be in beta is their customer support, which needs some serious work. Unfortunately, I've already needed it and clicking through the customer support pages is a frustrating maze which leads you to help for every service Real offers except the mp3 store. I was able to get on the live chat through a page for their subscription service and my issue was resolved. However, it took about a half hour in the chat to get a simple matter cleared up which, if there had been a email address like everyone else has, I wouldn't have had to hang on and re-explain the issue to who or whatever I was talking to over and over.

And then there's the issue of what they are offering. Their selection leaves quite a bit to be desired. At times the albums available almost seemed like a random assortment of an artist's catalog. While they are offering all four major labels and a smattering of indies, Amazon's selection is much better.

Their prices are pretty standard. .99 cents songs and $9.99 albums, which would be fine if it wasn't for the fact that a lot of their content can be purchased cheaper through Amazon. Oddly, there is an apparent mis-pricing of a bunch of box sets, mostly from the Rhino catalog. While it's possible that these prices could be correct (and I would certainly welcome that,) I find it a bit unlikely that a set retailing at Amazon for $97 is correct for $9.99 at Rhapsody.

So, other than a free $10 credit and fishing for cheap, but sure to be price corrected, box sets, what exactly does Rhapsody have to offer in this crowded market? As best I can tell, nothing. I can't really find a single reason to continue using this service. The site is clunky, the normal prices aren't anything special and the selection is smaller than Amazon.

While I'm all in favor of competition, there needs to be something different going on to make it happen. Competition is more than just a different name on your billing statement. It's surely not offering a lesser version of what the market leader is doing. But, unless they have some drastic changes in store, that's exactly what Rhapsody's mp3 store is, at the moment. Time will tell if Real can come up with something to make their store stand out, but personally, I'm doubtful they will.