One Consumer’s Take: Surveying the Subscription Services

So my brother’s been gracious enough to give me an early graduation
gift, and I’ve been looking into signing up for a music subscription
service. My craving for music has been going up lately, and relying on
iTunes, used CDs, Amazon, Internet radio, and what friends (not strangers)
pass along to me hasn’t quite been cutting it.  A subscription
service seems like a nice complement to purchasing. As good as other
music discovery sources are, sometimes I really need to hear the album
first, and there are some albums I don’t need to own but would like some limited
access to (e.g., I love Bowie, but am not going to buy all of his 20+
albums in the near future).  None of the subscription services are
even close to perfect, but I’m interested in exactly how
satisfied/frustrated I’ll be.  And hell, even without the gift
money, I spend so much per week on coffee these days that I have little
justification to not give these services a whirl for a few months.

A few random observations:

* The catalogs are dramatically better than they were a year ago, but
the gaps are still startling.  I’d love iTunes to throw their hat
into the subscription arena not just because of the iPod compatibility,
but because their catalog is by far superior. Right now, Rhapsody seems
like the best subscription bet in this regard. In particular, they pay
much greater attention to electronic music than Napster 2.0, both in
terms of back catalog and new releases.  As far as the more
obscure/indie label stuff I’m looking for, they’re both completely
insufficient, but Napster fails to deliver even mainstream albums, like
Basement Jaxx’s Grammy-winning “Kish Kash” or Dizzee Rascal’s acclaimed
“Showtime.”

*  Many note that those who own an iPod today don’t want to switch
portable players just to get Napster To Go. The broader problem is that
many/I don’t want to start basing my decisions on an entire system of
products. Who knows what superior service with a different set of
players will come out 6-12 months from now. It’s not worth my time to
invest in Janus-based products now. And did I mention the extra cost
and the DRM and the fact that I can’t even use To Go on my main
computer, which runs Win2k?  Rather save the money and spend it on
purchasing more albums for permanent, unencrypted ownership.

* Say one wanted to use Napster To Go with an iPod on Win2k by evading the DRM and converting to MP3. 
Though one would have to violate Napster’s ToS to do this, I doubt
Napster’d mind, so long as you deleted all the MP3s afterwards – that
is, you’d still only use the music during the subscription period, and
you’d pay the 15 bucks for Napster To Go even though you could do the
conversion using Napster Premium for 10/month.  Napster wouldn’t
mind because they want interop with Apple.  Doubt Microsoft would
mind.  More money for rights holders, so they probably wouldn’t
mind.  But here’s the catch: afaik, the Janus-enabled portable
players count your plays and report that back to the Napster mothership
for royalties accounting.  So, even in your attempt to ensure that
rights holders are compensated for your uses, you’d fail.

* A main problem with Rhapsody is that, unlike Napster, you can only
stream and can’t download – that may become an issue for me over the
summer when my Internet access becomes spottier.  The only reason
I can imagine Rhapsody does this is for licensing issues.  When Rhapsody was originally created, I bet
it was easier to only license performances,
given all the hassle about mechanical licensing. 
The various parties seem to have worked this issue out, as
demonstrated by Napster 2.0, but Rhapsody’s licensing agreements
probably haven’t folded the change in yet.  Thoughts?

I wonder how long I’ll stick with these services – most I can say is
that they’ve finally gotten good enough for me to try out, but I’m
still not convinced they’re good enough for me to stick with.