RealNetworks is announcing today an enhanced set of Rhapsody Web services APIs and RSS feeds, along with a 3-month competition aimed at getting developers to build on their platform. Rhapsody is one of the biggest music subscription services on the Web. It has over 2 million tracks in its library, which users can listen to for US$9.95 per month. There are also options for users to purchase music items. Rhapsody competes with the likes of Napster and AOL - but the online music market in general is dominated by Apple iTunes, which is a pay-per-download service rather than a subscription service like Rhapsody.
Rhapsody Web services enables people to incorporate free playback of full-length songs and internet radio stations directly into their web pages, blogs or mashups. There are also a number of pre-made widgets and gadgets available to users, a music-linking service called "RhapLinks" for bloggers, "smart URLs" for developers, and over 300,000 RSS feeds. Details of all this (including the new competition) can be found on the Rhapsody Web services site.
Yesterday I spoke to Ben Rotholtz (GM of Rhapsody Web services), Leo Parker (Director of Rhapsody on the Web) and Ronda Scott (PR Manager, Music at RealNetworks) about the new Rhapsody Web services announcements. We discussed the web services, as well as the future of online music.
Ben started off by explaining that Rhapsody is "very much a music discovery service", because they have a lot of rich metadata about the music. It offers music tracks subscriptions, as well as Internet radio (which Ben said is useful for listening to artists that don't make their music available by subscription - like the Beatles). Unfortunately for non-US people like me, Rhapsody is only available in the USA - which Ben said was due to music label restrictions. He said that they're actively working with the labels to get the rights to provide the service internationally. Ronda did note that they have Real.com music offerings in Europe, but it's a different thing than Rhapsody.
The Rhapsody Web services platform, initially launched 5 December 2005, is a way to expand the Rhapsody offering - bringing in more parts of the Web ecosystem like bloggers, social networking systems and corporate partners (e.g. RollingStone.com and Classmates.com) who want online music integrated into their sites in a big way. Ben said that the Web services will enable people to "re-represent the catalogue" of music that Rhapsody has, in new and innovative ways.
I asked if the Rhapsody Web services allow people to mashup whole songs, or is it just samples and metadata about the music (due to music label rights)? Ben said that they don't have, or provide, the rights to allow people to remix songs. What they do provide is a means to mix elements of the Rhapsody service itself with external web sites or apps. Leo said that the primary value of the Rhapsody Web services is to enable external sites or apps to play back "full length high quality songs".
The enhanced web services include a whole set of REST APIs. Using these, developers can create new ways to represent the Rhapsody catalog and/or play songs (by launching a player directly from within a website or app). Ben also talked about some of the social, collaborative aspects of it - saying that "Rhapsody is becoming more of a badge of what somebody's been listening to", rather than a standalone music-listening experience. Also people can share reviews, lists, etc. Here's an example of a blogger using lots of Rhapsody RSS:
I asked whether the Web services may affect Rhapsody's reputation for usability and slick UIs? Ben said that may happen, but it's all part of entering into the Web 2.0 world of remixes and combining services.
Gadgets and widgets
I asked about the Rhapsody gadgets, for services like live.com and Google IG, and how much take-up there has been of them.
Ben said that the Mac widget for Rhapsody is in the top 50 for Apple Dashboard, while their Konfabulator widget is in the top 20 in that gallery. With Live.com and Google IG, Ben said it's too early to tell because they only released those gadgets about a week ago (also they're more developer-focused audiences).
He said Rhapsody's approach, starting a couple of months ago, has been to release "reference applications" for gadgets - to inspire other developers. For the users, Ben called gadgets and widgets "very quick on-ramps" into the Rhapsody world - because they don't require users to subscribe (e.g. they can utilize the 25 free music tracks Rhapsody offers for trial users). As an example, Ben told me about a company named LabPixies which developed an RSS Reader for Rhapsody feeds - for the live.com and Google IG start pages.
The Future of Music
My next question was about the future of music on the Web and whether, say in 3-4 years time, users will be able to remix songs much more freely than the music labels allow us to today. I wondered aloud where Rhapsody will fit into such a (Utopian?) scenario.
Ben said that over time music labels "have become more open-minded and adaptive to what the Web provides" and he thinks that is an ongoing process. He also sees music becoming more integrated inside of various everyday experiences - i.e. breaking out from just being experienced within specific music applications. In that respect, part of Rhapsody's web services initiative is to ensure music flows more freely through the Web - using their platform.
Ben also talked about metadata for music becoming a lot richer over time - with end-users iterating on the Rhapsody catalog. Finally, he said the international online music world will open up (Ed: YAY!!) and we'll see more regional content coming into their catalog.
Devices and Portability
I (optimistically) asked whether Rhapsody will have an iPod/iTunes-like hardware/software offering in their near future? Unfortunately for me, no scoops about a future new product slipped out of Ben's mouth (there goes any chance this post will be Slashdotted or Digged!).
But Ben did acknowledge there has been a lot of innovation in the world of devices. He also noted that Rhapsody is the only company outside of Apple that supports purchasing and then transferring music to the iPod, which they do using their own technology.
Ben said they work with a number of hardware companies today to enable users to take their music subscriptions with them across devices. Also Ronda mentioned there is a lot of integration within home devices - e.g. Sonos.
My final question addressed whether Rhapsody has much integration with the most popular social network in the world today, MySpace - e.g. using gadget or widgets? Ben said that there's no formal arrangements with MySpace, however there are ways to integrate Rhapsody music into a user's MySpace page. Ben's test MySpace page has some examples of this.
One app that can be easily added onto MySpace is the Rhapsody Listening History Slide show.
I'm excited by Rhapsody's Web services initiative and I think it's a very positive move for the online music industry as a whole. One hopes that Apple follows RealNetworks' good example and starts to open up the iTunes platform with APIs and the like too. That's probably a pipe dream, because as long as Apple holds such a dominant position in the online music market - they will see little need to open up. But that leaves room for the likes of Rhapsody and others such as AOL and Yahoo to embrace the social Web. Letting external developers build on your online music platform is a recipe for innovation, new web apps and new users.