The Anti-Napster

While Napster remains shuttered and in a probable death-spiral, another search and play service offers a compelling alternative for getting your online music fix. MSN Music is about as opposite from Napster as you can get -- and for both music fans and musicians, that's a good thing.

For all Napster did to open up vast quantities of music to online users, the reality was that it was a pretty clunky search tool. For starters, you had to download the client and configure and tune it to work on your system. Searching for music required you to have a relatively good idea of what you were looking for ahead of time, were a good speller, and had a high tolerance for garbage search results.

Once you found something interesting, you had to download a file before hearing it. There was no option to preview music or stream it in real-time. That left you open to downloading poorly encoded files, and vulnerable to "Napster bombs" -- files masquerading as one thing when in reality they were something totally different.

MSN Music takes the opposite approach to Napster in virtually every respect. First, the interface is web based, so you can search for music using your browser. The site offers tools that allow you to search for music in a wide variety of ways, and has built-in phonetic spell-checking. You can stream the music in real-time even over a relatively slow dialup connection. And finally, since MSN has licensed the music they offer, you have the assurance that what you ask for is what you get.

Like most web-based radio stations, MSN Music offers programmed selections, with 128 distinct stations arranged by themes. But where MSN Music really shines in its search options. While most music search sites let you search by musician, album, or category, MSN Music gives you tools to create personalized, extremely specific searches, with literally hundreds of thousands of variations.

One way is to search for "Artist SoundsLike" stations. Search for "Phish," for example, and your results will include links to "get more information on the artist Phish," "view SoundsLike Artists" and "play a SoundsLike station based on this artist."

The "get more information" link, as you might expect, brings up biographical information, a discography, and a list of sounds-like artists. The bio and album information is provided by MSN partner AMG (All Music Guide), one of the foremost authorities on contemporary music.

A really nifty feature of all search results pages is that they contain multiple "layers" of results. Clicking on the title of an album, for example, expands the result for that album, offering additional links for more information. You can also click the "Expand All" link at the top of a section, and the entire list expands with more information.

The neat thing is that expansion happens instantly, within your existing result page. This makes it easy to get both a quick overview and probe in detail without having to run a new search or leave your result page. To return to the initial view, just click the "collapse all" link.

The "SoundsLike" artists feature works very well. I tested it with a number of relatively obscure musicians like Kit Watkins, King Sunny Ade and Nicky Skopelitis (deliberately misspelled as "nickey skoplettuce", and found that the "SoundsLike" artists were generally spot-on -- at least for the ones I recognized.

Most of the names I didn't recognize also proved, after listening, to be not only similar, but interesting new "finds." Results often include one-to-one comparisons between songs recorded by the artist you searched on and the SoundsLike artist. Using the "SoundsLike" search is an excellent way to find new music based on what you already know.

Another cool feature allows you to search by mood. This isn't some sort of cheesy alternative to Muzak or "The 101 Strings Get Mellow," but rather a sophisticated interface that allows you to be very specific about what you'd like to hear. You can limit your search by style, mood, tempo, vocals, and several other categories. The musical styles are what you would expect, but your mood selection can be all over the map, from angry, groovy, quirky or happy, to rockin', sad, soothing or trippy.

"You end up with almost 1 million pre-programmed stations based on all of those permutations," according to Brian Gluth, MSN Product Manager.

MSN Music has a staff of analysts who meticulously categorize music according to a variety of attributes. The service also uses a proprietary DSP (digital signal processing) algorithm to make "digital fingerprints" of songs that can be compared to other, similar types of music. This combination of human/machine analysis is the reason that Mood Search and SoundsLike search works so well.

Music analysts aren't just Microsofties transferred to MSN Music when they've completed a stint working on Excel. "They're all musicians at heart," says Deanna Sanford, MSN Music Lead Product Manager.

Many are professional musicians. For example, MSN Music Analyst Andy Stoller has recorded several albums with Tracy Chapman including the Grammy-award winning "New Beginning," as well as her most recent Gold record "Telling Stories." He has also played one-offs with Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen.

As you would expect from Microsoft, MSN music is particularly concerned with content security and uses a proprietary Digital Rights Management (DRM) system to encode streaming audio files. Unlike Napster, you can't download or save individual songs. But you can add songs, artists, albums or radio stations to your favorites list. So while MSN Music is not quite "on-demand" in the way Napster was, it's still flexible enough to satisfy most listening needs and desires.

MSN Music is a very cool alternative to Napster. As with most Microsoft services, you have to put up with the annoying requirement of registering for a Passport to be able to play stations or save favorites. And the graphics and ad-heavy user interface makes for slow-going on a dialup connection (though once you start playing music this problem largely goes away).

But these are small prices to pay for the remarkably well designed search tools that offer a depth and richness that few other music search sites can approach. MSN Music is indeed the Anti-Napster, in both spirit and form.

MSN Music

Will you consider using MSN Music over Napster? Are you concerned about Microsoft pushing in to yet another market/medium? Use the feedback form and sound off. I'll publish the most interesting comments in a future issue of SearchDay.

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