Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ruckus and Music Discovery Free Online Music for All College Students!
What this means is that any .edu address (but only a .edu address) can now be used to register for a free Ruckus account. (I'm a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University so I was able to register with my IU address.) Addresses from academic institutions don't work in this system.
So, faculty and staff at U.S. universities and colleges are also able to get free accounts. And, though the service is student-oriented, it can easily be used by teachers to listen to different types of music, including music appreciated by students.
I've tried the service and it does work fairly well for the purposes of music discovery.

However, it's more crippled than most music subscription services. For instance, you can't carry your music to any other device without paying for a subscription. Even then, I think it's only for the dying breed of MPFS players, so no iPod and no Dune-rhyming media player from MS. The player application is quite clunky.
It's also inefficient as hell. From the browser, downloads are put in a queue through the player application. This queue is very slow and it's quite difficult to get a single track to download fast when you have many tracks being transfered.
Though many people dislike the iTunes application, accessing the iTunes Store through it is a breeze when compared to the process of getting tracks from Ruckus.

So, I don't like and the Ruckus Player as much as I like iTunes. With plenty of memory, iTunes works quite well for me. Because it works on the same overall principle, Songbird is also a very useful tool for me, even though it's still extremely early in the development stage.
What are Ruckus's advantages over iTunes and Songbird? One is current and obvious, the other one is a mere possibility and could represent a sea change in the recording industry's approach to access control in music listening. Yes, really.
First, the obvious advantage: all-you-can-eat buffet. Ruckus is a subscription service like Napster and Rhapsody and unlike the iTunes Store, Calabash Music, or eMusic. For a variety of reasons, subscription services haven't fared really well so far. One of the main reasons is that those services restrict access to music files way too much. In this respect, Ruckus seems even worse. But another with subscription services is that they require constant payment. You stop paying, you lose access to the music files you had accumulated. Frustrating enough to make the whole system unpalatable to most.
Here, Ruckus is a bit different. Not only is the (unbelievably restrictive) basic subscription free for all owners of .edu addresses, but the "contract" is thought to run throughout the user's tenure at the academic institution. For a student, it basically means that the service is supposed to be maintained until graduation. Translation: get hooked to free access to music while you're saving money to study, start paying for access to music once you get a regular, non-student income. Sounds sneaky but Ruckus seems pretty honest about it and I can't say I find the whole thing absurd. In fact, I think it's a large part of the logic behind student discounts and other student-oriented services. Including Facebook. And even some academic programs!!
Again, obvious. And advantageous. If the goal is music discovery, it means that you can listen to all the music you want until you graduate by which time you're supposed to pay to access the music you've come to like.

The second advantage Ruckus could have is less obvious: peer sharing.
Call me naïve but I get the impression that the move to include all owners of .edu addresses may mean that it could be possible to share tracks between Ruckus accounts. If so, the service could have an interesting impact.
It could be so useful that I feel it might exist already. If so, I haven't seen it.
Because I like to compare music and food, I think of the all-you-can-eat buffet analogy with a specific implication. I know some people (especially some Protestant Anglo-Americans) may get disgusted but, "in my culture," sharing food at a buffet is perfectly normal. If my wife and I are eating at a buffet, we might try different things and share what we think the other will like. Now, when you go to a buffet with someone else, you may not share any food with someone who isn't paying. But it's usually ok to share something with anyone who is paying for the buffet. That way, less food is lost and it's easier to try most of the food available.
As most people know, much music discovery happens through recommendations. Online recommendations can work fairly well, for instance on Amazon and Netflix. But there's a huge difference between a recommendation and actually sharing something with someone else. Going back to the buffet analogy.
Case 1: A friend tried the tandoori chicken and liked it. She tells me that I really should go and get some. Once I'm done with my plate, I go get some tandoori chicken, sit down, try it, and find out I don't really like it. I've lost some time and, perhaps more importantly, some confidence in the compatibility of my friend's taste with my own taste.
Case 2: My wife gets a bite of tandoori chicken and likes it so much that she almost shoves a piece in my mouth. The power of suggestion is strong enough that I enjoy the chicken almost as much as she does. More importantly, I get to share this moment with my wife. Bonding is all about direct experience, not about delayed satisfaction.
Back to music.
Case 1: A colleague tells me that I really should check out such and such band. I put it in my queue of things to listen to, when I get the time. Once I finish what I was doing, I listen to a few seconds of a track recommended by that colleague. I can kind of hear what the colleague found interesting in the band's overall style but I'm not sure I'd want to keep it in my playlist. I wonder about reasons why this colleague felt a need to recommend that band. I become over-analytic and critical. I fail to enjoy the music.
Case 2: During a class discussion about shamanism, a student sends the class a track of a piece inspired by Siberian shamans. We get to listen to it together and comment upon it. "Skip to 2:23," the student says. Through the power of suggestion and the importance of context, we all get to share a moment of intellectual and musical stimulation. Listening to that first excerpt, a second student thinks about the perfect complement, diphonic throat singing from Southcentral Asia. We all listen to that second excerpt, thinking about connections between the two. Both students now feel validated in their approach to music, and everyone gets to think about music in a new way.

Part of the issue is the technology. If DRM-crippled files can be shared, we can better accept the need for access control but we still end up with crippled files. Obviously, non-DRM files are easy to share. But the Big Four (Universal, EMI, Sony-BMG, Warner Music) have been unwilling to release non-DRM files until very recently. It has thus created an artificial division of music based on access controls and has had a chilling effect on music innovation.
Another set of issues relates to the perception of music as a "commodity." Like LPs and CDs, music files are but a trace of a given set of music performances and/or of studio work. In my mind, music is located in the way human beings share, exchange, communicate, and think through sounds. In my humble opinion, listening to music with other people, like participating in a music session (regardless of "talent") can be much more "musical" in this sense than buying music files or even recommending a band name.

But that's just my opinion. ;-)


  1. Hi, the Songbird application should be able to play the Ruckus DRM tracks in our 0.2.5 version. We're posting nightlies for testing right now, so we should expect to ship in a week or two (or three if anything bad happens).

    In addition, it would probably not be difficult for Ruckus (or some enterprising .edu persona) to write a Firefox-style addon for Songbird integrating Ruckus' browsing into Songbird's download and library services.

    The purpose of Songbird is to create a level playing-field in the media player space and invite all content distribution and media service players to simply concentrate on their services. And not have to introduce yet-another-media-player into the already overcrowded space just to support their particular service.

  2. Excellent news!
    Songbird's mission is clear and should be praised. I do tend to see the application as the "iTunes for Open Access Music" but it also makes sense for DRM music. Especially with a system like Ruckus which is explicitly meant to help students discover music.