dmihalik avatar

Subscription Music Services. Good, bad, and really bad.


When I was a college student I justified downloading music with the fact that I had no money. It was a pretty bad justification, but helped me feel better at the time. However, a few months ago I found myself downloading music and wondered why I was still stealing music. We’ve got money now. But I’m not sure anyone has enough money to buy CD’s for all the mp3’s I have.

I decided to check out some of the online music services. Some people don’t agree with subscription music, but for me it makes sense. For the cost of a CD a month, I get access to as much music as I want (or so I thought, read reviews below). All the music goes away if I quit the subscription, but I don’t see how it’s any different than paying for cable TV or XM Radio.

There are three services I know of and tried. They all use DRM technology from Microsoft so they only work on Windows and if you want to put the music on an MP3 player, you need one that supports “Plays For Sure”. I bought an 8gb Creative MicroPhoto (which I don’t recommend. Maybe I’ll post a review some other time) to use for subscription music. And now to the reviews.

Y! Music Unlimited

Yahoo’s music service was one of the main reasons I decided to check out subscription music and I really wanted it to work. For one, it was much cheaper than all the others. At the time the “to go” service (which lets you transfer songs to your mp3 player) was something like $6. Now they’ve bumped it to $10. Still cheaper than the others. Cheaper is not always better. And in this case, cheaper is much, much worse.

I tried to get Yahoo Music Engine (YME) working on three different computers and ran into three different problems. After spending many hours on it I (mostly) got it working on one of them. Yahoo’s tech support was useless. There are a few sites that have some helpful information, but mostly people just complaining about not getting it to work. After getting it to work on one computer, I still had problems where it would freak out transfering tracks to my player, and would randomly log me out and start playing 30 second samples.

Their music selection was ok. There were a lot of things I could not find, and quite a few of the things I found and wanted were for purchase only. At the time I found this very frustrating, but I soon found out that is how all the services are. The thing I really liked about Yahoo were it’s rating and recommendation functions. You can give a star rating to everything (just like in Media Player) and use that to build playlists or get recommendations from other users. I really wish some of the other services had this because even though this is nice, it’s not worth dealing with something that does not work on some of my computers and only works part of the time on the others.


  • Cheaper than the alternatives
  • Music rating is good
  • Music recommendations seemed to work really well


  • Did not work
  • No Media Center interface

It seems like Yahoo is aware of their problems. When I canceled the service, 5-6 of the problems I had were listed as reasons for canceling in the survey for why you are canceling. Maybe they will fix some of them.


Next, I tried Napster. A free trial came with my mp3 player so I thought I would try it out. Besides, I took a lot from Napster back in the day, maybe it’s time I give a little back.

Compared to Yahoo, I was quite pleased with Napster. Their client is a bit bloated, but I had no problems getting it working and transferring to my mp3 player. There’s also a plugin for Windows Media Player so you don’t have to have their client installed everywhere you want to use it.

Another feature of Napster I found very useful was their Windows Media Center plugin. Most of my mp3 playing at home is done through Windows Media Center and Napster’s interface makes it pretty easy to browse and play music from their service. No need to download any mp3’s to the Media Center because it can stream them.

Napster’s selection is different than Yahoo’s, but not really better. It had the same problem of some stuff missing and some stuff costing money. However, it was missing the recommendations and ratings that I really liked at Yahoo. They have a “Daily Playlist” that’s kinda built based on what you like, but it’s pretty lacking.


  • UI is bloated but works
  • Media Player plugin
  • Media Center plugin
  • Pretty good selection


  • Harder to find music you might like because of lack of recommendations.

AOL Music Now

Finally, there’s AOL’s recent purchase Music Now. They recently added portable player support so I thought I would check it out. Especially because in searching around I found some music that I could not find on the other services.

Music Now is a bit different from the other services in that it’s almost all web-based. Playlist generation and management is all web-based. Normally I would think it would be slower, but they’ve got a really nice AJAXy interface that works quite well. When it’s time to use a portable device, you download a small program that sits in your task tray and downloads the files and transfers them to the player.

Overall, I like Music Now’s interface better than the others. However, when I started building playlists I found that a lot of the music I easily found on other services were missing from Music Now. Odd because there was stuff I could find on Music Now that was missing from others.


  • Nice web-based interface. No install needed to stream music on any computer.
  • Found music that I could not find with the other services.
  • Easier to find recommended songs than Napster (still not as nice as Yahoo)


  • Missing some music I expected
  • No Media Center interface


The only other subscription service listed on the Playsforsure site is from F.Y.E.. I’ve not tried it and since you can’t search without downloading their software, I don’t know how their selection is. Maybe at a future point in time I’ll give it a try.


If you are looking for a subscription music service, I recommend signing up for Napster’s and Music Now’s free trials. You can get 30 days from Music Now and 7 days of Napster (my Creative player came with a 30 day Napster, too). Try to setup some similar playlists on the two services and see which has the music you want. In the end I found Napster to have more of what I wanted, but I probably would have rather gone with Music Now because I liked their interface better.