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Urge: Microsoft's play at the digital music game

The Urge front page showing new releases, genres, and special features

 

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Microsoft doesn't like other businesses being successful. You know that episode of The Boondocks where big business moves in on little Jasmine's lemonade stand? That's Microsoft. The company's formed a "PlaysForSure" standard, designed to compete against iTunes by expanding the number of devices (iRiver, Creative Labs, and Samsung all make compatible digital audio players) and services (Rhapsody, Napster, Yahoo) that can inter-operate.

 

The higher-ups at Microsoft are also savvy enough to know that when their savvy fails them, they do well to partner with someone a wee bit hipper. In these TRL days, it's debatable how cutting edge MTV may be, but its multimedia clout serves it well in launching the new Urge service, which has the added benefit of being bundled with Windows' new Media Player 11.

 

Urge provides the base feature set of most of the other PlaysForSure services. It can stream music, allows you to purchase tracks for play on your Windows PC or compatible player, and also has a "rental" service that allows you to keep as many tracks as you can download on your player -- until you quit the service.


Urge schooling you with over thirty subgenres of jazz

 

FEATURES


For all the geeks in the house, Media Player 11 provides a sneak preview of the long-awaited Windows Vista operating system. It eschews Apple's industrial white for a glossy black veneer. Being integrated with the OS provides some neat tricks. There's no need to download a standalone application, as you would with Rhapsody, and because it's the Media Player, you can reduce it down to a "skin" mode after you've chosen your music.

 

The front page offers a scrolling screen of headline stories, new releases, and a list of genres. Digging deeper reveals a few more nice features. A set of radio stations spans the gamut of genres and subgenres. Some of the hidden gems are nice, with selectors drawn from college radio ranks, although rather than seamless mixes, you're presented with sequential tracks. Click-throughs to the songs and albums are nice, but a bit more coherent blending would be nice, and the introduction promos are cheesy and unnecessary.

 

Feeds are a bit more satisfyingly random, a bit more akin to music blogs that have popped up around the Internet. Some combine news articles with relevant tracks, others are content to round up new music in different genres on a weekly basis. Other feeds correspond to MTV-affiliated stations and programming, and there's also a curious collection of "workout" mixes broken down by genre. If you want to pump iron to hair metal, they've got a station for it. There's no feed for mash-ups; you can decide if that means MTV is behind or ahead of the curve. Feeds sync up automatically to portable devices, so it's a good way to load up for your workout or dull bus ride.


 


All music services do some sort of relational grouping, where you can find artists within a subgenre or artists similar to the current one you're listening to. Urge also implements a feature that generates an album-length mix of related artists. It's a nice feature but limited to a few artists and not randomly generated, which would be truly impressive. Urge's musical-education service is surprisingly rich. It contains the normal selection of jazz, classical, and world-beat music but offers a robust list of subgenres with detailed descriptions on each. Having samples of different styles like bop, jazz-funk, and (shudder) smooth jazz makes musical exploration a lot more viable for people curious to make new discoveries.

 

Artist biographies are notable only for convenience. MTV also includes videos for many tracks. Unfortunately, even people with the highest subscription level have to sit through a commercial before viewing a commercial. Given that the video form is MTV's forte (or at least, was back in the day), the selection (no "Sabotage"!) often disappoints. Also, in a land where you can just check into YouTube to see that zany Ok Go treadmill music video, this feature becomes less compelling. 


Because not all electronic music is for dancing to
SELECTION

MTV Urge offers, much like its other competitors in the PlaysForSure space, more than 2 million songs. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same licensing oddities as every other service.

 

As a low-level barometer, we pored through Spin's top one hundred albums of the past twenty years. (Please note: This in no way validates Spin as our musical bible; it merely provides a handy list of top rock and hip-hop long players.)

 

Out of the hundred albums, three were available for purchase but not for streaming. Nineteen albums were not available for purchase or streaming, and an additional eight were available for streaming but had certain tracks excepted from playback. Welcome to the inexplicable world of online music stores. 

 

Just for reference, Rhapsody suffers from similar holes. Urge only offers Bjork's Post for purchase, whereas Rhapsody will happily stream it; Rhapsody also has the Strokes' Is This It?, whereas Urge fails to even list it as existing. The vagaries of licensing and capriciousness of record labels will undoubtedly always affect these sorts of rental services. Albums with missing tracks are most frustrating. I can understand why the litigious Dre and Metallica would withhold their albums, given their complaints about online music in the past, but why does Portishead's Dummy lack the final track? Why do the track listings for Raekwon's Only Built for Cuban Linx, Beck's Odelay, and A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory all look like prize fighter with teeth missing? Rosa Parks's reach clearly has online pull. You won't find her namesake track on Outkast's Aquemini, but most of these incomplete albums lack a proper origin story.

 

When taken as a whole, the service fares better. Underground doesn't mean underrepresented. Given that labels such as Def Jux and Stones Throw have signed agreements, you can get your indie-hip-hop fix. You can listen to glitch-hop from Dabrye, groove to robo-funk from MSTRKRFT, and rock out to the Secret Machines. Just don't expect to stream OK Computer, Fear of a Black Planet, or De La Soul is Dead. Urge offers a trial service, and although its selections are voluminous enough to be enticing, be prepared to check according to your tastes for deal breakers in its catalog -- for example, drum 'n' bass fans might want to know about the utter lack of Photek. You get the idea.

Customers who enjoyed Dabrye also enjoy Boom Bip and Danger Mouse

 

COMPATIBILITY, STABILITY, PRICING


Given that Urge runs natively in Windows Media Player 11, it runs quite well -- in Windows. Macintosh users are well served by iTunes, and Rhapsody continues to serve the small but vocal Linux contingent with a Web-based streaming service. Urge is currently in beta. The service did slow down in displaying some items, such as album covers and other artwork, but music streamed without a hitch at all times and no crashes were encountered. As with any beta software, proceed with caution and be sure to update when prompted. Urge offers lots of graphical eye candy, so a fast computer and broadband connection are certainly recommended.

 

Urge offers a fourteen-day trial for its "All Access to Go" pass, which bills out at $14.95 a month. This package includes play lists, feeds, more than 130 radio stations, and the ability to purchase and burn tracks to CD. It also allows you to transfer any tracks available for normal download to your portable music player, provided the player supports the PlaysForSure standard. We tested with an iRiver H340 player and had no problems, although it bears noting that the syncing process must catalog your music each time, which may be a slow process if you have a large collection. Folks with smaller-capacity flash players and USB 2.0 connections can expect it to be a fairly speedy procedure.

 

If the portable media options don't appeal to you, you can also subscribe to a $9.95 per month rate for PC-access only. Urge also provides a free service available that allows user to purchase tracks, read feature stories, and listen to twenty radio stations.


On an MTV service, Kelly Clarkson is more popular than Queen

 

THE FUTURE AND THE PRESENT


Microsoft, perhaps less than satisfied with promoting an open standard, is readying its "Zune" project, which will feature both a music player and service tied to each other in a fashion closer to Apple's strategy. Rumors abound like Lost conspiracy theories. The player will presumably have wireless access, allow sharing between players, and according to one account will come to life, consume your iPod, and digest its contents. In all seriousness, one rumor does suggest that Zune will offer you the equivalent content (in Windows Media Access format) of your paid for iTunes catalog.

 

So far it's unclear whether the Zune player will work with Urge and similar services. The player is set to launch sometime late this year. It's rare for Microsoft to get these things right on the first try, so don't wait for their secret sauce unless you have a strong paranoia of tech obsolescence.

 

Urge will allow you to use a decent range of players, certainly more than the iTunes paradigm allows. It doesn't have the burgeoning catalog of television shows that iTunes offers, but it does offer a slick interface to a wide range of music for those on the Windows platform. With MTV's clout and Microsoft's support, users are also less likely to be subject to the shifting strategies of upstart players such as Napster. Urge makes a solid music rental service, and besides a few selection gaps and beta software quirks, makes a fine selection on any reasonably fast Windows box.


The Zune player might eat your iPod

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The Spinto Band - Show Review (Pier 17 at South Street Seaport, NYC) Mason Jennings Mason Jennings @ Space, Portland, Maine
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