When we first caught a glimpse of the unlimited, on-demand music service Rara last December, we pointed out that it faced huge obstacles in making an impression on music fans, given that these services have pretty much the same catalogs, and even entries that people have heard of, such as MOG, have struggled to convert a significant percentage of the world’s music fans into paying subscribers.
The December launch was plagued by a paltry catalog and no support for iOS, so we consider this to be its true coming out party, because both of those problems have been solved (rather, the latter should be soon — more on that below).
Most troubling for would-be Rara subscribers: There is no free option, whatsoever. You can’t try before you buy, and as with most other music services, this one costs $5/month for the web version and $10/month for web plus mobile (iOS, Android, and as of October 26, Windows 8). To make this easier to swallow, Rara knocks the introductory rate down to $1 per month for the first three months on the web, or $2/month for mobile.
This should prevent “drive by” users from swooping in, listening to a bunch of free music that Rara has to pay for, and then bailing. It also means there are no annoying advertisements to suffer through. But it could prevent people from getting addicted enough to the free version that they pay for premium, which is how Spotify has racked up 4.5 million subscribers worldwide. (Besides, maybe the Internet just wants one of everything.) We’ve asked Rara to comment on its no-free-tier approach, and hope to have an update on that soon.
If you do decide to drop a credit card to find out what this service is about, we suspect you’ll be pleased by the web version, which is quite slick and easy to use for searching, playlisting, queuing up tunes, and so on. It’s pretty, and it moves around, with nifty sliding animations and a nice, simple, unconfusing look. We appreciated helpful features for getting started listening, like playlists and radio stations curated into standard groupings with a mainstream bent: Great Playlists, Best of, “rara radar,” Moods, Just For You (powered by Gracenote and based on previous listening), Genres, and Charts — all of which can be played or added to your playlists in whole or in part.
We had less luck with the iOS version, which wouldn’t play over Wi-Fi or 3G, occasionally showed us blank screens like the one to the right, and then crashed. There is apparently an offline playback feature for listening without trying to stream over slow, limited, or non-existent data connections (a crucial feature these days), although we couldn’t figure out how to “keep” a song… or even play one for that matter. These problems persisted even after we restarted the iPhone.
To be fair, this thing only launched just now, and Rara is surely working out the kinks in the iOS version. Overall, the design of the sadly silent iOS app was clean, and played infinite playlists from any starting point (i.e. choose a song and you can keep skipping forward for similar songs). It might be a decent music app once it, you know, plays music.
Neither the web nor the mobile version integrates with Facebook or Last.fm (or even simple Twitter link sharing) — we assume because there would be no way for your friends to listen to those songs unless they were to whip out a credit card. Every company from Deezer to Spotify to MOG has seen big gains from Facebook’s music sharing, but Rara appears to be left out in that regard due to the lack of a free version. On the plus side, there are no automatic sharing features to disable, if you’re not into telling everyone on the planet what you’re doing.
On to the catalog! Thanks to deals with The Orchard, INgrooves Fontana, Believe Digital and VidZone Digital Media, Rara now has 18 million songs rather than the meager 10 million tracks it had last time we took a look. Another promising thing about Rara is its reach. With seven new countries added today, it’s now found in 27 countries worldwide (UK, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Portugal, US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and South Africa), making it one of the most far-reaching unlimited services.
Finally, Rara, the first consumer-facing service from white-label music distribution platform Omnifone, has a global deal with Lenovo to pre-install it on that companies computers and tablets — although those users, too, will have to pay to try it.
And therein lies the $0.99 question. Will music fans pay a dollar — which is the price of a single song on iTunes, as a Rara spokesman pointed out — to test the waters with Rara for a month, when Spotify, MOG, and Rdio offer free trials with no credit card or hardware required? As for Windows 8, Microsoft offers six free months of Xbox Music there, while Samsung Music Hub a free 30-day trial, Rhapsody offers 14 days with a credit card, and so on.
Yes, we know: Music is too expensive to be free, and too free to be expensive. Rara certainly won’t go broke by refusing to give out free music… but it might be too optimistic about the willingness of today’s consumers to shell out for a music service they’ve never heard.